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How to set up a home virtualization lab for about $1,000

Choosing the right hardware and software for your home lab can be tricky, but you can use good components for relatively cheap -- or even free.

I want a home virtualization lab to test out various VMware, Citrix Systems and Microsoft virtualization technologies....

What would you suggest for server, storage and network setup?

For the ideal home virtualization lab, spec hardware around a comprehensive lights-out management system; I recommend Intel's vPro technology. Few motherboard and processor combinations support vPro, so choose hardware carefully. The Intel Core i5-3470 Processor -- with 6 MB cache and turbo to 3.60 GHz -- is the best choice. For the motherboard, choose Q77 boards over B75 boards. The Q77 include two 6 Gb/sec SATA ports, while the B75 boards only have one. The Asus P8Q77-M/CSM is a solid Q77 board.

VMware's free ESXi 5.1 hypervisor won't talk to the Asus board's network interface card (NIC), so add an Intel dual-port 1 Gb network card. The three-NIC setup gives you a dedicated vPro NIC (the onboard NIC), a dedicated hypervisor management NIC and a dedicated NIC for your virtual machines (VMs).

The two 6 Gbit/sec SATA ports enable direct attached storage (DAS). The Intel chipset provides a solid RAID 1 drive mirroring setup. Choose Seagate 3TB 7200.14 drives as your DAS foundation; they are fast, reliable and offer ample storage for VMs in virtualization lab projects. Outfit the system with 32 GB of RAM (4x 8 GB DIMMs). This is both the maximum that your processor will handle and also the maximum amount supported by the VMware free ESXi 5.1 hypervisor.

A starter home lab for virtualization
Figure 1. The author's home virtualization lab hardware.

This home virtualization test lab (Figure 1) can be built for approximately $1,000, with a standard micro-ATX chassis and power supply. If you want to experiment with block storage, the Synology DS1812+ goes for about $1,000 on Amazon. For $3,000, you could build a nice two-node cluster with shared storage that works with both VMware and Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization tools.

Build your home virtualization lab

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Unless something has changed, VMware ESXi will not support the Intel software raid found on the motherboard. For my home system (about the same price) I bought a refurb Dell Precision T3500 workstation (Xeon W3570/3.2GHz w/ 24GB ram), Adaptec 3405 Raid card, and 4 SATA drives, 2x2TB, 2x1TB each mirrored.
What happened to Citrix in the discussion? It was in the question but not in the answer. Is there some inherent bias against Citrix implied in this post?
Why go with desktop class hardware? Used server class hardware, like HP Proliant, Dell PowerEdge can be had for a fraction of their original cost. You get the added benefit of hot plug SAS drives for more storage. Also, if you want to avoid messing with all the Intel prerequisites for running nested VMs, go with an AMD Opteron based system (HP has an "5" at the end DL-385 vs DL-380 the Intel variant). I have a pair of DL-385 G6 servers each with 64GB of RAM and 8 300GB SAS-more than enough for all kinds of virtualization lab work. The whole thing was put together over a couple of years for less than $2500. Even one would be more than enough.