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Starting a VMware test lab comes with a lot of questions to ponder and decisions to make. One big decision you'll have to make is choosing the hardware you want to use. Your choice will vary depending on each individual situation, especially if you're trying to simulate a real production environment. Some will consider buying or building a server while others will look at purchasing an Intel NUC. Beyond those choices, there is the option to run a nested test lab. Nonetheless, there are some general best practices to get a successful VMware test lab up and running.
How should I set up my VMware test lab?
First off, you will need multiple ESXi hosts for a VMware test lab. With the current technology stack in vSphere such as VSAN, you need three ESXi hosts and possibly a fourth, depending on what you want to set up. Running this on three small machines, like an Intel NUC, comes with the possibility of runoff, but the real question is if they are powerful enough and can accommodate everything you want to run. You will have to invest in either VSAN -- with hard disk drives and solid-state drives -- or some other form of central storage, such as network-attached storage, as well.
Based on what I am running in my VMware test lab, my advice is to use one larger ESXi host that runs all of the needed VMs and virtual ESXi VMs. In addition to these nested ESXi hosts you will also need to run vCenter, and possibly vSphere Update Manager, vRealize Operations and replication. For storage purposes, you might want to run a VM that supports iSCSI and Network File System such as StarWind or FreeNAS. For an ESXi cluster with VSAN, each machine needs a minimum of 6 GB and vCenter requires 8 GB, therefore 32 GB of RAM is on the small side.
For my test lab, I purchased an Intel S2600CP4 motherboard with two Xeon E5-2605 CPUs, which had four cores each and a total of 128 GB of RAM. I also have a few Serial Advanced Technology Attachment and SSD disks, all of which is in a server tower case. My VMware test lab easily runs a VSAN cluster of four ESXi servers with VMs inside of that. I also have my Horizon View and vRealize Automation demo and test environments, which are always running. There is also a handful of VMs that are not always running, which I only boot when needed.
The only challenge I have encountered with this setup is that it takes some effort to update the host because you can't use Update Manager if it runs on the host itself. However, a benefit of the nested approach is that it's easy to create snapshots of your environment and, depending on your approach, easy to create backup copies of VMs.
When it comes to buying or building a server, there is always the question about power, which is an issue if it's running 24/7. When you set up a VMware test lab, you will need to determine how much you're willing to spend on power, which could help you make your decision between buying or building a server, or creating a nested test lab.
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