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FAQ: Building a VMware home lab

A VMware lab gives you great hands-on experience with virtualization. You can use VMware Workstation to run ESX or ESXi as a VM in a home lab without a dedicated host.

Experimenting with virtualization at the office helps, but you may learn even more in a low-risk test environment outside the office. To stay on top of the newest VMware technologies, it's a good idea to build a VMware home lab.

A home lab allows administrators to gain hands-on experience without disrupting a production environment. A VMware lab can come in many forms, such as from full rackmount servers running ESX to small PCs running hosted hypervisors.

Building a VMware home lab can be time-consuming and costly, but there are lots of options. Do you want to use a dedicated ESX or ESXi host? Or would you rather deploy VMware Workstation and run ESX or ESXi as a virtual machine (VM)? If you buy a shared-storage device, what kind should you get? And will your hardware support vSphere features such as Fault Tolerance and VMDirectPath?

The answers to these frequently asked questions can help you build a successful VMware lab on a budget. With the right server model, hardware, network switch and storage, you can settle into your home lab and test VMware technologies firsthand. Ultimately, you may be able to apply your experience in tinkering at home to your office environment.

How can I build a customized VMware home lab?

One way to boost your VMware skills is by assembling your own virtual test lab from scratch -- commonly known as a "white box," because it does not come prepackaged or carry a brand name. First, select individual hardware components and an operating system. Choosing a CPU is especially important, because this choice determines which motherboards and memory you can use.

Next, select a case, power supply, hard drive and -- if you want -- DVD drive and video card. Assemble the hardware and then install your OS. Finally, if you want to run ESX and ESXi as VMs in your home lab, install VMware Workstation. Just make sure the OS supports the version of Workstation you use.

What are my options for home-lab hardware?

You have three choices: white-box hardware, brand-name desktop PCs and brand-name servers. If you decide to go with brand names, stick to ones you're comfortable with. Also consider whether the processor you choose is compatible with vSphere features such as Fault Tolerance and VMDirectPath. Determine how much memory you need and how many network interface cards (NICs) you want for your VMware lab. Shop around for the best deals on NICs -- remember, you can mix and match vendors to customize your home lab hardware setup.

How should I choose my server and network switch?

These two elements can make or break a home lab. The servers should support any advanced VMware features you want to use. Since you're taking these servers home, you should also consider how much energy they use and how quiet they are when running. In terms of switches, a gigabit-managed switch with enough ports allows you to connect everything together. Some even support advanced vSphere networking features. Server and switch choices come with serious cost considerations for your home lab.

What are some ways to enhance my VMware home lab?

One way to enhance your VMware lab is to install a shared-storage device. Consider the cost, performance, size and extra features of your choice. Some devices are better than others at handling multiple VMs running at once. Also consider the shared-storage features, such as support for iSCSI and Network File System clients.

You can also expand your VMware home lab to use advanced features that are not available when running ESX and ESXi as VMs. If you want to experiment with VMDirectPath, Fault Tolerance, Distributed Power Management or Dynamic Voltage and Frequency Scaling, you need to designate specific servers as ESX/ESXi hosts without running Workstation.

Where else can I learn about VMware technologies?

VMware created a website for VMware engineers to post and promote interesting projects. VMware Labs is a test kitchen where you can explore applications and tools that could someday be picked up by VMware product managers. It's no home lab, but this VMware test lab lets you have a "fling" (VMware's word) with new technologies. Try out tools such as the VMware Guest Console, vAppRun, esxplot and vCenter Mobile Access.

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