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Build your own at-home NSX VMware Workstation lab

Create an at-home NSX test lab by running the software on VMware Workstation. Learn the ins and outs of this technology to make it simple and cut costs.

To learn how a technology works, you must experiment with it. Several vendors offer online labs for this purpose, but those environments may only help you learn functions and features -- not the product in its entirety, because the vendor has preconfigured and set up the environment. To fully understand how a product like VMware NSX works, you must take it apart on your own a few times.

NSX is one of VMware's core products. As it grows in popularity, IT professionals who know how to use it are in high demand. To get familiar with NSX, many turn to home labs -- while these can be ideal test environments, they can also be expensive to set up and run.

If you can't run a home test lab for NSX, VMware offers an alternative: VMware Workstation.

Acquiring the hardware and software

To set up a proper NSX VMware Workstation test lab, you need a DNS server. DNS isn't an optional component. Without it, your NSX install won't work. You can use either a Windows server or Linux server; just be sure to keep it lightweight so it can accommodate the required RAM.

If you can't run a home test lab for NSX, VMware offers an alternative: VMware Workstation.

Once you get your hardware set up, consider your software needs. VMware doesn't offer a trial download for NSX, but there are two ways to install the key pieces of software. If you're a vExpert, then you should have free access to NSX-V, vCenter, ESXi and Workstation.

If you're not a vExpert, the VMware User Group has a paid membership upgrade that grants you access to all of the necessary software for $200.

You can install NSX and other software via Update Manager.

Requirements for configuring an NSX VMware Workstation lab

VMware doesn't support the configuration of putting NSX on Workstation. In fact, VMware doesn't support configuring any production workloads to run on Workstation. However, with some setup and tweaks, Workstation can be the ideal platform for testing and learning.

Running NSX inside Workstation requires a handful of resources -- such as a desktop that supports a lot of RAM -- but far fewer than buying multiple server platforms would require. NSX has three main components: Manager, Controller and Edge.

NSX Manager requires 16 GB of memory. Although it's possible to reduce that with some creative database editing, it's easier to enable VMware Workstation to swap memory for disk. A production environment usually has dual NSX controllers, but for a lab, you can use just one. A single controller requires 4 GB of RAM, and NSX Edge components use less than 1 GB, bringing total memory requirement to about 21 GB.

In terms of CPUs, both Manager and Controller require 4 vCPUs. If you have a newer CPU with at least eight hyper-threaded cores, overcommitting CPU resources shouldn't be an issue.

Other virtual components: VCenter and ESXi hosts

When it comes to the rest of your virtual infrastructure -- specifically vCenter and ESXi hosts -- vCenter requires dual vCPUs and at least 8 GB of RAM, with 10 GB being ideal. ESXi hosts require dual cores and 4 GB of RAM apiece, but if you want more than one host, ensure you have 6 GB of RAM available so you can run VMs and the Controller.

With this in mind, an ideal home lab requires about 43 GB for NSX, vCenter and ESXi. To be safe, target a minimum of 48 GB of installed RAM on your desktop.

One benefit of using VMware Workstation is that you can swap RAM for storage space on a solid-state drive (SSD). When it comes to storage, you can easily get away with installing this on a 500 GB or higher SSD if you thin-provision. This gives you a few gigabytes of RAM cushion to ensure your desktop runs with breathing room.

You should install NSX Manager in VMware Workstation along with your ESXi hosts and vCenter. You can embed the NSX Controller on one of your ESXi hosts to save memory.

Saving money with this setup

Although it can be difficult to set up NSX on VMware Workstation, with a slightly newer desktop, it can be relatively cheap. VMware Workstation has a snapshot ability that enables you to save your configuration as you go. In the event of an issue, you can revert to an earlier version.

NSX's memory requirements are the most costly hardware hurdle, but once you have NSX set up on Workstation, your test environment can live on a single desktop as opposed to racks of more expensive equipment.

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