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One of the issues with learning ESXi and VMware is that you can't just jump on Amazon Web Services or Azure and run up an ESXi host. Fortunately, Ravello has created a unique cloud infrastructure where you can build a full VMware example.
Once you obtain a free trial Ravello account, you can build a setup as simple or complex as you desire within this environment. In this article, I will show you how to set up a very basic ESXi server. Ravello has a simple drag-and-drop interface that can be used to design a blueprint of a self-built service offering and publish it. Our blueprint is our ESXi server. Due to compliance issues, any software installation disks -- such as the VMware ESXi host installation software, Windows Server, vCenter and so on -- need to be uploaded using an upload tool which I will review later in the article.
Creating an ESXi host
Before putting anything in the Ravello cloud, it's important to understand how the infrastructure works. All blueprints are designed around applications, which are designed to contain all the elements required to provide the application stack in totality -- all required materials are in the virtual box. These applications can be set up as blueprints that can be copied and executed when needed.
The example application contains an ESXi server and space for a vCenter. Click the Applications Menu and select Create Application. Give the application a useful name and a description as you see fit, then click Create.
At this point, you will see what is referred to as the design canvas, which is used to perform rudimentary drag-and-drop design. There is already a large selection of predesigned VMs to use. Select the one titled Empty ESX -- this default name can easily be changed later. Once this is done, you'll notice that the right-hand side of the screen now shows a slew of options to configure the virtual ESXi host. You can add or remove memory, virtual CPUs, network interface cards or disks from the context menu with appropriate headings -- network, storage and so on. This right-hand popout is also known as the details pane.
Before powering on the machine, you need to upload the VMware hypervisor ISO install file. Use the browse button from the details pane and select the VMware ISO file. Don't forget to click Save at the bottom of the screen. This may ask you to install the Ravello upload client before uploading the images. If this occurs, just install the application as required and then upload the VMware hypervisor install file.
Running an application in the Ravello cloud
At this point it is possible to run the application. If you want, you can choose which Ravello cloud platform and region you use. As this is a test lab, I recommend leaving it as default, as the ESXi host will only cost 34 cents per hour. Select Publish from the ribbon bar at the top of the browser. It will take several minutes to boot up into the ESXi installer.
To deploy the ESXi host, just click the Applications tab to the left of the browser to view the host. It should be running the test setup, which will take several minutes to boot. As it boots, you will see an hourglass on the VM. Once the console button is no longer greyed-out, you can open the console from the bottom right of the Details panel. Run through the ESXi installation as you would a normal ESXi host, but leave the network settings as Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, at least for this simple demo.
When you reboot, the host should be fully functional. You can test access by turning on Secure Shell (SSH) from the Direct Console User Interface menu and using an SSH client to log in to your external-facing IP. The IP and domain name system (DNS) can be found near the top of the screen as shown in Figure D. Just copy the IP/DNS and keep it somewhere safe. This will change every time the system powers up.
By default, ports 443 and 80 -- HTTPS and HTTP -- inbound are blocked, so it isn't possible to run up the VMware client to attach to the new host. In a real world scenario, I would suggest using a front-facing VPN. For now, I will show you how to open the ports required to run vSphere client and lock down access to just your IP.
From the details pane, select the Services tab and click Add, followed by Add supplied service. This will open a new window and add entries in the following format: <text name> <NIC 0> <Protocol> <Port>. Look to Figure E for an example of this. You need to repeat this for HTTPS and then click Save.
To restrict the access to just your IP, select Network from the application ribbon at the top of the screen. At the bottom of the canvas you will now notice IP filtering. Set the incoming IP to your router IP, and the IP mask to 255.255.255.255. If you intend to build out this server to include other machines, I strongly recommend building out a Windows VM so that traffic won't be forced across the WAN link after the vCenter installation is completed.
Closing thoughts on Ravello
Autolab provides a powerful way to automatically deploy an entire VMware lab stack within Ravello. It does require a modicum of upfront investment of time, but if you want a lab out the box for a new experiment, it's ideal. If you decide to set up a lab, I advise building a lab jump server so you don't have to do a remote single sign-on installation from your local desktop, as they can be slow and painful. Ravello doesn't offer a Windows 7 image, but I suggest you upload the ISO and build one because it can be a real time saver.
In short, although this kind of lab isn't for everyone, if you want to do some light experimenting and don't want anything long term, it can be an ideal option, as it saves the upfront cost of building an actual hardware lab.
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