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Testing, testing -- anyone need a vSphere home lab?

To stay on top of the latest changes and new features in vSphere, there are several options for lab environments.

For anyone working within a fast-changing field, there is no substitute for hands-on experience to learn a new product or technology. Pilots use aircraft simulators to get familiar with new aircraft before they fly the real thing. For virtualization professionals, it is important to be able to test and learn in an environment that does not affect production.

Putting together a vSphere home lab -- or one in the office -- means it will have a couple of ESXi hosts, some shared storage and vCenter Server as a minimum. There are a number of ways to build a vSphere lab, from retired servers to nested virtualization on a laptop.

Retired servers

The first study lab many people use originate from servers that have been retired from production. Usually, these are servers that have been running vSphere, and sometimes there is even a retired SAN to go with them. The biggest plus is access to physical hardware that is similar to what is in production, handling and configuring network and storage adapters, managing cabling and the like. This is a great lab if it can stay at the office, where the noise and power consumption are the company's problem. Bringing a few rack mount servers home is likely to meet with some family resistance, particularly for apartment dwellers.

Desktop PCs

To avoid the noise and power of the retired servers, one option is to use a desktop class PC for a home lab. With careful selection of components, it isn't hard to build a small and quiet computer that runs ESXi. Modern motherboards often have enough DIMM slots for 32GB of RAM so these can be quite capable lab machines.

For shared storage, there are quite a few small NAS devices that have NFS and iSCSI and use cheap SATA disks. Synology is well-liked and can be part of a home digital media setup too, which helps with the family acceptance. One of the most compact home labs is to use Mac minis as the ESXi hosts; you will need to look around for the custom ESXi install ISO with the NIC driver added. An even more compact option is the Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC) model.

Both the Mac mini and NUC can take a maximum of 16GB of RAM. This may be limiting if you need more than vSphere as some of the management products want a lot of RAM. Usually, the ESXi hosts are built diskless and boot from a USB key. One issue with these labs is that they are not portable; if you are not at home, you may not have access to your lab.

Nested virtualization

To get a portable lab, we turn to nested virtualization, the ability of a VMware virtualization platform to run ESXi as a guest and for this virtual ESXi to then run its own guests. This way we can run a couple of ESXi servers as VMs on a laptop, alongside a VM that provides shared storage and another that runs vCenter.

With a good laptop, that is a whole vSphere cluster that you can carry with you wherever you go and even use while you are traveling. There is no need for the physical machine to be a laptop; a desktop PC makes a great home for a nested vSphere lab and usually allows more physical RAM than a laptop. Even a server with ESXi installed could be the home to your nested vSphere lab, so one retired physical server with a lot of CPU and RAM could hold individual labs for each team member.


For the easy option, you can use something I created. AutoLab is a tool to automate the build of your nested vSphere lab. It is a free download from LabGuides and contains only free and freely redistributable software. You need to bring your own Windows and vSphere ISO files as well as a VMware virtualization platform that runs on the physical PC.

AutoLab automates building a Windows domain, two or three ESXi servers and vCenter Server. It also automatically sets up a cluster of the ESXi hosts with HA and DRS and even some nested VMs. The automation takes away the time to construct the dependent parts -- Windows and SQL servers -- and lets you concentrate on learning the vSphere part.

You can turn the automation off and learn how to build the parts yourself, or start with the fully automated build and learn about advanced features or test additional applications that integrate into vSphere

Final words

Whatever method you use to build a vSphere training lab, you will find that storage performance is limiting. If you can afford it, use SSD for the storage. The other limiting factor is RAM, you can never have too much so try to buy as much as you can afford.

There are a lot of options for building a vSphere lab, the right one for you is usually one that uses what you already have or can buy cheaply.

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