Home labs for virtualization: Easier than ever to build

Having a home lab helps IT pros sharpen their virtualization skills. Now, more than ever, building a home lab is within reach.

With the holidays approaching, we can look forward to a little downtime and the chance that Santa Claus may leave us  more than a lump of coal in our stockings. If you are an uber-geek with nothing left on your wish list, have you considered a building a home lab for virtualization?

Virtualization has come very far in recent years, and the pace of innovation is only getting faster. To keep up with the technology, a home lab may be just what you need. And while server virtualization has progressed, so have the options for home lab hardware. For less than what you used to pay for an average desktop, you can now have a very powerful server running virtualization in your home lab.

There are several options for setting up a home lab server. One option is using a compact server with a single CPU. With this approach, you can build a server in a small case or order a custom desktop.

Desktops can now support a quad-core CPU and up to 48 GB of RAM. If you limit the memory to 16 GB, you can purchase this configuration for as little as $2,000. At that price, some IT pros even opt for two servers to test more advanced virtualization configurations.

A second option is to use a more traditional rackmount server. With server hardware advancing so quickly and the surge in virtualization, there is a decent market for used servers. Even after a few years, these servers can still pack a good punch.

Older rackmount servers can usually support at least two CPUs and memory capacities of up to 96 GB RAM or more. With this configuration, you can easily run multiple, nested ESXi servers -- ESXi hosts encapsulated in virtual machines.

If you’re going to build or buy a server for a home lab, there’s an important caveat: be sure and check the VMware hardware compatibility list (HCL) before spending a lot of money on hardware. Know the tools and features that you want to use, then verify that your prospective hardware is compatible.

Finally, you can build a lab environment using an existing laptop or desktop. This option uses desktop virtualization software such as VMware Workstation or Fusion. Again, using nested ESXi servers, you can run an entire lab on your laptop.

But, with the memory limitations of common laptops and the underlying OS consuming a large portion of your computing resources, this method is the least functional for home labs. However, it’s the most affordable and portable option.

I have used all three methods for building a home lab. I built a small server with a quad-core CPU and 16 GB of RAM on which I ran an entire virtual desktop infrastructure, including  10 virtual servers and five virtual desktops.  

I have also used a rackmount server in several home lab environments. This approach is also very common in large corporate labs, because you can reuse leftover hardware. As more of this hardware is moved out of productions racks, it eventually makes its way into home labs.

Additionally, I use nested ESX virtual machines and several virtual servers on my laptop for testing configurations or researching virtualization features.

Regardless of your budget, a home lab for virtualization may be more accessible than you think. With a little time, and possibly some memory in your stocking, you can build a home lab with a minimum of expense and effort.

This was first published in December 2011

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