What’s in your virtualization home lab?

A virtualization home lab is a great way to gain more experience, but it can be pricey. Even so, our advisory board thinks it’s worth the investment.

Practice makes perfect, and a virtualization home lab is an excellent way to gain experience with a hypervisor platform without affecting a production environment.

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Given the advancements in server virtualization, the hardware requirements for a virtualization home lab can be as complex as they are expensive. So, for a little guidance, we asked our Server Virtualization Advisory Board the following questions:

Should IT pros invest in a virtualization home lab? If you have one, what equipment do you use?

Maish Saidel-Keesing, NDS Group
I don’t have a home lab, but I have a lab at work.

There are some pretty obvious reasons why you should have a lab: How else would you try all these new products to see how they integrate with an environment?

You cannot do these things in your production environment. It is usually not allowed and definitely not recommended, because if you break something ... enough said.

For virtualization admins, a lab is almost a necessity. Be it a home lab or one at work, you need a place to test and play around with stuff. It’s important to understand how things work, how to break them and how long it will take to fix the masterpiece of a mess that you just created.

My lab is running on old rackmount servers with a 10-year-old IBM storage array. It works. It’s not super-fast or super-reliable, but it gets the job done.

Greg Shields, Concentrated Technologies
These days, it’s hard not to have a virtualization home lab. There’s just too much juicy technology that demands a little extra study at home.

I recently updated my home lab by consolidating an array of miscellaneous equipment into a single powerhouse desktop that runs VMware Workstation 8.  Since the latest version now conveniently virtualizes the Intel VT-x/EPT and AMD-V/RVI processor extensions, Workstation makes the perfect platform for virtualization as well as nested virtualization.

Thanks to this phenomenally useful technology, I can virtualize Hyper-V and ESXi servers as well as the virtual machines (VMs) running inside them.

I should note: That much virtualization requires some heavy equipment.  So, here’s my load out, compliments of MasterCard and the nice people at CyberPowerPC.com.

It starts with a liquid-cooled Intel Core i7-2600K processor, which delivers two processors, two cores, plus hyperthreading. I also added the following:

  • a full 16 GB of RAM;
  • an impressively powerful NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti video card for driving two Samsung SyncMaster P2770 monitors;
  • a Creative Labs SB X-Fi Xtreme Audio 24-bit PCI sound card;
  • two 1 TB SATA-III drives that Intel RST combines into a RAID 0 configuration for low-speed storage; and
  • a pair of JBOD Corsair Force GT solid-state drives (SSDs) for the high-speed storage of VMware Workstation’s VMDK files.

My advice: Get SSDs. They make all the difference.

As an aside, I actually maxed out this equipment during a recent video-training project. In filming a series on VMware View 5 and the VCP510-DT exam, I ran five, simultaneous VMs.  Two of those VMs were ESXi servers, on which another two nested VMs ran inside.

By the way, swapping to disk is surreal when the disk is also RAM.

Christian Mohn, EDB ErgoGroup
Of course, I have a home lab. Doesn´t everyone? My lab is a small, though. All I have is a couple of Hewlett-Packard MicroServers running VMware vSphere, supported by a couple of small storage appliances. I also run virtualized lab environments inside VMware Workstation on my laptop and VMware Fusion on my MacBook.

When I built my current home lab, I designed it for testing, upgrading and deploying vSphere 5. And, for that purpose, the virtualization home lab has been invaluable in terms of getting to know the products. It has helped me enormously with testing upgrade paths and features, such as scripted installations, Auto Deploy and the vNetwork Distributed Switch.

Because my lab is small and very limited with regard to available memory, it´s clear that the value of having such a small home lab is quickly diminishing. The requirements for running more advanced setups, such as vCloud Director and vCenter Operations Management Suite, require more resources than I have available. And testing the more advanced features, such as VAAI, require the proper storage. 

The real challenge is creating a large-enough home lab that can handle enterprise features, and doing so may be too costly. Also, as the home lab grows, power consumption, cooling and noise levels quickly become an issue.

For virtualization admins, a small and cheap lab is a great training resource, and you can easily get familiar with a basic infrastructure. Now that newer laptops support vast amounts of memory and SSD options, the time of basic home labs may fade into obscurity. After all, the best lab is the one you have available, and you carry your laptop with you wherever you go, anyway.  

But licensing is one of the main problems when building a VMware home lab. Sure, you can download the 60-day trials, but that also means you need to frequently redeploy your lab environment. I would like to point out Mike Laverick’s Bring back the VMTN subscription campaign. Every one running or considering a virtualization home lab would benefit from obtaining “real” licenses for testing purposes. And I´m sure VMware would benefit, as well.

Jack Kaiser, GreenPages Technology Solutions
I do not have a home lab. I know many of our solution architects do, but for the most part, we use our lab in our Kittery, Maine, headquarters or our production data center in Charlestown, Mass. for customer demonstrations and training our engineers.  Because we work closely with many of the leading, technology providers, we have a plethora of hardware and software in our labs.  We use VMware as our virtualization platform as well as EMC and Dell storage.  We also have both Hewlett Packard and Cisco Systems servers and many software products associated with VDI. Together, we use this setup to demonstrate to customers what their environment may look like. 

There are times we use the manufacturer-briefing centers so customers can speak to the experts from their preferred technology vendors, but many times, they like the intimacy of our labs without all the pressure from OEMs.

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