Home vLab: how to design it?

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Writing about technology requires (among others) one skill: expertise.

Thanks to internet, what we write and publish is instantly available to a wide audience, that can appreciate our work only if a following check confirms what we wrote was true.

In virtualization world, this means, for both bloggers like me or book writers, to have a testing environment available to play, experiment and to document.

The more the lab is near to a production environment by the means of power and complexity, the more our tests will be truthful, therefore useful to our readers.

During the years, this need has lead many of us to create real home labs, or vLab has we like to call them. But, how to combine the described needs with undoubted costs and other problems in managing such a lab in our own home?

This article aims to be a effort to analyze the different solutions we have, evaluating pros and cons of each.

Without any claim to be a definitive guide about this topic, I want to give you some useful cues to create your own vLab.

 

Full Lab

If you’re lucky enough to have large rooms, low electricity costs, and a good budget, this is obviously the perfect solution.

Having at home a full environment with rack shelves, servers, power supplies, good storage, managed switches both for ethernet and maybe FC, will give you the ability to test basically everything VMware has in his catalog.

I have an endless admiration for Jason Boche’s Lab, he has an environment that many of the companies I do consultancy for will envy for sure.

 

Pros:

– you can test everything (no excuses, if you want to test FC, the only way is to have it)

– you can do performance tests

– the lab is big enough to host several dozens of VM, divided for the different tests you need to do, without forcing you to “make room” for new tests deleting and rebuilding VMs

 

Cons:

– expenses: I agree with Jason about the return of this investment letting you gain experience and competency, but not everybody can afford some components even saving money for years

– electricity bills: in Europe, especially in Italy, the price is too high even for few computers, not to say for an entire lab

– space: you will need a basement or at least a dedicated room

– noise: the room will need some sound insulation,to stay away from your wife’s wrath

 

“labtop”

It’s not a typo, but the contraction od lab in a laptop” :-).

With the use of the last notebooks available on the market, with as much as 32 Gb of RAM and multiple disks, we can create a real mobile lab.

Add the possibility to create nested ESXi inside VMware Workstation 8, and we have a platform where we can execute 2-3 hosts, a virtualized shared, and using the LAN segments of VMware Workstation we can create different networks as needed.

I bought years ago a powerful (at that time) notebook, with 8 gb ram and 500 gb hard disk, and I wrote most of my articles with this computer..

 

Pros:

– you can bring your lab with you in a travel (even if these notebooks do not last so much when using internal battery), or if you need to do demo at customers. More than once my nested ESXi server has been used to complete activities at customers …

 

Cons:

– forget performance tests: if you go with SSD disk you will lack space to create a fair amount of VMs, if you g with sata disks (even with 7200 rpm) you will stress them running 2-3 VM at the same time

– price: even if much cheaper than a full lab, those notebooks are priced at least 3000 usd, and price/performance ratio is not so high after all

– expandability: you probably have configured the notebook with all the available options since the beginning, but there will be a day when tech evolution will make it obsolete, and since you will not be able to further expand it you will have to buy a new one. This is the problem that leaded me to this article: my notebook was really good with VMware 3.5, fairly good with 4.0, hard to use with 5.0, even more using vCloud and all the virtual appliances you need to power on.

 

Whitebox

It’s basically a simple PC, branded or custom built, loaded with as much RAM as we can and where we try to install ESXi. Even if is not supported at all by VMware, chances are ESXi will identify the hardware components anyway.

Whiteboxes allow the creation of “servers” where we can run VMware hypervisor at the lowest possible price, eliminating from a x86 systems all the redundancies a real server has.

This has always been the preferred choice, since it has the best price/performance ratio.

 

Pros:

– price: we can create a whitebox with single socket cpu and 16 gb Ram with less than 500 usd

– you can work on a bare-metal hypervisor. This is not an issue for averybody, but in some tasks nested ESXi are not the best option…

– you can take a couple of whiteboxes and a small iscsi storage and create a fully functional VMware cluster

– performance test “could” be meaningful, depending on the workload we try to run

 

Cons:

– with ESXi 5.0 and its VMs and appliances, 16 Gb RAM on two nodes can be consumed swiftly. vCloud or View are two good examples

– you have part of the problems about room space and power consumtion

 

vCloud

There is a fourth option, that is a virtual datacenter completely hosted inside vCloud. Vmworld 2011 and its hands-on labs showed us clearyl this method is really good.

 

Pros:

– we use the pay-as-you-go model for our own lab, powering it on and paying for it only when we need it

– hardware performances: beeing those of the datacenter hosting us, limits are negligible

– provisioning time: with vCloud fast provisioning you can power on a new lab in few minutes

– you can connect to the lab from anywhere through internet

 

Cons:

– since nested ESXi on vCloud are not supported by VMware in production environments (read this article by William Lam on how to enable them) you will not find any vCloud Datacenter giving you ESXi virtual machines (happy to be proved wrong …)

– you will work in a shared environment, so performances “could” non be predicatable as in a dedicated one

– powering on many ESXi nodes and a shared storage could not be so cheap in a cloud environment, where memory is the most expensive element

 

What to choose?

You are free to choose the option you feel better for your needs, also refuting parts of my analysis.

About the upgrade of my vLab, after some years I’m going back to the Whitebox option, and in the following articles I will show you the design choices I made to build it.

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