So you want to build a VMware Homelab?

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So you want to get started learning VMware technologies huh?  Well  you’re going to need something to practice on.

Now, there’s nothing wrong starting out by running a lab environment on your primary desktop or laptop, assuming you have 16+GB of ram at a minimum. If this is the route you’re planning on taking, I suggest getting started with VMware Workstation and downloading a prebuilt environment called AutoLab.  It makes setup of the environment and it’s solutions fairly easy, the only downside is it isn’t updated very frequently so it’s often behind on it’s support for new products.

But what happens when you want to start playing with scenarios in the real world with hardware that’s dedicated to that purpose?  Well first you’re going to need to find some.
When it comes to homelab kit, most of us have a few rules.

  1. Quiet
  2. Low Power
  3. Cheap(ish)

Let’s face it, you don’t want your closet to sound like a 747 is taking off, nor do you want to be shelling out the money to cool some 5U behemoth server just to run through some application testing.  Now if you’re made of money, and have a garage or basement that’s going to be housing your lab; move along, this is not the homelab article you’re looking for.

As mentioned above, a good home server is inexpensive, silent and has a low power consumption. I’m going to show you a few options for buying the building blocks of a VMware homelab starting with the hosts.  Our candidates for today are as follows…

  • HP Microserver N36L / N40L / N54L
  • HP Microserver Gen8
  • Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC)
  • Gigabyte BRIX

HP Microserver N36L / N40L / N54L

These guys were the defacto standard solution for a lot of homelabbers when they first came out. I won’t go into the previous generations of the device, and instead will tell you that the latest available N54L has an AMD Dual Core 2.20GHz CPU. The Gen7 Microserver is a capable system that can run ESXi without any problems. It checks a number of the items off our list coming in at around 25W idle with no drives installed, and at around $300 it’s one of the lowest cost solutions on our list and it supports 16GB of RAM.

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However, due to the age of these guys, the price doesn’t get you a whole lot of power.  The Turion chip inside these Gen7 microservers is serviceable at best.  Running windows updates on a VM is a multi-hour affair (especially .NET).  But if you’re not constantly tearing down and rebuilding systems on your lab and are looking for a device that can support a more static workload, you’d be hard pressed to find a guy more capable.

Now while these guys aren’t exactly up to today’s standards when it comes to performance as an ESXi host, they definitely have a place in our homelab!  In addition to my Synology 1515+ I have in the lab I’ve also got one of these Gen7 microservers running the XPenology project, which is essentially all of the best bits of Synology’s DSM software running on your own hardware.

Due to their 4 drive bays and PCI-E slot these guys are rock stars as a shared storage solution for your homelab.  Pair one of these with a Quad Port PCI-E 1x card (like this one) and you’ve got yourself one hell of a NAS.  Need some more storage? Throw in a SAS expander card (like this HP P410 which supports 8 drives across 2 4x SAS ports) and run an external enclosure (like this!) next to it! For all of the gripes people have about the CPU performance, these truly are versatile little devices!

  • AMD Turion CPU with 2x 2.20GHz
  • Up to 16GB Memory
  • 4 HDD Slots
  • 1x Gigabit LAN onboard
  • 2 PCI-e Slots (16x, 1x)
  • Remote Access Card available
  • ESXi 6.0 works without any modifications

What to Buy?

Using as a ESXi Host…

Using as a shared storage SAN / NAS…

HP Microserver Gen8

So we just talked about previous generation of the Microserver, now let’s talk about the current version. The Generation 8 Microserver is a revised platform and comes with more power, upgraded ports and an integrated iLO. It is also the only system in this list that is officially supported by VMware and listed in the Hardware Compatibility List. The Ivy Bride Intel CPU has great performance. The primary downside to the Gen8 is it’s price.  Unfortunately the Xeon based systems are somewhat substantially higher cost than their Pentium and Celeron based brothers.

  • proliant_microserver_800x600_00003Multiple CPUs available eg. Intel E3-1220V2 with 4x 3.1GHz
  • Up to 16GB Memory
  • 4 HDD Slots
  • 2x Gigabit LAN onboard
  • Integrated iLO
  • MicroSD Slot for ESXi
  • ESXi 6.0 works best with HP Customized Image

What to buy?
Now before you go buying one of these, if you can hold off a little while, there are rumors about a Gen9 microsever being released soon. Quantities of Gen8 hardware is in short supply around the channel partners right now, and HP’s own web store has slashed the prices of Gen8 hardware around the globe.  Unfortunately there aren’t any official announcements, but if I had to guess it’d be in the next month or so.

If you’re looking to catch a good deal, it’s probably worth your while to see if you can get one at a decent price around the web.

5th Gen Intel Next Unit of Computing (NUC)

The Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) is an interesting little device. The latest generation (5th) of the NUCs based on the Intel Broadwell chips are available with, or without 2.5″ drive support. Whether you have a 4th, or a 5th Gen NUC, these systems are a great choice and very wide-spread as VMware Homelabs. FYI… In order to install ESXi 6.0 you will need to create a customized ESXi Image.

  • maxresdefaulti3, i5 and i7 Broadwell Intel CPU available
  • Up to 16GB Memory supported (1.35V SODIMM)
  • It’s possible to get 32GB of RAM using Intelligent Memory
  • 1x Gigabit LAN onboard
  • M.2 SSD support
  • 2.5″ HDD/SDD support

What to buy?
If you’re considering a NUC for your VMware hosts, ensure that you don’t buy one with a Celeron chip inside. If you can find a good deal on a Gen 4 NUC, feel free to snag it up. The Haswell chips inside the Gen 4 devices work just as well often for a lower price.

Gigabyte BRIX

Now to a device that is similar to the NUC in design and function.  The Gigabyte BRIX Pro are high performance systems with 2.5″ HDD/SDD support and a quad-core CPU. They also have VT-d support and are good candidates for ESXi. The fastest available CPU is an Intel Core i7-4770R (4x 3.90 GHz) which is a little crazy for such a small package. Comparative to the NUC devices, the BRIX are a little less expensive, but should have all of the same fuctionality as they’re built based off the NUC reference design. As with the NUC, if you’re installing ESXi 6.0 you’ll need to create a customized install image.

  • i3, i5 and i7 Intel CPU available
  • Up to 16GB Memory supported (1.35V SODIMM)
  • 1x Gigabit LAN onboard
  • mSATA SSD support
  • 2.5″ HDD/SDD support

What to buy?
BRIX s and BRIX Pro have 2.5″ HDD support and are the best choice for ESXi. You should buy at least an i5.

So that’s the list of devices that I’ve played with in the past, do you have your own hardware you’ve got running and want me to include it here?  Shoot me a comment!

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