Let’s admit it, just like some crave for the car / plane / whatever of their dreams, there’s a non negligible share of IT folks who crave to have their own home lab. With many top-notch bloggers and IT professionals having their own jaw-dropping setups, it’s sometimes hard to resist the tentation. Here are my musings on the matter.
Firsthand it’s worthwhile to take a pause and ask yourself some valid questions. I’ve put some below that may hopefully help you gain some clarity on your reasons and what will be the output. Being Mr. Obvious here, but who knows, maybe you’ll find something.
- Do I need a home lab? That may sound dumb but before you invest some money into hardware, software or whatever else, what is your primary motivation? Do you have a test environment at work or some spare x86 servers that you can use instead?
- If the answer above is no, you need to also explain to yourself, potentially also to your partner (and be convincing) of the reasons why you need your own lab: studying? Testing new features? Just for the heck of having one?
- What do you want to study or test? This will have an influence on your lab design. How many x86 servers? Will you need shared storage? What hardware/software features do you want/need to test
- Time: an often overlooked parameter. Will you have time to dedicate to your lab? Meaning here not just the preparation work, but also time to work on the lab, to test the features you need, study etc? Our days are still 24hr long and there is no elasticity available. If you are a young parent, think of the possibility that kids and family life may take a toll.
- Costs: Are you an independent consultant in search for the perfect home lab? If yes, you probably already have your own setup and this post may not be relevant at all for you. To the other readers, think of all the costs that go with a home setup, including the electricity bill. Highly skilled individuals running monster labs at home do it not only for the fun, but because it is a primary work tool for them and they do get a return on investment by selling their consulting skills.
Space / Environment
Once you’ve convinced yourself that you need your own lab, you will have to face some additional questions: budget and space. First of all, is there any space at your premises that can be dedicated/sacrificed for your home lab? The location and other factors such as space availability, thermal environment will dictate your next steps which are selecting the hardware (and will have a linkage to the cost). If your only available space is the bedroom or living room, you’d better go for an as silent as possible setup if you don’t want to face the wrath of an exasperated family.
A silent setup may potentially impact performance and capabilities of the lab. A high-perf setup may be likely noisy, greedy on energy, may require cooling and will definitely influence your budget.
Budget and Hardware Research
Secondly, having factored in all of the above you may now know more or less what you need to invest into: which hardware features are required, which space constraints you have, this will dictate whether you’ll go for a small rack cabinet with, for example, refurbished x86 servers and NAS, or if you go for tiny Intel NUCs / self-assembled hardware. It works better to first create a list of your requirements, then see what hardware fits them, and finally to determine whether you can afford it or not. Random purchasing may end up in wasted money, returns/refunds etc.
When purchasing hardware factor in potential expansion requirements, cost of expansion modules and expandability (thinking of RAM for example, some form factors are limited to 16 or 32 GB). In my opinion, at the time of writing you should have at least 32 GB of RAM per node if you want to do anything serious at all. Consider if you want to invest in SSD drives which I think are highly recommended nowadays in any lab setup. Think also at your underlying storage, whether you will have a home NAS, go for a VSA or hyper-converged, see if you can leverage NFR licenses to reduce your costs.
Before committing to purchase any hardware, study the requirements of the solution you want to implement ensuring that, if needed, you are able to adjust network parameters (jumbo frames etc.). Check the CPU features, motherboard(s), RAM, triple-check the various hardware compatibility matrixes which is always true for the hypervisor stack but even more if you are looking at VSAN or any other hyper converged solution. Check the network requirements (ports, bandwidth etc.)
Indeed twitter and top-notch technologist blogs remain a primary source of inspiration and you may want to engage with them to gain valuable advice. If you still want to go for a home lab, you may want to query your professional and personal network for any potentially available recently retired hardware and cut down your lab budget.
It’s not just about the hardware! Consider that to run the environment you are looking to build you will likely need licensing. Free alternatives exist but with specific limitations, i.e. ESXi Free will not offer all the features you need. Check out Chris Wahl’s great post on Licensing Options for your vSphere Lab. You may want to enroll in the vExpert or other similar programs to leverage the ability to obtain NFR licenses. If you are not a vExpert, a VMUG Advantage subscription may work best – and you can eventually ask your employer to pay it for you.
Tips and potential Alternatives
If this post ruined your dreams, you may have cheaper alternatives such as:
- Use VMware Hands-on-Labs which are accessible for free
- Get a beefed up laptop/desktop and run a nested lab by leveraging VMware Workstation/Fusion
- Run a lab in the cloud with Ravello Systems – at approx 1 USD/hour to run a single V?, the cost is potentially cheaper than the upfront investment of running you own lab at home. As always, do the math!
- Update: Contact Calvin Zito (see comments below) for a 10TB NFR license of HPE StoreVirtual VSA (offer is for vExperts but non-vExperts can also be considered on a per-case basis)
- And finally, why not ask your employer to provide you & your team with a lab environment?
This short post attempted to cover a majority of the home lab aspects, please forgive me in case of omissions. The writer of this post is one who craves for hardware, makes big purchase plans and then ends up running a VM once in a lifetime on the cloud because purchasing HW would be wasted money. Just sharing my experience 🙂
By the way, I had several iterations of a “lab” or attempts. See for example this old post from 2011.