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Get your geek on: Building a VMware home lab

Woodworkers have their workshops and potters have their kilns. What do IT professionals have in their homes? Labs set up so they can learn new hardware/software and test various scenarios. Yes, I confess I'm one of those geeks who over the years has collected a vast assortment of hardware for learning and testing purposes. And I'm sure that many of you who are reading this article are equally guilty of being hardware scavengers. After all, ours is a profession where we need to constantly learn new things and be exposed to new technologies, and since the best way to learn is by doing things hands-on, setting up a lab at home for trying various things out is clearly going to put your feet on the road to success in your profession.

IT pros who pursue technical certifications also need to practice, practice, practice, and having a lab set up at home for doing this is well worth the investment if the certification you are pursuing is likely to advance your career in some fashion. VMware, of course, is still a very popular technology at the enterprise level, so if you're going after a VMware certification you need a good lab for this too. But since I'm not a VMware expert myself, I thought I'd ask an actual expert in VMware technologies if he could describe how he set up his own home lab for simulating real-world VMware environments. David Barker is a Senior Systems Engineer with over eight years of experience with Virtualization. He is a current VCP6-DCV and has been awarded the title of vExpert by VMware for the last three years. He is an active blogger and is on Twitter @davidbarker223. Let's now put on our thinking caps and listen carefully so we can learn from David how to set up a fully-functioning VMware home lab using components you can buy easily from Amazon.

VMware home lab: 3 node vSAN Cluster running on NUC

I've been wanting to build a VMware home lab for a while at home now to test out new builds and versions of software not only from VMware, but Microsoft and others as well. Plus, being a vExpert and having access to production versions of software licenses from VMware was a huge bonus. The major component I wanted to play with and get more familiar with was vSAN. I started my lab with a single NUC and was able to get vSAN installed, but it was not happy with the single node. I thought about doing the nested ESXi route, but with the limited resources already on the NUC I just decided to do a full 3-node cluster.

Let's start off with a list of my bill of materials (multiply everything by three and I'll provide Amazon links for everything):

Here's a photo of everything needed for building one node:

I chose the NUC6I3SYH as I didn't have a need for a faster processor and the dual-core hyperthreading gave me four logical processors, which is what I was looking for anyway. The SYH allowed me to install a full SSD for the Capacity Tier as well as a NVMe SSD for the Caching Tier. I installed the max 32GB of RAM and chose the SanDisk Cruzer Fit for its small form factor since I installed ESXi to it and needed it to stay in the NUC.

Installing ESXi

Using a program like Rufus or uNetBootin, you can create a bootable USB with the .iso file for ESXi. I downloaded the latest build of 6.5 from VMware to use for my lab. You will also need to download a version of vCenter — I suggest 6.5 as well. Obviously, you'll want your vCenter and ESXi versions to match. One option, especially for a lab environment is to download the 6.0 builds and use your lab to test the upgrade to 6.5 if you're not comfortable with that path. Another great use for a lab!

Installing vCenter

The new feature with vCenter 6.5 is the ability to bootstrap the vSAN configuration during the install. In previous versions of vCenter, you had to do a bunch of manual work, which William describes here in his blog if you choose to not go with 6.5. But with vCenter 6.5, you can choose to configure vSAN (since you won't have any datastores set up yet) in the image below:

Once vCenter is installed, you're all set. Make sure to create your disk groups and add your disks to vSAN:

Since the NUC is not listed on the VMware HCL, you will see some warning about hardware compatibility, which is normal. But hey, it's a lab!

And that's it! Congratulations, you now have a 3-node vSAN lab up and running. Start deploying machines and testing things out. And if you break it, you just get more practice deploying ESXi and vCenter.

I've got my VMware home lab, now what?

There are some pretty great things you can do now, with your own set of resources at your disposal. A lab can be used for whatever you need it to be in that moment. Maybe you want to study for the VCP6-DCV exam or you want to study for a Cisco/networking exam. Well, you can go ahead and build VMs for whatever you need or want. I personally have built a few 2016 servers to check out the new OS as well as the new Server core builds. This allows me to learn the new commands and practice PowerShell when at home.

I have also used my lab to test scenarios for my work. And maybe you want to learn a new OS? Say you're a Windows admin and want to learn some Linux or vice versa. This is a great way to be able to look at things on your spare time and at your own pace. Plus, if you break something in your lab, you don't take down your production at work. You can just delete and re-create.

Finally, just have fun with your VMware home lab. It can be frustrating at times, but that just means you're learning. And if we're not learning something new in this industry, we are already behind.

Photo credit: Wikimedia