My new home lab – Prepping for the rest of the year (Part 1)

If you would like to read the next part in this article series please My New Home Lab – Home Lab Rebuild (Part 2).


I sometimes find it necessary to make major changes to my home lab environment. That is, after all, the purpose of having a lab. However, given the kind of work that I do, my lab is sometimes a production environment while other times, the lab is just your every day test lab.

This year, I’m working on building two brand new labs – one physical and one virtual, one fixed and one mobile – in order to be able to accomplish my goals. Because I work on a wide array of projects and because I travel a lot, I decided to build these two labs out separately.

In this article, I’ll outline for you the labs that I’m building and what they look like, along with my reasoning for going the particular route that I went.

Physical “production” lab

A number of projects that I work on require that I have a stable environment in which to operate. However, I do significant writing about virtualization as well. As you know, in a lab environment, things can get messy. When I’m working on a long-term project that requires stability, that basically negates “playing” too much with the hypervisor layer, which makes it more difficult to write blog posts and articles on those topics.

For example, I recently completed two courses for TrainSignal: System Center 2012 Configuration Manager and System Center 2012 Operations Manager. As you may know, while these products can be deployed and tested in a single server scenario, in order to depict something as close to real world as possible, I did not go the single server route. Instead, for these courses, I expanded on the “real world” environment that I had built out for another course I did for TrainSignal, ForeFront Threat Management Gateway 2010, a product that Microsoft has since killed off. The lab environment that I built out for these three courses includes a number of virtual machines running on a Hyper-V 2008 R2 server, including:

  • A domain controller
  • Database servers for each of SCCM and SCOM
  • A Forefront TMG server
  • A test web server sitting in a DMZ (Forefront)
  • A test client server sitting behind a firewall to test Forefront
  • Test client machines (multiple Windows 7 machines) in order to demonstrate the client management features of SCCM 2012
  • A server each for SCCM and SCOM
  • Demo file server for SCOM to demonstrate how management packs operate

Now, to be fair, I didn’t have every single one of these machines running at the same time. As I was working on a course, I built the virtual machines that I needed, but the base lab environment stayed around the whole time.

Doing it right

I personally don’t like constantly building labs from scratch, so I’m planning to finally “do it right” in the coming weeks. I’ve cleared space in my garage and have an electrician coming to install an appropriate outlet to support a new lab for which I’ve been cobbling together parts for a while now. What I have isn’t massive, but it will be more than sufficient for my testing for now.

My current lab is basically just a really beefy Dell PowerEdge 2950 server with tons of RAM and tons of local disk and running Hyper-V 2008 R2. But I also want to be able to work with other hypervisors on a more enterprise level. For example, I do a lot of vSphere work for my clients and my testing in my home lab is currently limited to installing ESX under VMware Workstation or VMware Fusion. That won’t be the case anymore.

Over the summer, I procured a surprisingly inexpensive soundproofed 42U rack with a built in and working air conditioning unit. Gotta love eBay. It was actually a local sale and the seller delivered it to my house and it’s been sitting in my garage since I haven’t had time to do anything with it except test the AC unit. This rack will be the home for my new lab.

Also last summer, I purchased four Supermicro 1U servers, each with two quad core L5520 2.26 GHz processors and 24 GB of RAM. None have hard drives, so I also purchased four 120 GB solid state drives and 2.5” to 3.5” converted and will use these drives as the system drives in each of these four servers.

On the network side, I also purchased a Dell PowerConnect 5224 24-port gigabit Ethernet switch to connect everything together. Again, eBay.

On the storage front, EMC was kind enough to provide me with a VNXe array to use in my lab. It’s a great unit, but I anticipate running out of storage relatively quickly, so I’m also on the hunt for something to augment it.

The one missing item is a UPS that can power everything, but I’m working on that and will order one next week.

The software

On the software front, I’m going to build a two server Hyper-V 2012 cluster and a two server vSphere 5.1 cluster. For a lot of the work I want to do, I need to be able to test both hypervisors pretty extensively and need to do so in an “enterprise like” environment, hence two clustered servers.

I also subscribe to TechNet and want to do extensive testing of Virtual Machine Manager 2012 SP1 with this environment, so that will be one of the tools that I deploy into the environment. I plan to do a lot of content around VMM 2012 SP1 this year.

In addition, I will redeploy the basics that I need for lab work, including a domain controller and other foundational services.

I’ll generally use this physical environment when I need to build a long-term demo. I’ll also have immediate access to both Hyper-V and vSphere environments and also plan to test multihypervisor management tools.

Virtual mobile lab

Although the physical lab will meet a lot of my needs and I have full remote access to it, I also need to keep things local sometimes. I don’t like to waste “plane time” or time in a hotel that may not have the best Internet connection, so I also like to carry with me a mobile lab in the form of my Mac.

Last summer, I purchased a MacBook Pro Retina with 16 GB of RAM, a quad core processor and a 512 GB SSD. I also happened to have a 256 GB SSD laying around, and I didn’t want to fill up my main drive with virtual machine volumes. I generally use SSDs as much as possible these days primarily because I want decent performance, even if I’m pushing the system a bit. So, I purchased a Seagate Thunderbolt adapter like the one shown below.

Figure 1:
Seagate Thunderbolt adapter

This adapter allows me to carry with me one or more SSDs with prebuilt mobile lab environments on them. If I need to change labs, I just switch to the appropriate SSD. This adapter is pretty small and fits nicely in my laptop bag, so it goes where I go. It connects to my Mac with Thunderbolt, and it’s really fast.

I’ve also been using the latest version of VMware Fusion on my Mac. This version supports the installation of virtual machines running other hypervisors, so I am able to do some ESXi and Hyper-V testing, too. In fact, for a project I’m working on right now, I spent part of the weekend deploying Fusion-based virtual machines that all run Windows Server 2012 and Hyper-V 2012. This will ultimately be a “throw away” project in that, once it’s done, I’ll simply delete the virtual machines to make room for the next project.

The cost

You might be surprised at how affordable a good lab can be. A smaller lab, of course, will be less expensive, are there are ways that you can bring down the cost of the lab if you find it necessary. For example, if you have a spot in your house that is relatively sound proofed, you can buy a pretty inexpensive rack or just use a set of shelves. Since my garage gets warm in the summer and I don’t want the noise “leaking” into my house, I went with the padded cabinet with an AC unit, but it was under $1,000 used.

Each of the servers cost less than $600. I knew going in that none had hard drive, but I was able to get the 120 GB SSDs pretty cheap.

The Dell Ethernet Gigabit switch was around $70 and my storage was donated, so there was no cost there.

To top it off, I have a bunch of cables that I needed and I’ll have to pay an electrician for a new outlet and will need to buy a new UPS that can support everything I want.

A TechNet subscription is a few hundred dollars and it’s absolutely worth the cost.


In the coming year, this lab setup will allow me to spend much more time testing software and bringing the results here. I wanted to share with you what I bought and why. If you’re looking for your own lab, eBay is a great place to start!

If you would like to read the next part in this article series please My New Home Lab – Home Lab Rebuild (Part 2).

About The Author

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Scroll to Top