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VMware Home Lab Guide Part 1: Nested Virtual Home Lab

There are so many choices/routes possible when designing a Virtual home lab it is very easy to get overwhelmed. Depending on what you want to accomplish and your budget the possibilities are near endless. There are cheap options for fully nested ESXi hosts using VMware Workstation deployed on old or spare equipment. There are very complex and expensive builds that rival enterprise or SMB solutions with full datacenter like capabilities. They both have pros and cons. The solution you eventually settle for will need to fall within your budget while providing you the features you wish to implement. You will ask yourself questions at every step of the way. Do I really need an environment with high availability? Does using a virtual NAS appliance give me slightly less performance than a physical NAS but at zero cost? Do I need low power always on hosts and devices so my energy bill doesn’t skyrocket? The list is endless. But is extremely important you ask yourself these questions as you begin to design your virtual lab. Looking around the internet will yield tons of blog entries for whitebox build outs for home lab use. In almost every example you will notice people have made design decisions and sacrifices mostly based on budget. Having a baseline of hardware and keeping an eye out for deals while determining your build and topology could make a huge difference in your lab. I am going to cover the three most common VMware home lab solutions and the reasons for choosing each one: A lot of the best features using vSphere come from using multiple ESXi hosts controlled by vCenter. Sure, you could just install ESXi on workstation or a bare metal host and install a bunch of virtual machines. But you will miss out on a lot of the advancements made possible with multiple hosts in your environment. All three solutions below will focus on having the following as a bare minimum:

  • two ESXi hosts
  • vCenter Server
  • NFS or iSCSI shared storage
  • Active Directory and DNS

Once the initial setup is complete you will be able to experience and setup advanced features using vCenter. You can clone machines to use as a quick launch template with preconfigured settings (no more installing upgrades and patches on every machine individually). You can migrate running virtual machines from one host to the other in real time using vMotion. There is a ton to explore here, so lets get started.    

Solution 1: Nested VMware Workstation

Workstation9

VMware Workstation is a type 2 hypervisor (virtualization layer) that runs above an existing operating system. In simple, you install VMware Workstation on top of Windows Server or Windows 7 or 8. Type 1 hypervisorsworkstation run directly on top of bare metal hardware. I will talk about those solutions below. Type 2 hypervisors like VMware Workstation & Player and Oracle VirtualBox rely on the operating system to schedule hardware resource usage. They are typically easy to install and can be running a virtual machine within minutes. Network settings and virtual network adapters may be a little confusing at first but often the default settings will work for most needs. Workstation is not free but does have a free trial. If you pass the VMware VCP, you get a free license! Both VMplayer and VirtulaBox are free and I highly suggest installing one if you are new to virtualization. You can do quite a bit using a simple setup.I have done lab simulations with Microsoft Server 2008 simulating a complete Active Directory and end user environment. These are very powerful tools that are simple and easy enough to dive in and get swimming. The real point of using Workstation is that you can utilize your existing desktop/server to build a “nested ESXi environment” or virtual hardware virtualization. People most commonly refer to this concept using the movie Inception. A dream within a dream. After installing Workstation on your windows computer you would then install two ESXi virtual machines and then you will install guest operating systems on those ESXi hosts. For example Windows 7 > VMware Workstation > ESXi VM > Windows Server 2008. Cool right?

 

Setup

List of software and virtual machines that will be used to create our nested environment on VMware Workstation. You can check the official product faq or getting started guide for exact details. System Requirements:

  • Windows or Linux 64 bit Operating System
  • Intel VT-D and AMD-VI capable 64 bit processor
  • 8 GB ram (min) 16 GB suggested
  • 150 gigabytes free disk space
  • VMware Workstation 9 installed on above

Virtual Machines:

  • 2 x ESXi hosts running version 5.0 or 5.1
  • 1 x Windows Server 2003/2008/2012 for Domain Controller & DNS
  • 1 x Windows Server 2003/2008 for vCenter
  • 1 x FreeNAS Server for iSCSI or NAS storage
  • Various VM’s like CUCM or MS Exchange (optional)

You will have all that running on just one computer. Years ago that would have taken a lot of hardware to replicate. These days it just takes a powerful computer with plenty of resources to share with the virtual machines. Depending on what you are working with you may need to upgrade RAM and disk space. RAM is really cheap these days and is probably the easiest to upgrade your system with. Most of the testing and labs I will focus on will require more RAM than CPU. A lot of your machines will be idle or hardly reserving CPU time. But RAM is always handy as more RAM = more VM’s! With this setup you can use vCenter to manage your two ESXi hosts that will have a windows server running on each. The FreeNAS will provide disk storage to your windows server but will actually use hard drive space on your physical computer. You will be able to use and test advanced features like vMotion, Resource Provisioning but you will not be able to use features like storage vMotion or Fault Tolerance. You are also limited to upgradeability of your mainboard and system. Also, this is probably not a setup you will 24 hours. When I used this setup I would bring everything up (in a required specific order) and complete my testing and labs then power down until next time. But this is the most affordable and easy to setup. If you already have the software and hardware, you could be using your lab in a few hours.  

Pros

  • Cheap
  • Easy Setup
  • Use existing hardware
  • Rebuild easily

Cons

  • Limited Resources
  • Not Persistent
  • Simulated

 

Check out:
Part 2 of the VMware Home Lab Comparison Guide