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11 Tips for Your Virtual Home Lab

As I last wrote, I'm preparing to make some changes in my home lab. I want to thank each of you who shared your advice on home labs -- and for the lively Twitter debate, as well. I think it's a good idea to share some lab tips for ease of use and ensuring you don't get into trouble. So in this post, I'll share a handful of home lab tips I've learned over the years.

  • Keep a static networking configuration for static items. Likewise, if you plan on testing networking configurations, make a different network for that.

  • Have a backup on different storage. I shouldn't have to tell people today to back up what's important, but sometimes people learn the hard way. Specifically for a home lab, I don't do any of the lab functions on the storage dedicated to backups. You want the option to blow away a volume in the lab, but not on the same storage system as the backups. In the last blog, I mentioned that I'll have new storage resource backups, but they'll be fully separate from where the virtual machines (VMs) run.

  • Leverage the powered-off VM. Many of the things you test in the lab can be performed on both powered-on and powered-off VMs. This can save memory usage; in addition, if you're doing any nested virtualization, performance will be much better.

  • Go for solid state storage (SSD) wherever possible. Few of the home lab situations I've done over the years involved a very large storage profile. Most of the time the home lab is a test bed for sequencing and configuration tweaks that you can't (and often shouldn't) do in your work-based production environment. The SSD will help with any excessive swapping; if your environment is anything like mine, memory is the most constrained resource.

  • Use a unique domain name and address space. I use RWVDEV.INTRA and 10.187.187.0/24 as my network. I blog about this network a lot, and I occasionally do Web searches for some of this text. That way I can see if anyone is illegally using my blog content as their own. I wrote a personal blog post on this topic, if you want to check it out.

  • Windows evaluation media isn't all that bad. I used to be upset about the discontinuation of Microsoft TechNet subscriptions for IT pros; but given the nature of the lab, the evaluation media actually does the trick nicely for me.

  • Set auto power on for critical VMs. If your power goes out or if you turn off the lab when not in use, it's nice to have the parts needed start up automatically. I'm a growing fan of "powered off unless used," and that can apply to the hosts, as well.

  • Hold on to the old stuff.  Keep .ISO files around for everything, because you never know when you'll need them. I know a few examples where someone had to power on an NT 4 VM just for a while to make a new application that emulated the old one (whole separate discussion). The takeaway is that the .ISOs of older VMware ESXi, Workstation, Server and other hypervisors will have VMware Tools installation kits for the older OSes. Same goes for old installations of VMware Converter and other tools you probably use every day.

  • Purchase the best hardware you can with thoughts of upgrading. In my experience, I've saved up money to buy the best servers possible. But months later I added memory and storage as the lab budget was replenished. Related: consider starting small if you're making a new home lab (two systems should do).

  • Don't underestimate the power workstation/laptop as a host. Microsoft Hyper-V and VMware vSphere have processor requirements to provide the correct virtualization support. Many laptops and desktops are capable of running them, so this may be an option compared to purchasing a traditional server.

  • Put Internet limits on your lab components. Related to the note earlier about static networking, make sure you don't hijack your home Internet connection with your excellent script that auto-deploys 1,000 Windows VMs that need to now get Windows Updates. I recommend running one or more Untangle appliances to set up easy segmentation (there's also a VMware virtual appliance edition that works for the free offering).
There are so many considerations for a home lab, and it really depends on what you want to do with it. For me, it's playing with the newest vSphere and Hyper-V platforms, as well as a few storage tips and tricks. Have you set up a home lab yet? What specific things have you done to make it work well for you? Share your comments below.

Posted by Rick Vanover on 03/30/2015 at 9:59 AM


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