Patrick Brunier

Technoid and API addict


Cheap and green ESXi homelab – Part I

In the need for a lab to exercise for my MCSE and MCSD certifications, I have been busy lately figuring out the right way to set it up. ESXi is chosen as hypervisor, because I can choose to run HyperV on top of it, enabling me to play with both hypervisors, without dismantling my infrastructure. The other way around isn’t a possibility.

A few possibilities that passed my mind:

  • Use my old PC to host the lab.
    Gave it a try, but only having 4GB available turned out (obviously) to be a big problem. The CPU was allright (i7 870). Storage consisted of a stack of WD green disks, which  ran into performance issues right away. RAM was the first bottleneck to upgrade. Too bad the maximum amount of RAM was 8GB. Trashed this possibility.
  • Use my PC at work through VPN.
    PC has a bit more memory (16GB), so that shouldn’t be a big problem. Processor (a cheap i7) also no problem. IO a BIG problem. The disk in this machine turned out to be even worse than my WD green disks. Trashed this possibility.
  • Get a bit of resources on a corporate ESX test cluster.
    No cluster existed, so this was an easy one.
  • Privately rent a bunch of VPSs.
    Turned out to be fairly expensive, although some do have very nice offerings. Please check out: I will probably use them for one of my other projects.
  • The last option was getting a better PC at home.

So I was really getting a PC. Looked at two particular machines that are currently reasonably priced second hand. The HP Z600 and the Dell T5500. Both have great specs like the option to have Dual CPU – Quad Core Xeon running at 2.93 Ghz. Giving me 16 threads. Awesome. Second biggest issue still is the storage. Dead slow 7200 RPM SATA or SAS disks. This would require an investment buying me a few SSDs, next to the expensive machines, making it a double expensive option. But the biggest problem these machines have, is the lack of energy efficiency. The T5500 heating up my desk from underneath it, wasn’t a very pleasing idea.

I decided to build something by myself. My first PC build since the 90’s.

My new PC had to be cheap, green and fast for the purpose of this lab. So CPU isn’t that important. Running a typical MS AD lab doesn’t utilize your CPU that much. Storage is a whole different story. That needs to be fast, preventing me from getting annoyed. There also has to be enough RAM to accommodate all the virtual machines.

I decided to choose the the casing of my new PC first. It should be simple, cheap and the less ugly one (because they are all ugly) I could find.
I ran into a brand Fractal Design. They make some very simplistic cases, so I decided to buy their cheapest model. The Fractal Design Core 1000 USB3. Simple, not hitting the top on the ugly scale and cheap.

The processor had to have support for VT-X, VT-D and I decided to be happy with a Quad-core non-HT model. HT doesn’t deliver that big an advantage, especially in my lab environment. Nice piece on this subject:
I decided to buy the Intel i5 4440 processor. A common CPU, on-cpu graphics, well priced.

For the memory I just bought the cheapest 32GB DDR3 1600 RAM I could find.
4 x Crucial Ballistix Sport BLS2CP8G3D1609DS1S00CEU

The motherboard had to be sort of out-of-the-box ESX compliant. Because it had to be cheap, I decided to drop full compliancy right away. I came up with a board that works great after injecting a NIC driver into the ESXi installer ISO. ASRock B85M Pro4

Storage had to be SSD. All my Macs have SSD and it’s just awesome. Booting a physical or virtual computer from a conventional harddisk should be forbidden by law.
Decided to buy 2 240GB SSD’s to accommodate the VMs. Crucial 2.5″ M500 240GB
One of my old Apple disks will contain installation sources.

The whole config including everything like PSU, SATA cables costed me around 750 Euros. I sold my old PC for 300 Euros.

In the near future I will post my experiences regarding this setup.