back to article Home lab operators: Ditch your servers ... now!

At last year's Melbourne VMware user group (VMUG) conference, VMware's Mike Laverick opined that IT pros need a home lab these days, because bosses have stopped shelling out for training. Plenty of you agreed with that proposition. Some even showed us their very own home labs. Most used old servers, an arrangement that this …


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  1. Goat Jam

    Laptops are good for this because they come with a built in UPS

    1. Tom Samplonius

      "Laptops are good for this because they come with a built in UPS"

      Given that the W530 has the same size battery as a Macbook Pro, but includes a desktop CPU, a discrete NVIDIA video card, and 32GB of RAM, that the built-in battery is best thought of as a UPS, not for mobility.

      The dock for the W530 is rated for 170W. If you have everything running (and it is loaded with RAM), the battery life is probably about 30 to 45 minutes.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        My mini-itx system draws 180W full load. Ivy Bridge 3570K, 16GB RAM, SSD + 2TB HD, Nvidia GTX660, 120mm case fan, on board wifi-bluetooth, 2 x USB devices plugged in.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Laptops are good for this because they come with a built in UPS

      .. plus in general fairly reasonably executed suspend/shutdown abilities, agree 100%

      One caveat: don't use external USB hard disks which need a power supply..

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      For work I have a Thinkpad W530, with 16GB RAM, 1TB of HDD, running Win7 and VMware workstation. It is an excellent (if heavy) device and does its job well. If I had a complaint, it's that the disk is way too slow and work aren't prepared to replace the disk with SSD.

      In my home lab I've got two HP Microservers stuffed with 16GB RAM each and filled with four disks of varying sizes and speeds. With a cheapo UPS which cost about £60. These machines are to most usage scenarios faster because it's easy to choose which disk you want and use it appropriately and were much, much cheaper. They also use less power.

      1. chuBb.

        Snap, me too, I prefer the microserver over a laptop as I can run dual nics useful for a management man and dmz scenario plus cheap sata drives. Oh and hp have the £100 cashback offer on again during Feb, have found them on amazon for £155 so with the cashback U can max the ram for free effectivly getting a server for £55 with 2gb ram or with 16gb for 155!

        They also are virtually silent, and don't look totally out of place under the tv, so make great nas/plex servers as well as lab boxes

  2. GitMeMyShootinIrons

    Not a new idea...

    I've been running lab exercises on my laptop (or single desktop) using workstation for years. It works reasonably well, so long as you accept it won't run as well as a physical set up. As it's not production, this isn't a problem.

    Thinking of the battery as a UPS is something that hadn't struck me before. Quite amusing.

  3. Captain Scarlet

    Also a way to please the Mrs

    They don't seem to like the idea of several ugly loud machines in the corner of the living room.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Also a way to please the Mrs

      If she doesn't like the server farm in the living room, offer to move it to the bedroom...

  4. B Candler Silver badge

    Mac Mini

    I run training workshops using a Mac Mini (server edition, i7 quad-core plus hyperthreading), souped up to 16GB RAM and 2 x SSD. So far this is the best power to size ratio I can find, helped by the fact that the Mac Mini doesn't have an external power brick.

    The OS is Ubuntu Server 12.04, using KVM/libvirt. On this platform I can run 36 Ubuntu VMs with 512MB each. (ksmd finds identical memory pages between the guests and shares them, so a small degree of memory overcommitment is possible if the guests are similar)

    It would however be much better if the Mac Mini could take 32GB of RAM, and I'm hoping the rumoured upcoming Haswell refresh will support this.

    If I were building a home lab, and could afford it, I'd probably use two Mac Minis, and install Debian and Ganeti on top. Ganeti is a production-grade VM management system (it's what Google run their office infrastructure on), and its key benefit is being able to manage DRBD for replicating VM instances from a primary node to a secondary node. This allows live migration between those nodes, without any shared storage backend.

    You can however use shared storage backends like NFS, or distributed filesystems like ceph (rados/rdb)

    Ganeti is not for people averse to command lines though. There's a Ganeti Web Manager project, but it only offers a limited subset of functionality. Synnefo is built on top of Ganeti and gives you a full cloud environment.

  5. Ogi

    I virtualised a while ago...

    I used to have about 20 machines in my "server cupboard". 2 rackmounts (main server/router/firewall, and file server), and about 18 laptops, my old thinkpads, and compaq's and HPs that friends/family gave me after they upgraded. Mostly Pentium II/III/M.

    However the noise and power consumption was quite high, especially as I noticed that they spent most of their life idle. Plus I had no way of doing remote admin with them (i.e. if they lock up/no-ssh, I can't get to the console withought being physically there).

    Once I had to move to a new flat, I took it all apart, and never put it back together.

    Instead I wired up the two rackmounts, put a 6 core AMD with 8GB in the file server, and virtualised the lot of them, using QEMU and some scripts for image creation/startup/etc... Much better, all the VM's run as good, if not better, than the laptops they replaced. Also, each console is available as a VNC server, so I can remote in to the console if they go down for some reason.

    So now the only thing I have to physically administer is the file server and router/firewall, and get a UPS for the two. Unless you really need physical hardware (or you have the space that my tinny flat doesn't), virtualising your home lab is highly recommended.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I have similar spec Laptop

    To what he is describing, 32GB, i7 etc. Yet there is no chance in hell it would cope with running 10 instances of ESXi + vCenter + a dozen embedded VMs. vCenter alone uses 8GB RAM (When reducing it, it runs like a snail, because of the rampant amount of JAVA they use).

    Then we have the issue that I like to leave my VMs running, which is not very compatible with lugging a laptop around with me ;)

  7. mrcreosote

    OK, this isn't a dedicated set up, but I have done the following

    HP ProBook 6570b with i7-3520M CPU and 16GB, running OpenSUSE 13.1 and Virtualbox 4.2. Run up 4 VMs - Openfiler, Oracle Linux with Oracle VM Manager, and 2 x Oracle VM Server 3, then within the VM Server cluster a couple of VMs with Oracle Linux

  8. Candy


    I dismantled my physical lab last year and now run it all on the Windows 8.1 implementation of Hyper-V on a lappie. Much as in the article, it's good enough and, having installed a second large mSATA SSD for the lab VMs, I can continue to use the laptop as normal for day-to-day use.

    With a slightly more modest rig (16Gb RAM), I can certainly spin up seven useful VMs running various Windows Server apps.

    My lab isn't for constant 24/7 use. It's for standing up certification labs and sand-boxing solutions before chasing Ops for a grown-up environment.

    Effectively, this is for free. And its good enough. This seems to be a theme recently...

  9. Ant Evans


    Not a lab, but I virtualized my entire study and got a physical room back. The study now runs in various boxes hidden behind or in cupboards in different rooms, and I remote in from wherever I happen to be. Virtualbox makes it embarrassingly easy to run headless VMs for access over RDP, OS agnostic. When an RDP session gets confused, there's TeamViewer. For the server I use Win8.0 on a headless mini ITX AMD setup - AMD has excellent virtualization on all its chips, not just some of them. The power draw is negligible (get WD Black, and an AMD 'T' chip). RAM is better value than SSD: squeeze the VMs and cache their I/O at the host. By siting the server right, you can save on a media server. You can also save on fat clients - my main work machine is now a netbook, which is cool enough to run in the printer cupboard, pointing to a VM.

  10. Mad Chaz

    Been doing virtual machines since vmware workstation 1.0.1

    Now a days, I have a 1090 phenom 2 x 6 as my home server.

    Machines for routeur, web server, download machine and a lot of other stuff are all virtualised. Works awesome and as I live in cold climates, the power bill is nill most of the year as it costs the same as the electric heating to replaces.

  11. Swarthy

    I've been virtualized for a wee bit now, and agree with Ant Evans - Virtualbox makes it insanely easy. I usually have 1-2 Linux (Mint, Kubuntu, CentOS) servers running in virtual boxen off of a Win7 host on a Toshiba laptop. I did have to max out the RAM for stability when running multiple VMs, it's now running at 16GB and has run 4 VMs, (Plus Windows with SQL Server installed and Oracle installed on the centOS) without choking.

    I also really like the networking options between the V.Box VMs allowing for private vLAN, public NAT, etc.; and multiple virtual NICs to tailor the networking of your Servers to your precise need.

    For example: a Linux VM with Apache/PHP pulling data for the web from a SQL Server instance installed on the host, and then writing said data to a separate centOS VM with Oracle installed. (Yes, it was ugly, and I do realize *now* that there were faster/easier ways to move the data. But it was fast set-up and I didn't have to pay for conversion software.)

    All on a Toshiba L50-class laptop.

  12. pyite

    Partially a great article

    The good part: you are spot on about laptops being the way to go. They are designed to have the best per-watt performance possible and have a built-in UPS. I use these plus a couple of rack-mount Atom machines to handle most of my VM needs, with just one Xeon server remaining to run my NAS/SAN software and VM's that require more CPU power.

    However, how much do M$ and VMware pay you for this kind of coverage? Considering how painfully expensive their software is, nobody who uses it should ever be concerned about their power bill because you are already doing the equivalent of wiping your ass with 100 euro bills.

    The best way to achive high levels of VM density is to use container VM's with Virtuozzo (OpenVZ, same thing) or other container based software. If you need a hypervisor there are several different ways to use qemu-kvm for this -- either use it straight from the command line, or manage one machine with libvirt, or manage a set of physical servers with OpenStack. I'm having a hard time figuring out why VMware hasn't yet followed PowerQuest into complete redundancy and obsolescence.

    1. devlinse

      Re: Partially a great article

      > wiping your ass with 100 euro bills

      That's not true. I run a PowerEdge T610 at home with a load of disk and I'm seriously considering moving to this model. The MS licenses are all via a TechNet (as was) subscription which was extremely good value at a couple of hundred quid a year.

      So speaking personally, I am concerned about power and even more so given the confined space, heat output.

  13. Ian Michael Gumby

    You can't use VMware for a lot of things...

    I'll probably be down voted... but hey! What else is new?

    Look, for some stuff, sure creating VMs works wonders.

    Until you get in to trying to do some sensitive tuning and benchmarking.

    Then you need to have physical hardware.

    If you want to go VM... there's always AWS and their competitors which is a heck of a lot cheaper.

    Hint: The wife hated the whine of server fans coming from my office until I consolidated to a single 2 socket (E5) box with slow moving fans and huge cpu coolers and a NUC for my email/web server.

    Now she's happy.

    Even the AWS bill isn't that bad.

  14. jinx3y

    seems like old news...

    Windows 8 Pro comes with Hyper-V manager at no extra charge...ditch the VMware - it's redundant. By the way..this must be old news because I've been running with core i7 and 24 GB for almost a year now, starting with Windows 7 Pro, then upgrading to 8 and finally 8.1. So far, so good, with no issues on an HP dv7 Pavilion. Think I'll try to get a new laptop soon though and could use a few goods recommendations...

    1. Xamol

      Re: seems like old news...

      I run a number of VMs on a laptop (core-i7, SSD, 16GB although 32 is possible with other models). It's a company laptop and they normally buy Dell but as they couldn't get one with the right config (decent screen res and portability required) I got to go bespoke...

      Worth a quick look when you're doing the rounds of the websites.

      I couldn't find a portable (in my mind ~2kg) laptop with the right config and 32Gb RAM. They all seem to come in around 3kg.

  15. Mage Silver badge


    Also proof VMware has a vested interest in promoting Windows. Of course very useful for the majority of IT pros who also have to support Windows.

    I have done "important" stuff for last 10 years on laptops to take advantage of UPS aspect. I've rarely used one actually really portable in 16 years.

  16. APJ
    Thumb Up

    No more servers here

    We ditched all of our on-prem IT. We have access to pretty much everything Microsoft as a Gold Partner but had kept lab servers around for demo environments, but with the arrival of Win8 and particularly Win8.1 we now all just have Lenovo W520/530/540 machines, 32GB RAM, 3xSSDs. With that config (at ~£3k per machine) we can run absolutely anything we want all under the Win 8.1 Hyper-V environment. I find that it works superbly well for my needs. The servers we did run to host demos have all been powered down and are Ebay-bound.

    The RAM is really nice to have, but the major factor is decent sized SSD, running more than one or two VMs off a spinning laptop disk is awful.

  17. Paul Smith

    I don't get laptops

    I do not understand why laptops are considered attractive in this context. Yes they are designed for the most power per watt, but, so what, the power bill is simply not the expensive bit of a home VM.

    Laptops are designed to be portable, and charge a hefty premium for the privilege. A diy desktop running an oc'ed i7 with 32G ram with space for all the storage you can imagine, will still set you back £500 or less, and that sort of money does not get you much of a laptop.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I don't get laptops

      My main reservations would be -

      - A laptop generally contains a single slow 5400 rpm mobile hard drive, which will struggle with the I/O contention generated by multiple ESX instances. Use of external USB drives to mitigate this obviously throws away benefit of the integral UPS provided by the laptop battery.

      - Laptops generally struggle to disperse heat when under load continuously. If I were to use one as a server, I would look at boosting airflow externally.

      1. Mike Brown

        Re: I don't get laptops

        my main reservation would be the mrs realising that i dont need my own room, and converting my den into a flowery spare room. Where would i go to play with my toys and hide from the family while pretending to be working on a high priority project?

        1. Ant Evans

          Re: I don't get laptops

          I guess you need to figure out if you're running a server or a portable lab. Laptops are relatively bad at always-on operation.

          I did try running a (non-cheap) laptop for a year or so under load to see if the fan would fail, and the fan failed. On an idle laptop on the other hand, the fan will continually cycle on and off, increasing heat stress. You'd better make sure the fan is accessible, so you can clean it. Laptop hard disk cooling is usually via hope.

          Li-Ion batteries are the worst possible choice for UPS. The warmer they are, and longer they spend fully charged, the faster they lose the will to live. If there is an option not to charge fully, use it.

  18. NogginTheNog


    Good for space and noise requirements, but as stated by others the main bottleneck will be disk I/O. SSDs might mitigate this but I'd still be a bit sceptical. That and cost compared to a whitebox home server with generic motherboard and CPU: if you pick your processor carefully you can get a low-power version, or underclock a higher powered model, and use 2.5" drives and still have a fairly low power consumption unit with better grunt (from more disks), and better cooling from the bigger case.

    As also stated though the biggest killer for these things for Windows admins is going to be the death of TechNet :-(

  19. Denarius Silver badge

    not a bad idea except

    we who like older OS and hardware cant' use it. Sounds great for those using MS stuff, or only X86/64. My SPARC Solaris, HPUX and AIX boxes will remain. At least until I can get my paws on a reasonable Itanic running 11.3 so I can virtualise 10.20/11.0. Power 7 hardware which has great virtualisation capabilities is still beyond my hobbyself-training cash flow. Wish the concept behind Taligent of virtualising all main unices so only one chip was needed was done. So there is a market for VMWARE to investigate. Using Intel chippery, make a virtualisation for IBM Power. As IBM are thinking of selling off their chip baking, they might play with licensing. As for Larry and Co, not sure reverse engineering is worth it.

    OK, I can dream. Snowflake, meet Hell.

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