It has been awhile since we’ve visited my “Perfect vSphere Lab” setups. If you’re not aware of my older perfect setups you can see a few here: ShuttleSH67H3 and Intel NUCs have been my most popular lab guides to date on this site.
However, with vSphere 6 out, the time has come to build out another guide of some good lab hardware. Maybe you’re studying for a VMware certification exam or just want a long term lab solution to avoid any RGE (resume generating events) at work, this post will outline what you need to get the job done as cheaply as possible and using something other than “nested” hosts.
The ESXi Host
For the host itself, I am going to recommend you use another small form factor Shuttle box. A Shuttle DS81. These boxes are small (nowhere near the biggest host you can build) but I recommend these for two huge reasons, small size and low power. They have dual gigabit network connections as well built in so no need for any additional cards! All of these things equate to what I call a high WAF (wife acceptance factor) so that’s a plus. These boxes consume a fraction of the power that a full desktop uses. My kilowatt measures about 44 watts around 75% usage. Running at least two of them is what I recommend so you can create a cluster. If you’re looking to do anything with vSAN, you will need 3 hosts. My lab environment consists of 3 hosts for that sole reason!
For this build you have two options, to go all out or to keep it simple and cheap. It’s really up to you. If you want my opinion, I’d say keep the costs down and buy more hosts instead of put a lot of money into getting just 1 or 2 large hosts. I’d rather have 3 medium sized hosts for a lab any day of the week.
The biggest difference in price from above is a quad core vs a dual core. When you enable HT it will double it either way you go. If the price difference does not seem like much to you, go all out! Feel free to play with the options but since you run out of memory generally first, CPU is a lot less of an issue.
In terms of memory, you really need to max out the host here. They are capable of doing 16GB of ram across the entire host. The system has 2x 204pin memory slots that support DDR-1333/1600 with maximum of 8GB per DIMM. This also seems to be a good price point these days. 2 sticks of 8GB memory is one of the cheapest options out there now. Whatever you do, don’t go below 8GB total.
First you have to ask yourself if you’ll be playing with vSAN at all. If you’re not interested in vSAN you really only need one of these disks. Well, technically one SD card and optionally another storage disk for local disk. I generally throw in some sort of small SSD in my hosts regardless for fast VM storage and then attach the host to my Synology DS1513+ as an iSCSI SAN. Remember: The Shuttle DS81 also only supports 2.5 inch hard disks! I am going to break this into three different setups:
The Disk Option 1: The I want vSAN setup.
You will install ESXi 6 to the integrated SD slot using the SD card, your 1TB 7200 SATA disk will be used as a capacity disk in vSAN and the 128GB mSATA drive will be used for caching.
The Disk Option 2: No vSAN, but local datastore please.
You will install ESXi 6 to the integrated SD slot using the SD card, the 128GB mSATA drive will be used for a local datastore.
The Disk Option 3: No vSAN, no local disk, only a basic ESXi install. I already have a SAN.
You will install ESXi 6 to the integrated SD slot using the SD card. You won’t have any local datastores so you’ll need to be sure you have some sort of already existing shared storage.
Overall build thoughts:
These machines work great with ESXi 6. One thing to note is that you’ll need to inject a vib into the ESXi 6 installer. This offline bundle adds the NIC drivers to the installer so you will have them. If you follow these steps below with PowerCLI you can do this within 10 minutes.
- Download and install vSphere PowerCLI 6.0 to get access to Image Builder. You will need to create an account, but this is free.
- Download required package (Place the zip file in C:\esxi)
- Open VMware vSphere PowerCLI and execute the commands below. This will create a customized ESXi 6 iso that includes all the needed drivers. Be aware that a few commands will take some time, so be patient.
- Go to the root of your C: drive and burn the new iso to disk.
#If you've never used PowerCLI before, set the ExecutionPolicy to RemoteSigned. Skip this step if you have already.
#Makes sure the ImageBuilder snapin is added.
#Connects to the software depot. Takes a few seconds to connect.
#Adds DS81 drivers.
#Takes the standard ESXi 6 iso image and clones it so we can essentially slipstream in the missing drivers.
New-EsxImageProfile -CloneProfile "ESXi-6.0.0-2494585-standard" -name "ESXi-6.0.0-2494585-DS81" -vendor "withNICs"
#Take our newly modified profile and spit out an iso to use. This will take a few minutes. Be patient.
Export-ESXImageProfile -ImageProfile "ESXi-6.0.0-2494585-DS81" -ExportToISO -filepath C:\ESXi-6.0.0-2494585-DS81.iso