Build a Home Server Lab on a Budget
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Build a Home Server Lab on a Budget

For years, I have used either Oracle Virtual Box or VMWare Workstation for creating test servers so I could spend quality time with new versions of the Oracle EPM software.  This has required me to maintain a rather expensive and bulky workstation class laptop.  A high-end laptop capable of running a virtual machine with 4 CPU cores and 16-32 GB of RAM is downright expensive and frankly, out of my league for a personal purchase.

Last year, I invested in a refurbished HP DL360 rack server which came equipped with two four-core Xeon processors, 32 GB of RAM and four 146 GB 10K hard drives – all for an affordable $250.  Once this boat anchor arrived, I downloaded the latest and greatest VMWare ESXi server software and got busy.  Today, you can get a permanent free license for ESXi from VMWare at https://my.vmware.com/web/vmware/evalcenter?p=free-esxi6.  You will need to create a “My VMWare” account.  The download page will display a license key for you once you begin the download.  There are some limitations on this but they fit very nicely with the server I had already purchased.  The free license limitations are:

  • No support from VMWare.
  • You cannot add it to VCenter Server.  There is no free licensing of VCenter Server other than a 60 day trial.  VM cloning is a very manual process without it.
  • 2 physical CPUs – no limit on the cores.
  • You can assign no more than 8 vCPU per Virtual Machine.  Not a problem for a home lab.

Since setting this up, I have installed and configured just about everything in the EPM stack.  I even shoved it into a very nice Compaq branded enclosure I found on Craigslist for $100.  Here are some pros and cons of using VMWare ESXi 6.5 (free) on my home server versus using a PC based tool like VMWare Workstation or Oracle Virtual Box:

  • Pros:
    • Virtual machines running on VMWare ESXi perform better because it is a hypervisor whereas its Workstation counterpart and Oracle Virtual Box are not.
    • It is way less expensive.  The cost of a used high-end laptop ranges from around $550 to $1100 on eBay.  The server cost me $250 and I could use any laptop or PC to remote to it or directly connect a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
    • The DL360 is quite expandable so I can increase RAM and onboard disk quite generously and I don’t have to mortgage a kidney to pay for it.
    • I can copy VMs and create new instances as long as I have sufficient disk space.  This gives me the ability to create machines for a variety of purposes such as self-edification, testing different upgrade paths, and doing proof of concept work.
    • I can access the server remotely by using port-forwarding on my home router.
    • The server is isolated from my laptop.  Lab work is done on the lab server and work work is done from the laptop.
    • My geek friends have rack envy.
    • After heavy use, it warms my office in the winter.
  • Cons:
    • Using my home server for demos carries the risk that I may not be able to connect to it from a customer site.  Simple issues like forgetting to turn the power on the server or not being able to connect to the internet from a customer site can really hamper my ability to demonstrate software from a remote server.
    • At some point the hardware will be obsolete as it will not play nice with newer operating systems.  Currently there are a number of ESXi features that are not supported because of the age of the CPU and chip set.  Thankfully this is not a problem at the moment.
    • Servers, especially older ones that I can buy refurbished off eBay, are noisy.  In fact, when this server goes through a system test at startup, the four fans spin up to max speed which sends the animals in my home running for cover.  The caveat is that if you suffer from tinnitus, the drone of the fans may drown out the ringing in your ears.
    • The server and its enclosure take up a bit of real estate in my home office.
    • After heavy use, it warms my office during the summer.  Adding a second server without a plan for heat displacement is out of the question.

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