Working remotely has its benefits and challenges. One of those challenges that I faced is the lack of a test lab. A test lab is a crucial tool for server support. I need a place to test scripts, as well as various configurations, migrations, etc. Being a home office lab, I didn’t want to break the bank.
1. First things first we need hardware.
What you are looking for is a kit that has a many core processor included. At the time of my lab, I was looking at an MSI 760GM-E51 motherboard and an AMD Phenom II x6 processor with 6 cores. This coming as a kit included 8GB of RAM, DVD Burner, Case & CPU Fan. Additionally I added an extra 8GB of RAM, totaling 16GB. All totaling $490 before tax and shipping.
We need to understand that this is not a server grade machine, so we cannot expect to get the same quality hardware as a server grade machine, especially for under $500.
All the components come separately, and need to be assembled. This is not a difficult task, even if it has been years since you have done it before like myself. If this is something you have never done before, Tiger Direct has some generic tutorial videos, and their tech support is quite good.
2. Next we need an operating system
We have a couple options, Microsoft HyperVisor, and VMWare vSphere or vSphere Hypervisor (ESXi). Since we are building on the cheap, we have to rule out vSphere as it is the most expensive option. HyperVisor can be an option if you have access to the software (we will cover options later in this article). For our purposes, we will cover ESXi (it’s free).
Head over to VMWare’s Website and download the trial, and burn the ISO. I strongly recommend getting a USB Flash Drive with at least 4GB capacity. Plug this drive in before booting from the ISO. Follow the install prompts and install ESXi to the flash drive. The reason for installing to the flash drive is two-fold. 1. It will allow the entire capacity of your internal storage to be utilized. 2. The flash storage is both faster and portable. If you have a hardware failure, you can move your installation to another computer with ease.
Once installed, there is a very minimal interface on the host itself. Be sure to click Configure Password and set your root password. The only other settings that need to be addressed here is networking. The ESXi server should have a static IP address. It can be assigned via the menu options on the host, or you can issue a static DHCP assignment from your router (my preferred method). Using a static DHCP reservation ensures that your server will all ways have the same IP.
Once completed point your browser to https://<>, and download the vSphere Client. Once downloaded, install and launch the client.
Enter your ESXi server’s IP address in the first box. Login as root with the password you set above.
Once loaded, click on your host. Click the configuration tab. Click Storage from the menu on the left. Click Add Storage, select Disk/LUN, click Next and follow the remaining prompts to enable use of your internal hard disk
You now have a working ESXi server.
There are some trade offs using the free version of ESXi. The most glaring is the inability to create or deploy from Templates. You can work around this by using the VMWare Standalone Converter to convert a standard machine. In the converter you have to option to “V2V” on the same ESXi server. It’s not as clean or as fast, but it’s free!! Also missing from ESXi is the web console.
3. Next we need software
The easiest solution for deploying Microsoft software in your lab is to buy a Microsoft TechNet Professional subscription. In addition to usage scenarios, priority support in forums, you get 2 complimentary support calls as well as access to the entire Microsoft Software Catalog.
The Microsoft Software Catalog gives you Centralized access to the latest Microsoft full-version and beta software with no feature limits. The professional subscription gives you access to everything except development tools (visual studio, etc). The Professional subscription is initially $349 and $249 there after for an annual subscription.
What this allows you to do is download, & install fully licensed software for your non-production environment. Therefore you can download every version of server from 2000 – 2012. Windows 3.0 -Windows 8. Every version of office, SQL Server, Exchange, Sharepoint, etc.
If you would rather use Microsoft HyperVisor instead of ESXi, just download & install.
4. What good is all this if I cannot access it remotely?
There is a free and simple solution for remote access, it’s called OpenVPN. OpenVPN has a tutorial on installing OpenVPN for ESXi, it is located here.
OpenVPN is free for up to 2 concurrent users. The only caveat with OpenVPN is currently it is incompatible with non-jailbroken iOS devices.