I have to admit I’m a big VMware fanboy. Wanting to master the art of virtualization, I’ve set out to build out a personal lab. My primary goal is to work my way up to the VCDX certification.
The curious thing about building a VMware lab is that all parts need to be on the hardware compatibility list (HCL) or you have to do some serious driver tweaking to get ESXi to recognize it. Phil was a huge help in determining what type of hardware just works “out of the box” and doesn’t require any tuning.
When studying for the VMware certifications it’s important that you have at least two hosts. Nearly all VMware features require two hosts because features such as Fault Tolerance and vMotion are designed to work between two hosts. Another important factor is that many of the VMware features also require shared storage. So straight out of the gate we have two hard requirements:
- At least two ESXi hosts
- Shared storage
The most important piece of the puzzle is the motherboard. Let me save you all of the research and trouble: just get the Supermicro X9SCM-IIF. It just works with ESXi. Check out these cool features to boot:
- Two Intel network cards that are on the ESXi HCL.
- It’s small and cute. Micro-ATX ftw.
- Built-in video card.
- Plenty of 4-pin fan connectors. This is important because I like to install Noctura fans throughout the chassis for efficient chassis air flow. These things are whisper quiet; I’ll talk more about them later.
I love hardware. I know you can virtualize ESXi inside of a VM, but I prefer to throw hardware at it. At a minimum I wanted to build two hosts so that I could use features such as vMotion, Fault Tolerance, and High Availability.
When using features such as vMotion, FT, and HA, real hardware makes all the difference in the world when it comes to performance. It’s also nice to be able to have physical hosts to be able to plug directly into networking infrastructure.
The Supermicro X9SCM-IIF supports a single Xeon processor and 32GB of memory. This is more than enough for a personal lab. This little host should be able to support between 10 and 15 VMs without breaking a sweat.
It’s important to use a a good processor so that performance isn’t an issue. The best price to performance ratio I found was using the 3.3GHz Intel Xeon E3-1230V2. It’s quad-core with 8MB of cache. When combined with Hyperthreading, this CPU will provide 8 logical CPUs inside of ESXi.
The X9SCM-IIF is very, very specific on what type of memory is supported. I made the mistake of ordering generic memory and received the dreaded long beeps. I found that the 8GB Samsung sticks works very well. Four of these sticks will get you up to 32GB without breaking the bank and are compatible with the motherboard.
The type of hard drive supported by the X9SCM-IIF is also very specific. I found that the Crucial M4 SSD works perfectly. I opted for the 128GB version since it’s only $10 more than the 64GB model. It isn’t the fastest SSD on the market, but it’s much faster than a regular hard drive and most importantly it’s compatible with the X9SCM-IIF and ESXi.
Form factor was very important to me since space is at a premium. I’m a big fan of Lian Li cases. They’re very well constructed using 100% aluminum and the craftsmanship is top notch. I decided to use the Lian Li PC-V352B case. It’s just the right size so that all of the components fit nicely inside a tight micro-ATM form factor. There are some other cases in the micro-ATX format from Lian Li as well.
Since this is a home lab, it’s important that it’s as quiet as possible. The last thing I want is my office sounding like an airport with planes taking off. I’ve used many fans in the past and the most quiet fans I’ve come across so far are Noctura. These fans are designed from the ground up to reduce noise:
- Anti-vibration frames
- Bevelled blade tips
- Flow acceleration channels
- Stepped inlets
- Silent bearings
- High efficiency heat pipes and radiators
As you can see the heat sink and CPU fan fit nicely on the micro-ATX motherboard and has plenty of clearance to fit into the case.
In order to bring in cool air into the chassis, two 120mm fans are required. The Noctura NF-F12 fits the bill. All of the fans produced by Noctura have all of the features that reduce the amount of noise.
These large fans bring cool air into the chassis. To help pull the air through the chassis and out the rear is a single 80mm fan. I used the Noctura NF-R8.
When powering on the server, there’s barely even any noise. I had to poke my finger into the fans to make sure they were spinning, because there wasn’t any noticeable fan noise.
You recall the Supermicro X9SCM-iiF has built-in IPMI and two Intel network cards. The IPMI management interface is located directly above the two USB ports. The two Intel network cards are located to the far right and are beside each other.
The final component in the chassis the fan-less power supply. I used the 400W SeaSonic SS-400FL2; it has plenty of enough power and is dead quiet. The only trick is that I had to install the power supply upside down because the Lian Li case didn’t have exhaust inlets on the top of the case unfortunately.
I’m very happy with this server. All of my requirements were met:
- 100% compatible with the VMware HCL
- No custom drivers are required
- It works out of the box
- Super quiet
- Small profile
- Out of band management with IPMI
- Strong processor
- Good amount of memory
- Two network cards
- Very good performance with the internal SSD
- And of course the Lian Li case is very handsome and pleases the eye
The next challenge was deciding what type of shared storage to use. Before getting into the hardware, I wanted to define the services and requirements. Given that this is a VCDX lab, at a minimum we would want to have the following services:
- Compatible with VMware
- Integration with Active Directory and LDAP
- High Availability
- Present storage iSCSI or NFS
- RAID 0, 1, 10, 5 and 6
Additional services that would be a nice to have for personal use:
- Compatible with Apple Time Machine
- Easy to use interface
- Ability to stream audio and video
Now that we have defined the required services, let’s move into the requirements:
- Support at least 100MB/sec
- Minimum of two network cards
- Support IEEE 802.3ad
- Hot-swapable HDD
- Minimum of four HDD
- Silent operation
- Small form factor
The only vendor I found on the market that meets all of these requirements was Synology. There are some alternatives such as Drobo and Qnap, but I found that it was either too expensive or was missing features. I’ve also heard a lot of good feedback about Synology from friends, co-workers, and on Twitter.
I decided to use the Synology DS412+; this model easily met all service requirements listed above. It took me about an hour to get comfortable with the Synology user interface and to be able to partition hard drives, create volumes, and create the appropriate services such as iSCSI and NFS.
The hard drives were very to install. The front cover is easily removable without requiring the use of tools. The hard drives simply install into the bays without requiring additional cabling. The backplane provides connections for both power and SATA connectivity; as you install the hard drive, the rails will guide the hard drive so that it seats against the backplane correctly.
This concludes the hardware portion of the laboratory. To give you a sneak peek of the next article which will dive deeper into the configuration of ESXi, vSphere, and Synology, here is a screenshot showing the hardware details of the server build.
You can see that all of the hardware works out of the box and is recognized by ESXi. In summary:
- Supermicro X9SCM-iiF
- 3.3GHz Intel Xeon
- 8 logical processors
- 32GB of memory
- 128GB SSD
- Two Intel network cards
If you’re interested in building a similar laboratory, here is a list of the parts I used in this article. This combination is guaranteed to work out of the box and be 100% compatible with VMware ESXi 5.1.
- Shared storage: Synology DS412+
- Case: Lian Li PC-V352B
- Intake fans: (2) Noctura NF-F12 120mm
- Exhaust fan: Noctura NF-R8 80mm
- Motherboard: Supermicro X9SCM-iiF
- CPU fan: Noctura NH-L12
- Power supply: SeaSonic SS-400FL2
- Processor: Intel Xeon E3-1230V2
- Memory: (4) Samsung DDR-1600 8GB M391B1G73BH0-CK0 (it’s critical that this memory be used with the Supermico X9SCM-iiF)
- SSD: Crucial M4 128GB