Part of my job is to maintain my technical certifications and learn as much as I can about the products my clients use and our company sells. Some of these, we have a full size lab engineers and sales architects can log into and get hands on really expensive gear. Most of the products are software, so we can usually get our hands on it to try out – but we need somewhere to run it. That’s where a home lab comes in. Typically retired servers or purpose built computers that handle enterprise software that you can build up, break, tear down, and do over again.
At my previous employer, we had a full stack of gear (switches, servers, software, and storage) and we had full access to use as a lab that mirrored our production equipment. That was ideal and worked great for testing patches and updates before you rolled it out into the enterprise. It gave us a lot of confidence that a normal patch or update wasn’t going to blow up and also gave us the opportunity to practice major upgrades and try advanced features without putting the business at risk… it was really an ideal environment for learning.
Now I’m on my own’ish. So I need to get my hands on some gear but with COVID-19 putting a halt on projects (and bonuses) I need to do it a little cheaper that I could have. The perfect home lab for people in my line of work with run about $4-5,000 and include three very efficient micro servers with 10Gb networking, a network switch to connect them, and a small NAS/SAN device for shared storage. The hardware is typically good for 5-8 years of usable time, so the investment in a lab of this scale is worth it. But that’s not possible today.
I shrunk my use cases and paired back my expectations to the bare minimum with a plan to expand in the future without wasting this smaller investment. I considered building my own, but then I started looking at refurbished hardware from OEMs I work with a lot.
I landed a HPE Gen 10 Microserver with a very small footprint. It’s a little black cube with four large form factor drive bays inside, two PCI expansion slots, and supports up to 32GB of RAM, came with 8GB and I added another 8GB for 16GB of usable memory for now. Powered by a (not so blazing fast) AMD Opteron X3421 CPU which provides four cores running at 2.2GHz and boost to 3.6Ghz. It has two 1Gb network cards and dual display port adapters for video.
One of the performance issues I’m running into with this, is that both the network controllers and disk controllers are very CPU dependent. So anytime I’m moving data in or out of the box – or writing or reading from the disks – the CPU is taxed. This is easily overcome with some eBay parts. I acquired a dual 1Gbps HPE network card with offload capabilities to take the network tasks off the CPU for $15. For another $20, I have an HPE P222 RAID control card (with battery backup) to take the disk tasks off the CPU.
I placed two 4TB SATA drives in bay 1 and 2 along with a 240GB SSD disk in an adapter in bay 3. With ESXi installed on a USB thumb drive mounted inside the server, I was able to configure a single node vSAN on this host to use the SSD as cache and two SATA disks as capacity. I’ll be tearing this down when the RAID controller arrives and I can actually reduce the CPU load even further on this.
It happily runs ESXi 6, 6.5, 6.7, and 7.0 without issue. It also doesn’t do a bad job running Windows 10 or Server 2019. I’m just getting into this server now, but all in all I’m happy with the $400 investment (+$20 for the NIC and +$15 for the RAID card).