Build a vSphere Lab for Free

Today’s post is aimed at people just starting out with vSphere. Specifically, I’ll show you how to build a home lab without breaking the bank. If this sounds like something you were planning on, read on.

At the very basic, a vSphere lab comprises of two ESXi hosts (the hypervisor) and vCenter Server. This allows you to explore most of the features found in vSphere.

The ESXi hypervisor is free to use save for a few catches. Alternatively, just like vCenter, ESXi can be evaluated for a 60-day period with all its features unlocked. This gives you ample time to test things out and you can always rebuild from scratch.  –
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vSphere Lab Hardware Requirements


The more compute resources you have at your disposal, the better. First, make sure that your processor and motherboard support virtualization. Below, is an actual pic of my home computer’s BIOS / UEFI settings. You can see that Intel VT-x technology is supported and enabled. This is vital as it allows running 64-bit guest VMs. For AMD CPU based boxes, look out for the AMD-V setting and, likewise, make sure the options are ticked on.

Intel VT-x virtualization support
Intel VT-x virtualization support

My home PC has 20GB of RAM, an Intel i5 processor, a 128GB entry-level SSD drive and a couple of 1TB SATA drives. No otherworldly specs as you can see. Admittedly, performance isn’t going to be great unless I add more RAM and faster drives. There’s also little compute estate left to run guest VMs. Nevertheless, you’ll still be able to get a feel of how to install vSphere components and get used to the various settings, features and clients.

Some of the hardware specs on my trusty Windows 7 home PC
Some of the hardware specs on my trusty Windows 7 home PC

Lab Layout


The minimum RAM requirements for ESXi and vCenter Server are 8GB and 10GB respectively, so I’m already stretching the capabilities of my PC. I’m going to have to work with what I have. If you already can afford to add RAM, 32GB is the sweet spot. You’ll be able to run vCenter along with a couple of ESXi hosts comfortably enough to test features like vMotion and HA.

On the networking side, I’ve opted for NAT so I can share my PC’s IP address for external access.

From the vSphere side of things, I’ll be installing the appliance version of vCenter (vCSA) and a single ESXi 6.5 host which I’ll later go on and add to vCenter. –
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Downloading the Software


A VMware user account is required if you want to download software from VMware. If you don’t have one, sign up here. Follow the activation link sent to your email address and log in.

VMware Workstation Player is what we will go on and download first. You will then install it as you would normally do with any other Windows software. The product’s full documentation is available here.

Now, download ESXi and vCenter Server from here. You need to fill out some extra registration details before you can download. Once you do, click on Manually Download to download the ESXi and vCenter ISO images as shown in the next two screenshots.

vCenter Server Appliance 6.5 download link
vCenter Server Appliance 6.5 download link
ESXi 6.5 download link
ESXi 6.5 download link

 

Note:

  • You can fully evaluate vCenter Server and ESXi 6.5 for a period of up to 60 days from the installation date.
  • Workstation Player can be used indefinitely for home testing, unlike the PRO version which has to be licensed after the evaluation period expires.

 

Workstation Player Tips


  • You can only work with one VM at a time. To work around this limitation, launch a second instance of Player.
  • The VM settings are accessible from the Player -> Manager -> Virtual Machine Settings menu

Workstation Player Tips

  • Configure VMs to use NAT. This not only puts VMs on the same network but also allows you to share your PC’s IP address for external network access. VMs will receive DHCP assigned IP addresses.

Configure VMs to use NAT

Installing ESXi


Let’s go ahead and install a nested instance of ESXi as a VM running in Workstation Player.

Note: A nested hypervisor is one that runs as a VM under another hypervisor.

The steps are as follows:

Launch Player and select Create a New Virtual Machine.

Installing ESXi

Select the Installer disc image file (iso) option and click on Browse. Select the ESXi 6.5 ISO image previously downloaded and press Next.

Installing ESXi

Type a name for the VM and specify the location (folder) where you want it created.

Type a name for the VM and specify the location

Specify the size of the VM’s hard disk (VMDK). If you’re planning on hosting VMs on the nested ESXi hosts, you’ll need much more capacity than the 10GB shown above. Alternatively, you can add a second hard disk to the VM at a later stage. The VMDK can consist of a single file or multiple ones (sparse). Click Next to continue.

Specify the size of the VM's hard disk (VMDK)

Click on Customize Hardware, select Memory and assign 8GB to the ESXi VM. This is the minimum amount of RAM required by ESXi but you can always lower it after installing if you’re short of RAM. This, however, is something I don’t recommend doing. You must also enable the Virtualize Intel VT-x … option from the Processors settings section.  Press Finish to save the changes.

enable the Virtualize Intel VT-x

enable the Virtualize Intel VT-x

The ESXi installer will run automatically after the VM is powered up.

The ESXi installer will run automatically after the VM is powered up

Read this post of mine as a guide to installing ESXi 6.5, in addition to the following video where I show how to access the ESXi host once it is installed using the embedded host client.

 

Installing vCenter Server Appliance


Before moving on, I must stress that the procedure outlined below is not precisely how one should deploy vCSA to a production environment. Regardless, it works just as fine for our purposes.

Mount the vCenter Server ISO file as a drive in Windows. Alternatively, you can unzip it to a folder.

Select the Open a Virtual Machine option in Player.

Installing vCenter Server Appliance

Navigate to the /vcsa folder (2) and click on the OVA file (3) as shown. If the OVA file is not listed, change (1) to All supported files.

Installing vCenter Server Appliance

Accept the default VM name (1) and location settings (2) or change them as required. Click on Import once done.

Installing vCenter Server Appliance

Click the Accept button on the EULA screen.

Installing vCenter Server Appliance

Wait for the import process to complete. When it’s done, click on Play virtual machine to power up the VM.

Installing vCenter Server Appliance

Once the VM powers up, the appliance will install automatically. The next video takes you through this process.

Do not interrupt the process at any time. Be patient and wait for it to complete. Once it does:

  • Press F2 to change the root password. Use the arrow keys to move from one field to the next.
  • Configure the host’s network settings. I opted for DHCP IPv4 settings (default) and disabled IPv6.
  • Press Y to restart the management network. The appliance will reboot after a short while.

OR

Just set a password for root and stop there. The appliance can be configured in the next step anyway (try this method if the installer ends up stuck).

Installing vCenter Server Appliance

After the appliance is back online, point a browser to https://<appliance IP>:5480. This will enable you to complete Stage 2 of the installation process. Click on Set up vCenter Server Appliance as shown next.

Installing vCenter Server Appliance

This next video takes you through the vCSA configuration process (second stage).

Finally, we can create a data center in vCenter allowing us to add the ESXi host to it. One last video shows you how to do this.

 

Conclusion


We’ve learned that a decently specced home PC or laptop will suffice to run a nested vSphere 6.5 environment. On my i5 / 20GB RAM home PC, I managed to squeeze in vCenter Server Appliance (vCSA) and one ESXi 6.5 host. The sweet spot in terms of RAM is 32GB which allows you to add a second ESXi host and play around with features such as HA and vMotion.

Granted, performance is what it is and you won’t be able to run much in terms of guest VMs. Regardless, you should be able to test most of the features including advanced ones. In addition, the 60-day evaluation period gives you ample time to test things out. VMware Workstation Player is free to use at home but you might want to try out Workstation Pro which gives you advanced features like snapshots.

As you gain experience, you might want to redo or scale up your vSphere home lab. Have a look at places like eBay. There, you might grab a server or two along with a storage array to further your knowledge. There are plenty of bargains to be found if you have the patience and time to shop around.

Follow me at https://www.altaro.com/vmware

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