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HomeVirtualizationVMwareVMware Homelab: What Are Your Options

VMware Homelab: What Are Your Options

A VMware Homelab can be built in different ways. What are your options? Here are some tips for getting started with your next homelab project.

The idea of a homelab or virtual lab is not new to VMware and has been around for more than 20 years. It is still trendy today, and the need for cost-effective but higher-level equipment has put many enthusiasts off exploring for one. 

A Homelab is a term used to describe both experts' and hobbyists' own IT testing environment, a "mini data center." 

If you're new to working with computers or computer hardware and VMware, this guide will help you understand the best VMware homelab option for you based on your needs and budget. 

1. What is a homelab?

Having a dedicated space to work on your own projects can be cost-effective and rewarding. Homelabs are personal networks and computers set up for experimentation. They are usually found on the property of private homes but can also be found on some university campuses or IT departments. The construction of a homelabs is typically done by amateurs who enjoy tinkering with gadgets and electronics.

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Developing a virtual lab environment is both time-consuming and expensive. However, VMware has made this process much simpler. With VMware, you can create a virtual lab environment in your home. This type of homelab is quite popular among programmers learning to code in the latest languages. It also allows for better organization when testing new software before deploying it to production systems.

Every homelab is different. Some people want to get started with cryptocurrency mining, others just want to study Kubernetes, some want to get into the world of virtualization, and some just want a computer lab for programming. However, one thing remains the same: everyone wants their setup to match their needs.

2. What Do You Require For A Homelab?

The need for higher-level equipment has put many enthusiasts off investing in modern homelabs. Most people, if they can, will use a server rack and a storage system to hold all of their equipment. Some will also create dedicated electrical circuits to power the various pieces of equipment in their lab. Nevertheless, these options are not affordable to everyone. This is something you shouldn't worry about for a small-sized or basic homelab.

In general, a homelab consists of limited, non-critical computing, and depending on the size and the purpose of your homelab, you should consider:

  • Usage. What is the primary purpose of your lab. Studying, staying up-to-date, consultancy, etc. 
  • Location. Housed in a personal space such as a garage, basement, or anywhere your home computer is located. Or remotely in the cloud or an IT lab.
  • Costs. The primary concern here is the initial hardware. But also consider power, software licenses, and more.
  • Difficulty level. Based on basic computing systems knowledge, not including virtualization. Time and effort spent building the lab based on its usage. 
  • Software. What operating system, programs, and apps do you plan to use. It is bound to the costs and usage.
  • Hardware. There are several options, and they are also highly related to the costs. This is the main focus of this blog post.

Out of these considerations, you need two key ingredients when planning for a homelab: software and hardware. These two could easily call the shots for the others. 

2.1. Homelab Software

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People used to build homelabs to study Linux and other systems in the past. Also, replicate Cisco environments utilizing GNS3 or Packet Tracer (for example) and other proprietary software solutions. These software used to be installed in physical machines, but things changed with the rise of cloud and virtualization. 

Most IT homelabs now focus on virtualization, as it is more versatile to install and manage several other technologies. This technique is valid for software solutions, but testing hardware could also be replicated.

There is no doubt that VMware is one of the best (the best, in my opinion) virtualization options and one attractive solution for multi-clouds right now. So, considering VMware for a homelab is a brilliant idea to start your project. Later, you can place any desired software on top of it (if supported). 

Note: If your target is just studying Linux or programming, for example, an old computer or the cloud will do.

There are other easy-to-use software such as KVM, Proxmox, Virtualbox, and Qemu. And more enterprise software like Hyper-V and Citrix. But using VMware Workstation, or VMware vSphere directly, will boost your opportunities to build a professional-like homelab.

Software licenses are out of the scope of this article, yet, they must be considered for a homelab. You can use open-source software or get trial licenses from various vendors. Good choices are:

For VMware: 

  • Apply to the VMware vExpert program and get available licenses for non-production environments. If you are not part of the program, you can still use trial licenses.
  • Or, join the VMware VMUG program. General membership is free, and it will grant the user to VMware's conferences, webinars, newsletters, and affiliated events. The advantage membership costs $200 per year, including evaluation licenses and special discounts. This is the one you'd need for your lab.

For Windows: Use the evaluation license in your (virtual) server and rearm it up to six times. This is more than enough for any homelab. 

2.2. Homelab Hardware

Hardware is the essential part of a homelab. Homelabs are popular among tech enthusiasts and professionals who do not want to invest in larger-scale infrastructures. Nevertheless, a minimal amount of resources is required to start building and deploying your environment.

The essential hardware elements of homelab (at mostly all IT solutions, including cloud) are computing, networking, and storage. 

Network and storage

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If you want to build a small homelab, there is a possibility that you already have a home router and switch available. If you don't, you are still lucky because these are the most inexpensive pieces of hardware you will need. You can still expand your lab later with better gear. But starting a lab out, a basic networking switch will do.

The same thing for storage. You can create a partition on your PC, an external drive. Or just add a dirt-cheap HDD or SSD to an old PC. Later, you can use various free software to manage shared storage, such as FreeNAS. Or use more professional solutions using an iSCSI storage server with Windows. 

Note: VMware has removed the option to use SD card/USB as a standalone boot device option. VMware KB.

In the future, also depending on your needs, you could expand the lab with a NAS appliance. Let's say Synology or QNAP. Take a look at Synology DiskStation DS1520+ Overview and DSM Initial Setup Guide

Computing Resources

The real problem here will be computing. It is critical for deploying VMware virtual machines and other software adequately. 

Usually, when we refer to crucial hardware resources for VMware homelabs, we talk about CPU and RAM. Without going too deep into technical details, the CPU is more affordable thanks to its virtualization technology. Virtualizing the (physical) CPU will allow you to place several virtual machines in your lab environment. 

Note: You need to ensure that your CPU and board support virtualization. Nowadays, almost all do.

While there are similar virtualization techniques for the RAM, its ratio is usually 1:1 for physical to virtual, while the CPU could be 1:4 or more. So, RAM is the most expensive and precious one out of these two. To put this into perspective, you'd need at least 32GB of RAM to start a good VMware homelab. But in reality, a minimum of 64GB is required for a full-loaded and more professional VMware homelab.

3. VMware Homelab Options

I am breaking down the most common and different approaches that you can use to build a VMware homelab from the computing-resource perspective. Also, considering its usability and cost.

There are several hardware (computing) options for a VMware homelab. For the sake of easy and fair comparison, I am considering minimal practical resources to build one—meaning at least 64GB of RAM in the whole environment. 

I am not considering additional costs, such as licenses, network, and storage unless it is essential for the option in question. That being said, all labs are different. There are many options, and these are based on my experience and research. 

Here are some of the most popular VMware Homelab Options

Note: The "difficulty level" of a homelab can be debated. While creating a smooth homelab is ideal (also depending on what you want), we can argue that the most challenging, the most you will learn. But time is also valuable and different for everyone. 

3.1. VMware Homelab: PC and Laptops

VMware Homelab - PC and Laptops

You can use your PC or laptop to create a home lab, one of the most common and available options. Many people out there have a PC in their homes to use for games, entertainment, and work. You might be one of those too, but what if you want to do more with it? What if you're going to study VMware, learn how to code, or learn more about Kubernetes and cloud technologies? Well, luckily, you can turn your computer into a homelab!

Building a VMware homelab on your computer is not only possible but also accessible. You can use various old computers/laptops with at least 8GB of RAM (more is ideal) and connect them through your home network. You can also get inexpensive computers online or in local stores with second-hand deals. If you happen to have a modern computer or, even better, a gaming computer, you probably already have 32GB to 64GB of RAM in your system, the sweet spot. 

This kind of lab is also called a nested homelab or nested ESXi. That is because first, you need to use VMware Workstation and then ESXi within. Doing so, you'd be creating two virtualization layers.

So, elaborating a bit more on this option, first, you need to install VMware Workstation to create a base (layer 1) virtualization environment, virtual machines. The second part is to install/nest VMware ESXi (layer 2) on top of VMware Workstation virtual machines’ (layer 1).

This option is widespread, and there are a lot of resources available.

Note: Stayed tuned. I plan to create a homelab using this option soon.

Cost: 

  • Free to ~$1,000 (USD). 
  • It depends. You could already have all the essential resources at home or a gaming computer.

Usage: 

  • Suitable for studying for certifications and having complete control of your environment.
  • An excellent opportunity to learn how to design on a budget (cost-effective solutions) and practice troubleshooting on your unique configuration.

Location:

  • An independent room at home.
  • Wherever you have your computer.

Difficulty level:

  • Basic. General computing knowledge. 
  • Two virtualization layers using VMware Workstation and VMware vSphere.

Remarks:

  • You might need to get additional gear/hardware.

3.2. VMware Homelab: Raspberry Pi

VMware Homelab - Raspberry Pi 4

In 2019, the Raspberry Pi 4 came out. A low-cost computer board manufactured by the Raspberry Pi company. One of the many uses for this hardware is to use it as a platform on which you can run VMware.

This device is more than ready for your next computing project or can be used as a piece of your lab. Its price starts at $35, which is a bargain considering its power. But the one you'd want, the 8GB one, will be more expensive. As this new board doubles the RAM of its predecessor, it makes it a great candidate for virtualizing ESXi. 

Newly released features of the Raspberry Pi 4 make this one of the most powerful and versatile single-board computers on the market. It includes a 1.5 GHz quad-core 64-bit ARM (Advanced RISC Machine) microprocessor, 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB LPDDR4-3200 SDRAM (depending on model), and Gigabit Ethernet. 

With VMware ESXi now on the Raspberry Pi, enthusiasts may finally get their chance to try out virtualization with minimal expense on hardware. However, building a whole homelab based on Raspberry Pi is not ideal. I recommend buying an average computer with enough RAM if you have that in mind. 

Note: There are still some reported issues with the Raspberry Pi 4, including SSDs and thermal.

When using a Raspberry Pi, installing core VMware software, such as the VCSA and database, on a regular computer would be best. Also, take into account that this device does not support VCSA yet. Then, using a Raspberry Pi with an ESXi installation to extend the lab is the right method.

The Raspberry Pi option will be great to test particular ESXi hosts features. There are several possibilities. For example, here is an excellent article from William Lam on using the Pi 4 as a vSAN witness.

Also, take a look at:

Cost:

  • $75 (USD) for the 8GB version. 
  • A whole kit, including SD Card, could cost ~$120 (USD)
  • ~$950 (USD) for the entire lab.

Usage: 

  • To test basic ESXi host features.
  • It is practical to extend an existing VMware environment or combine it with various software for different testing purposes.

Location:

  • Any room at home in a closet.
  • Small and portable, it takes up just a little space.

Difficulty level:

  • Installation and setup might not be as straightforward as other options.
  • Further troubleshooting might be required.

Remarks:

  • You can get it from here.
  • Have fun testing new hardware.

Raspberry Pi 4 Model B - 8GB Specifications:

  • Processor: Broadcom BCM2711, quad-core Cortex-A72 (ARM v8) 64-bit SoC @ 1.5GHz
  • Memory: 8GB LPDDR4
  • Connections: 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz IEEE 802.11b/g/n/ac wireless LAN, Bluetooth 5.0. BLE Gigabit Ethernet 2 × USB 3.0 ports 2 × USB 2.0 ports.
  • Video & sound: this device comes equipped with two micro HDMI cables ports (up to 4Kp60 supported). 2-lane MIPI DSI display port 2-lane MIPI CSI camera port 4-pole stereo audio and composite video port
  • SD card support: MicroSD card slot for loading operating system and data storage
  • Environment: Operating temperature 0–50ºC

3.3. VMware Homelab: Intel NUC

VMware Homelab - Intel NUC

Intel NUC is one of the most popular picks for a homelab setup among the VMware community. They are small, easy to transport, inexpensive for the computing power offered, have relatively low power consumption requirements, and take up just a little space in a server rack or a closet.

The Intel NUC started getting popular a couple of years ago. This approach is more professional, therefore, more expensive. And not only the bare board; more often than not, you'd be required to buy separate RAM modules for your NUC. An Intel NUC, with similar characteristics as a Raspberry Pi (8GB of RAM), could double its price.

After your get an Intel NUC, creating and installing a virtualization environment should be the same as a regular computer.

Note: You can find similar options to the NUC, such as mini-towers and AMD versions. 

Here is a great article comparing the price/performance value of most of the Intel NUC families. Which Intel NUC should I buy for VMware ESXi? Not sure if it is up to date, so do your research.

Cost:

  • From $400 ~ $2,000 (USD)
  • 64GB of RAM ~ $250(USD)
  • Expensive.

Usage: 

  • To create a powerful lab with little space.
  • Keep your Virtualization knowledge updated using fancy gear. 

Location:

  • An independent room at home.
  • It takes up just a little space in a server rack or a closet.

Difficulty level:

  • Basic. It is just a tiny computer.
  • A popular device with excellent VMware community support.

Remarks:

  • You might need to buy additional RAM.
  • Small, portable, and powerful.

Intel NUC 10 ($1,500 reference) Specifications:

  • Processor: 10th Gen i7-10710U Processor (6 Cores, 12 Threads, 12MB Cache, 1.10GHz Base Frequency up to 4.70GHz Max Turbo Frequency)
  • Memory: up to 64GB DDR4 SDRAM
  • Hard Drive: up to 2TB PCIe NVMe M.2 Solid State Drive + 2TB Hard Disk Drive
  • Video: Intel UHD Graphics
  • Connections: 1 x USB 3.1 type-A and 1 x USB 3.1 fast charging Type-C (front), 1 x SD Card Reader, 1 x Intel i219-V 10/100/1000 Mbps Ethernet, 2 x USB 3.1 Gen2 (Rear), 1 x HDMI 2.0a, 1 x DisplayPort 1.2 via Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C.

3.4. VMware Homelab: Server Rack

VMware Homelab - Server Rack

Many VMware administrators have started building their lab at home by constructing a rack with servers, network devices, and storage arrays. A homelab in a server rack will be a powerful solution when evaluating the best enterprise approach to running virtualized servers. While this type of setup has the best output and many benefits, it is not affordable to everyone.

In 2020, in the VMware vSpeaking Podcast episode #144, was discussed the topic of Home Labs Powered by vSAN. During this episode, a home lab that costs about $100K (USD) was mentioned. Can you believe this? Well, there are even more expensive ones! This option is not just crazy due to the high cost of the initial investment, but also the electricity bill these "toys" will generate.

There are some funny articles out there justifying these labs so you can persuade your partner that they are not the root cause of your high power bill. 

As you can notice, this kind of option is expensive, so considering it as VMware homelab is not for everyone. The best option to use server racks with enterprise appliances is if you are an independent consultant or a freelancer needing to test professional systems and networks for your customers. Or simply expending money on expensive gear is not critical to your financial situation. 

Note: If you are into this solution, more often than not, you'll also need expensive networking and storage appliances to make it worth it. 

There are other good reasons to opt for this kind of solution, but as I said, it depends on your needs. Honestly, you can use a single powerful server to create a fantastic VMware homelab, which could cost you the same as the most expensive Intel NUC. But then, you still need to consider the power bill, location, and noise.

Oh yeah! I forgot to mention the noise! Sometimes my wife can't stand it when I type on my mechanical keyboard. So you better have a big house with a basement or a carriage house to place these servers. Don't get me wrong; I am not against this solution. It is probably the best. I just think it is unnecessary for most people planning a homelab.

Cost:

  • From ~$1,500 (USD) for the server. You might need to get drives and RAM separately.
  • Take the costs of the rack, switches, storage, and other appliances into account; if you plan to use them.

Usage: 

  • Best for consultants or freelancers.
  • The most powerful option to test enterprise features and solutions.

Location:

  • An independent room at home. 
  • Better if it is a basement.

Difficulty level:

  • Advanced configurations depending on the vendor.
  • Racking and stacking.

Remarks:

  • Expensive and noisy. 
  • Think about your power bill!

Specs:

  • Several options.

3.5. VMware Homelab: Dedicated Server in the Cloud

VMware Homelab - Dedicated server in the cloud

Like having a server rack at home, a VMware homelab in the dedicated server, or bare metal, in the cloud is a powerful option. Yes, running VMware in a dedicated server on a public cloud is possible. However, it might require paying for both the physical server and the software licenses. 

Recently I have been doing lots of research on cloud and VPS providers; in my search for the best web hosting solution. Various of these providers also offer dedicated servers which you can access remotely. With this option, you'll be renting a server in the cloud. 

Take into account that VMware is not supported in Virtual Private Servers (VPS). VMware does not offer a hypervisor that supports running virtual machines on a cloud's hypervisor like KVM. 

This is probably the most expensive solution but has some benefits. You can use it if you are in a hurry to study for certifications and want to take them seriously. You probably don't have enough space at home or just don't want to worry about the building process. Well, you can access a powerful computer in the cloud remotely and remove the "hassle" of local homelab.

Usually, you'll access these servers via the cloud provider panel. But also, you could use an Out-of-Band Systems, depending on the server.

I am not a big fan of this option. I think you need to get dirty with the hardware if you want to improve your knowledge in IT. Anyway, the cloud is the future, and the opportunity is there. 

I have seen an excellent cost-effective solution using Contabo, a fairly new cloud provider to keep an eye on. They offer three different hosting options for the servers, which are all affordable. These include low-end, medium-end, and high-end dedicated servers. These servers are designed to be powerful enough for any IT project and are perfect for a professional lab. Take a look at dedicated servers at Contabo.

Note: I am not particularly recommending this cloud provider. I just think it is an inexpensive alternative for dedicated servers among other providers. So far, reviews about this company are good, but I will still choose Digital Ocean or Vultr as web hosting if you ask me. 

Cost:

  • From ~$200 (USD) per month.
  • Expensive.

Usage: 

  • If you need to create a professional VMware homelab quickly.
  • Best powerful option while avoiding bulky configuration.

Location:

  • In a cloud/hosting provider.
  • Only remote access.

Difficulty level:

  • The cloud will introduce additional setup.
  • Advanced configuration using Out-of-Band GUI.

Remarks:

  • Expensive but practical.
  • Only remote access. 

Specs (Example for Contabo, $200/month):

  • 2 x Intel Xeon E5 2630v4. 2 x 10 x 2.20 GHz
  • 256 GB REG ECC. 
  • 1 Gbit/s Port. Up to 10 Gbit/s
  • 32 TB Traffic. Up to 324 TB

3.6. VMware Homelab: IT Lab

VMware Homelab - IT Lab

If you are one of the lucky ones to work in a company with a vast IT department available, you could set your lab there. This option is not available to everyone, so I won't extend on this here. Also, if you have access to good resources from an IT lab, you probably already know how to handle this opportunity.

Read more about this option here: Home Lab 101: It's All About Lots Of Resources?

An important thing to mention is that you need to comply with your company policies and be careful of your use scope. All large companies have an IT department, but not all have a lab. If you are, for example, working with VMware and other similar solutions, it would be okay to test things out. But if your company and IT department are focusing on different businesses, you better be sure that using their equipment for additional tests is acceptable to them.

Also, take a look at my VMware VDI Lab Guide

Cost:

  • Free.

Usage: 

  • Any use you want, but it depends on the resources.
  • IT lab during the day, homelab at night (or your free time). 

Location:

  • In an IT Lab.
  • Remote access is possible.

Difficulty level:

  • It should be easy; these are your domains.
  • Depending on the company's projects, availability might be an issue. 

Remarks:

  • Comply with the company's policies.
  • Good remote option.

Specs:

  • Several options.

3.7. VMware: Hands-On Lab

VMware Homelab - VMware HOL

Maybe, you don't actually need a home lab. If your target is just to study for a VMware certification or test basic features quickly, VMware HOL is a good solution.

VMware Hands-On Lab (HOL) is a program that offers a comprehensive, self-paced virtualization platform to learn the latest technologies. VMware's Hands-On Lab is a free service that provides the ability to test the products and features of VMware vSphere, VMware NSX, and VMware Horizon View. 

The VMware HOL has been designed for VMware Academy Instructors, providing them with excellent online technology training tools to use in their classrooms. It is available online, so there is no need to travel or worry about homelab gear. 

The lab has been set up to provide a virtual environment in which users can access all software products at any time. But to take advantage of these services, you must have an account with a valid email address and a password.

Cost:

  • Free.

Usage: 

  • Study a VMware certification
  • Easy test VMware products and features.

Location:

  • Owned by VMware.
  • Access remotely from everywhere.

Difficulty level:

  • Creating an account with VMware? 
  • No need to worry about resources.

Remarks:

  • It is free.
  • Not as flexible and cool as having your own lab.

Specs:

  • NA.

Conclusion

There are many options to build your own homelab with VMware. Significant factors influencing your decision are hardware, software, usage, costs, location, difficulty level, and others. There is a chance you already have a computer with suitable enough hardware at home for your homelab. This is the most popular choice for amateurs and trainees. 

Other popular options include Raspberry Pi, Intel NUC, servers (and other appliances) in a rack, or a remote homelab using an IT lab. A unique (unusual) solution is a dedicated server in the cloud, but this could be expensive, and you miss the fun part of a lab. Lastly, you might not need a homelab at all, just studying VMware at your own pace; for this, you can use VMware Hands-On Lab.

All labs will be different. There is a big chance that you combine many of these solutions and end up assembling the next Frankenstein's-monster homelab. That would be totally fine, and cool if you ask me. As I have written in the past, for me, the key to a homelab is in the building process, meaning, learning how to design on a budget and administrating resources. In the end, the opportunity to own your lab, make mistakes, troubleshoot, and figure out things by yourself is invaluable.

You can find excellent builds and ideas for your homelab here: Homelab

Juan Mulford
Juan Mulford
I have been active in IT for over fourteen years now. I am a solutions architect, working with storage, virtualization, and VDI solutions. For the past ten years, I have been living and working in Taiwan.

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