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home lab

Best Hypervisor for Home Lab in 2023

As you delve into building a home lab, one of the first choices you will have to make is choosing a hypervisor. Choosing the best hypervisor for home lab environments for your specific needs is important. We will delve into various options, discussing features, advantages, hardware support, and considerations for each hypervisor, all to create the ideal home lab setup. We’ll break this guide down into three main sections: open-source hypervisors, paid hypervisors, and desktop hypervisors.

What is a hypervisor?

A hypervisor is a virtualization operating system that allows you to create virtual machines. With virtual machines, you can not only run traditional operating systems, but you can use virtual machines to host modern applications based on Linux container workloads with all the features you would expect with modern capabilities.

If you want to get into running a home lab, you could certainly load a single operating system on your home server to play around with different technologies. However, you can only test a single operating system at a time with a single set of hardware.

By installing a hypervisor on your bare metal hardware instead, you can run many different workloads (operating systems running in VMs) on the same set of hardware.

Type-1 vs Type-2 Hypervisors

When considering virtualization platforms for your home lab, you may have come across terms like “Type-1” and “Type-2” hypervisors. But what do they mean, and how do they impact your choice of hypervisor? Let’s delve into this comparison.

What are Type-1 Hypervisors?

Often referred to as “bare-metal” hypervisors, you run type-1 hypervisors directly on the system’s hardware. They have direct access to the hardware resources and thus offer high performance and efficiency. Examples of type-1 hypervisors include VMware ESXi, Microsoft Hyper-V, KVM, and Xen Project.

Type-1 hypervisors are typically used in enterprise server environments because they can handle high workloads and deliver high performance. However, they can also be advantageous in a home lab setting, especially if you plan on running numerous or resource-intensive virtual machines.

What are Type-2 Hypervisors?

On the other hand, type-2 hypervisors, also known as “hosted” hypervisors, operate on a host operating system that manages the hardware. Examples include VMware Workstation, Oracle VM VirtualBox, and Parallels Desktop.

Type-2 hypervisors are generally easier to install and use since they operate like any other application on your host OS. For those starting their journey into virtualization or running a small-scale home lab on existing hardware, a type-2 hypervisor may be a good choice.

So, Which is Better for My Home Lab?

The decision between Type-1 and Type-2 hypervisors for your home lab largely depends on your specific requirements and resources. If you have dedicated hardware for your home lab and require high performance or plan to run a large number of virtual machines, a Type-1 hypervisor like VMware’s ESXi or KVM Hypervisor may be your best bet.

On the other hand, if you’re starting or want to run a small home lab on your existing PC or mini PC, a Type-2 hypervisor such as VMware Workstation or Oracle VM VirtualBox could be a more practical choice to get started.

Part 1: Open-Source Hypervisors

These are listed in no particular order of precedence. These are the hypervisors that I consider to be the best of the open-source variety. These have great capabilities and features and stand out for use in the home lab.

Xen Project

Xen Project, an open-source type-1 hypervisor, is an excellent choice for your home lab environment. It’s a lightweight hypervisor that supports a variety of operating systems. Xen enables you to run multiple operating systems concurrently.

The Xen Project, backed by Linux, comes with strong command-line support and Xen Orchestra, a web interface that enhances usability. It is a free download as a binary for Linux.

Xen hypervisor for home lab virtual machines
Xen hypervisor for home lab virtual machines

Visit the official site for the Xen Project here for more information and to download: Home – Xen Project.

Proxmox VE

Proxmox VE stands as another robust open-source type-1 hypervisor in the market. Its strength lies in its ability to manage both virtual machines (VMs) and Linux containers, offering flexibility for various platforms. Its popularity has exploded and it seems like everyone is running Proxmox VE in their home labs these days.

Proxmox VE supports clustering, nested virtualization, and live migration, enabling seamless transitions between different hardware in your home lab. It also offers a free backup solution called Proxmox Backup making it even more attractive to have unlimited backups of your workloads.

Proxmox home lab hypervisor
Proxmox home lab hypervisor

Learn more about Proxmox and download it here: Proxmox – Powerful open-source server solutions.

XCP-ng

XCP-ng is based on the Xen Project (listed above), offering a full-featured and free-to-use type-1 virtualization platform. It delivers high performance and compatibility, making it a great solution for your home lab where you’re likely to deploy various operating systems. It also comes with various tools that allow you to create and manage virtual machines easily.

Below is a shot of running XCP-ng and managing it with Xen Orchestra (free download), a great tool that provides many capabilities. You will need to register with an email address to update your Xen Orchestra installation.

XCP ng with Xen Orchestra
XCP ng with Xen Orchestra

Learn more about XCP-ng and download it here: XCP-ng – XenServer Based, Community Powered.

KVM Hypervisor

KVM (Kernel-based Virtual Machine) is a Linux-based type-1 open-source hypervisor. It allows you to run multiple operating systems concurrently, like the other options mentioned.

This feature greatly benefits your home lab, which might host various workloads. Debian Linux, among other operating systems, can be installed, providing a wide range of options. You can easily download Ubuntu Server for free and then install KVM in Ubuntu to start hosting your virtualized home lab. KVM is the more vanilla offerings in the list from a management perspective. There are tools available, but the tools are not as good in my opinion as those with Proxmox and Xen/XCP-ng.

KVM hypervisor running in Ubuntu Server
KVM hypervisor running in Ubuntu Server

Learn more about KVM here: KVM (linux-kvm.org).

Part 2: Paid Enterprise Hypervisors

VMware vSphere is my preferred solution in the enterprise space and the home lab (with VMUG, explained below) if you want to run an enterprise hypervisor.

VMware ESXi (VMware vSphere)

Stepping into the realm of paid hypervisors, VMware ESXi is a market leader. It is specifically designed for enterprise-level applications but can be scaled to the size you need to suit a home lab environment.

ESXi hypervisor and the host client
ESXi hypervisor and the host client

Its broad range of features, high performance, and extensive hardware support make it an excellent choice. VMware ESXi is part of VMware’s vSphere suite, which has many management tools for your VMs. These include an HTML5 web interface built into ESXi and also the very extensive vSphere Client found in vCenter Server.

VMware vSphere Client connected to vCenter Server
VMware vSphere Client connected to vCenter Server

If you decide to run ESXi, there is the VMUG Advantage subscription which I have mentioned before as arguably the most cost-effective purchase you can make if you want to run a home lab. It gives you access to basically the entire VMware catalog of solutions for $199 a year or so. You can always find coupon codes as well for 10% or more off that price.

Check out the VMUG Advantage Membership here: VMUG Advantage Membership.

Hyper-V

I also like Hyper-V, and it is a great solution, especially for those deeply invested in the Microsoft ecosystem. Microsoft Hyper-V is a Windows server-based type-1 hypervisor with Windows Server.

The new Windows Admin Center is a really great new tool to manage your Hyper-V role-enabled servers in the data center or home lab.

Windows Admin Center connected to a Hyper V host
Windows Admin Center connected to a Hyper V host

Hyper-V supports multiple operating systems, making it a versatile choice for your home lab. Despite being a paid option (needs Windows licensing and “Pro” edition for client OS’es for client Hyper-V), its cost can be justified by its extensive features, such as file sharing, network interface configuration, and easy VM deployment.

One thing I will say about Hyper-V is that it “feels” like Microsoft is not investing a lot of time or new features into Hyper-V as they are enticing everyone to the cloud. Hyper-V Server 2019 is the last free Hyper-V Server and there is not a Hyper-V 2022 option (talking about the free Hyper-V Server offering and not the role that is found in Windows Server 2022).

Nutanix AHV

As you delve into hypervisors, Nutanix AHV certainly merits attention. AHV, standing for Acropolis Hypervisor, is a part of the Nutanix Acropolis platform, an enterprise-level cloud computing service.

AHV is a Type-1, KVM-based hypervisor that offers a high-performance virtualization solution. Specifically designed to streamline data center operations, AHV combines virtualization and storage management capabilities in one software package.

One key feature of AHV is its simplicity. It integrates well with the Nutanix platform, creating an environment that simplifies virtual machines’ setup, management, and scaling. It offers an intuitive interface that helps create, manage, and delete virtual machines.

When it comes to hardware support, AHV excels. It is designed to work seamlessly with a broad range of hardware platforms. Moreover, it provides an array of functionalities such as live migration, dynamic scheduling, and high availability to ensure the smooth operation of your home lab.

Its commitment to the open-source philosophy sets Nutanix AHV apart from many other hypervisors in the market. The platform is built upon open technologies, making it a flexible option that seamlessly integrates with various platforms and software. It also has a community edition.

Nutanix AHV virtualization
Nutanix AHV virtualization

Part 3: Desktop Hypervisors

Oracle VirtualBox

Oracle VM VirtualBox is an extremely popular choice for a desktop type-2 hypervisor. While it’s open-source, it fits better in this category due to its easy setup on desktop systems. It provides a great platform to run virtual machines with various operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and others. It’s simplicity and feature set make it an excellent choice for beginners setting up a home lab.

This is likely a great first step for someone who wants to see if they are truly interested in running a home lab environment, as it allows you to get your feet wet with virtualization without any cost.

If you have a workstation or laptop with CPU, memory, and disk headroom, VirtualBox can easily be installed, and you and quickly start spinning up your first virtual machine.

Keep in mind that VirtualBox is a type-2 hypervisor. So, the performance is not as good as a type-1 hypervisor like client Hyper-V or running a type-1 hypervisor on bare metal.

VirtualBox is a great place to start with a home lab hypervisor
VirtualBox is a great place to start with a home lab hypervisor

Learn more about and download Oracle VirtualBox here: Oracle VM VirtualBox.

VMware Workstation

VMware Workstation, another product from VMware, is a full-featured type-2 virtualization software designed for desktop use. It supports a broad range of operating systems and provides various tools to create and run virtual machines.

It also supports nested virtualization, which allows you to run a hypervisor inside a VM – a unique feature useful in a home lab environment for testing out other hypervisors.

Simply put, nested virtualization allows you to run a hypervisor inside a hypervisor. VMware Workstation is an awesome solution I have used for many years now and is a paid product with many advanced features and great performance.

VMware Workstation is a robust type 2 hypervisor for home lab
VMware Workstation is a robust type 2 hypervisor for home lab

Learn more about VMware Workstation and download a fully-featured trial version here: Windows VM | Workstation Pro | VMware.

Client Hyper-V

Microsoft’s Client Hyper-V is a trimmed-down version of their Windows Server-based Hyper-V and is a type-1 hypervisor that instantiates the parent OS as the management operating system when you install the Hyper-V component.

Despite being a lighter version, it doesn’t fall short in providing core functionalities. It allows you to create and run virtual machines on a Windows-based PC, making it suitable for home lab environments.

If you already have a Windows client “Pro” license, you can install client Hyper-V. However, Windows 10 or 11 Home cannot.

Client Hyper V running on a workstation
Client Hyper V running on a workstation

Parallels

For MacOS users, Parallels Desktop is a go-to solution. It provides an easy-to-use interface, high performance, and excellent support for various operating systems. With Parallels, MacOS users can effortlessly run other operating systems like Windows and Linux, which is particularly beneficial for your home lab setup.

If you have a Mac environment, this may be a good option for those wanting to start experimenting with different operating systems and running various server workloads.

Parallels is a great option for Mac users
Parallels is a great option for Mac users

Learn more about Parallels here: Parallels: Mac & Windows Virtualization, Remote Application Server, Mac Management Solutions.

Choosing the Right Hardware for Your Home Lab

No matter which hypervisor you choose, the right hardware is crucial to make the most out of your home lab. Like an Intel NUC, a mini PC could be a perfect start. It’s compact yet powerful enough to handle multiple VMs.

An Intel NUC offers enough storage and good network interfaces, making it a preferred choice for many home lab enthusiasts. Raspberry Pis and the new Zimaboard can offer great low-power options for running workloads 24/7/365.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Which Hypervisor is the Most Beginner-Friendly?

Oracle VM VirtualBox is often recommended for beginners. Its user-friendly interface and ease of setting up virtual machines make it an excellent starting point for individuals new to home lab environments.

2. Can I Run Multiple Hypervisors in My Home Lab?

Yes, it’s possible to have multiple hypervisors running in your home lab using nested virtualization. However, nested virtualization, the ability to run a hypervisor within another, depends on the specific hypervisors and the underlying hardware support in your CPU.

3. Is It Worth Investing in Paid Hypervisors for My Home Lab?

Paid hypervisors like VMware’s ESXi and Microsoft’s Hyper-V come with advanced features. Investing in a paid hypervisor might be worthwhile if you plan a complex setup or wish to experiment with enterprise-grade features running in your “day job” data center and have a playground to hone your skills.

4. What Kind of Hardware Do I Need for My Home Lab?

Hardware needs can vary based on the scale of your home lab and the chosen hypervisor. An older gaming-type PC or a mini PC like the Intel NUC can be a good starting point. Ensure that your hardware choice supports virtualization and has sufficient RAM and storage.

5. Can I Use a Desktop Hypervisor for Serious Home Lab Work?

Absolutely. Desktop hypervisors like VMware Workstation and Parallels can run several virtual machines concurrently and support various operating systems. They are suitable for serious home lab work, particularly where dedicated hardware isn’t available.

6. How Do I Migrate From One Hypervisor to Another?

Migration procedures depend on the hypervisors involved. Tools like VMware vCenter Converter and live migration features in certain hypervisors can aid in the process. Always ensure you have a reliable backup before initiating any migration.

7. Do All Hypervisors Support All Operating Systems?

While most hypervisors support a wide range of operating systems, not all operating systems are supported by every hypervisor. Always check the specific compatibility lists provided by the hypervisor’s manufacturer.

8. What’s the Best Way to Experiment with Different Hypervisors?

A beneficial approach is to set up a hypervisor that supports nested virtualization, like VMware Workstation or Proxmox VE. This way, you can run other hypervisors within your main one, allowing you to experiment without additional hardware.

Wrapping up

Choosing the best hypervisor for a home lab setup may seem daunting, but understanding your needs and budget can help you make the right decision. Open-source hypervisors like Xen, Proxmox VE, XCP-ng, and KVM provide freedom, cost-effectiveness, and a large user community. Paid hypervisors like VMware’s ESXi and Microsoft Hyper-V offer advanced features and support, beneficial for complex home lab setups.

However, while using something like VMware vSphere in a home lab may seem cost-prohibitive, the VMUG Advantage subscription is one of the best values you will find for what you get.

On the other hand, desktop hypervisors such as VirtualBox, VMware Workstation, Client Hyper-V, and Parallels offer ease of use and the convenience of running VMs on your existing hardware. Each hypervisor has its own set of strengths, and the best one for your home lab will depend on your specific needs.

Remember, building a home lab is about learning and experimenting. So, don’t hesitate to try out new software and different hypervisors, even using nested virtualization to try them all out at once!

13 Comments

  1. You can also add the Nutanix Community Edition as a (free) type 1 hypervisor, actually it is a HCI platform with their own AHV hypervisor.

  2. I just gonna add that VMWare hypervisor is free if You don’t need the vcenter functionality (and there are some HW limitations aswell).

  3. Any information about USB-passthrough for the different alternatives?

    I had access to VMWare Workstation previously, and it was fantastic for handling a couple of high-end scanners that cannot be used on Windows 7 or later.

    Using Hyper-V now, but it only supports USB storage devices. I also would like to use a Google Coral stick from within a Linux VM.

  4. For Linux I think VMware requires custom (out of tree) kernel drivers, and hence it’s not a good choice. Both virt-manager (looks similar to your “Ubuntu” screenshot) and Gnome Boxes run on the desktop _over KVM_: well it part of the Linux kernel anyway and then userspace tools like libvirt and Qemu work on top of it.

      1. Sorry about that. You are absolutely correct. I don’t know why I was under the impression that Docker required virtualization. Too many colleagues running Windows maybe πŸ˜‰

      1. unRAID uses KVM type-1 vm management and docker for container management.

        The area where it falls down is there is no native HA.

        I host a few vm but I am looking heavily toward harvester to host both vm and containers in a cluster. Will see.

  5. A couple of weeks ago I was having a look around the various open source virtualization offerings.
    SmartOS was a bit unusual – based on OpenSolaris (IllumOS) and oddly both KVM and Bhyve.
    If you are kicking tyres one worth adding to the list.

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