home lab

Top VMware Home Lab Configurations in 2023

In 2023, many great options exist for delving into a home lab. Many get into running a home server to learn more skills for their day job, or they like to tinker and play around with technology as a hobby. For many, it is a mix of both. VMware vSphere is the market leader hypervisor in the enterprise. It arguably provides the most features and capabilities of any hypervisor on the market. This post will look at the top VMware home lab configurations in 2023 and see which options may be a good fit for starting a home lab using VMware technologies.

VMware vs. Open Source for Home Lab Hypervisor

When setting up your home lab, one critical decision is which hypervisor to use. VMware, one of the leaders in the industry, offers robust and feature-rich solutions. On the other hand, several open-source alternatives, such as KVM and Proxmox, provide flexibility and cost benefits. Let’s take a closer look at each:

VMware

VMware is a proprietary virtualization platform known for its enterprise-grade features, robustness, and reliability. The main advantages of using VMware for your home lab include:

1. Industry Standard: VMware is widely used in enterprise environments, making it an excellent choice for learning skills directly transferable to the workplace.

2. Feature-Rich: VMware offers a comprehensive suite of advanced features, such as vMotion, High Availability, and DRS, especially when coupled with vCenter Server.

3. VMUG Advantage: This program provides affordable licensing for VMware products, making it more accessible for home lab use.

However, VMware has a couple of drawbacks:

1. Cost: Even with VMUG Advantage, VMware is more expensive than open-source alternatives. Without VMUG, the cost can be prohibitive for some home users.

2. Complexity: VMware products can have a steep learning curve, especially for beginners.

Open Source (KVM, Proxmox)

Open-source hypervisors, such as KVM and Proxmox, offer an affordable and flexible alternative to VMware. Their main benefits include:

Proxmox is an excellent open source hypervisor for home lab
Proxmox is an excellent open source hypervisor for home lab

1. Cost: Being open source, these platforms are free to use, which is a significant advantage for home labs on a budget.

2. Flexibility: Open-source platforms are highly customizable, allowing you to tweak your setup according to your specific needs.

3. Community Support: These platforms have active communities that offer excellent support and continuously develop new features and improvements.

However, open-source hypervisors have their own set of drawbacks:

1. Support: While the community support can be excellent, it doesn’t compare to the professional support offered by VMware. This might be a critical consideration if you run into complex issues.

2. Enterprise Features: While they have been catching up, open-source hypervisors might lack some advanced features provided by VMware.

Why VMware for a Home Lab in 2023?

VMware, a pioneer and leading innovator in virtualization, offers an array of products and solutions that have become the industry standard in virtual machine settings. Designing a VMware home lab environment provides the flexibility, scalability, and robustness necessary for creating a real-world, production-like lab environment.

VMware products like VMware Workstation, VMware ESXi, and VMware vSphere, among others, provide a comprehensive platform to build a robust home lab environment, whether it’s for learning, testing, or development, running Windows Server, Linux, containers, Kubernetes, etc.

VMware is widely used in the industry, which makes the skills gained from a VMware home lab highly valuable.

Top 5 VMware Home Lab Configurations

Let’s explore the top five VMware home lab configurations you can build in 2023, focusing on their setup, uses, and benefits.

1. VMware Workstation

VMware Workstation is an excellent choice for your first experience with a home lab and running virtual machines. It is an ideal starting point for those who want to learn the ropes without investing heavily in hardware or for those who want to run a small number of VMs. You can even dual-purpose a workstation for a home lab and your productivity machine. This is the solution I started with.

You’ll need a physical machine with a compatible OS and enough resources to install VMware Workstation and run a few VMs. The process is straightforward; once you have installed it, you can create your first VM using the new virtual machine wizard.

You can customize the virtual machine hardware compatibility, select store virtual disk as a single file or multiple files, and much more.

VMware Workstation is a great first step into home lab environments
VMware Workstation is a great first step into home lab environments

Pros:

  • Easy to set up and use, ideal for beginners

  • No significant hardware investment required

  • Ability to run multiple different operating systems simultaneously

  • Can also run nested virtualization

Cons:

  • Limited scale, not suitable for simulating large environments.

  • Performance depends on the host system’s resources.

2. Single ESXi Host with Local Storage

To mimic a production environment more closely, consider setting up a single ESXi host with local storage. This configuration requires a physical server (or a high-end workstation), compatible with the VMware HCL. An SSD for ESXi installation and additional storage devices for VM files are recommended for local storage.

You can install ESXi directly on your server hardware and manage it using the VMware vSphere client. You can then create virtual machines on the ESXi host, leveraging its compute and storage resources.

Although this configuration doesn’t provide shared storage or high availability, it’s an excellent way to learn about VMware ESXi, vSphere, and basic VM operations.

Below is a look at one of my vSphere environments where several standalone hosts are running connected to a vCenter Server.

Standalone ESXi hosts added to vCenter Server
Standalone ESXi hosts added to vCenter Server

Pros:

  • Provides a closer experience to a production environment compared to VMware Workstation

  • Greater capacity for running VMs compared to VMware Workstation

  • Offers exposure to ESXi and vSphere

Cons:

  • Requires more significant hardware investment

  • No high availability or shared storage

3. Nested Virtualization

Nested virtualization is running a virtual machine inside another virtual machine. This can be accomplished in a VMware home lab by running ESXi VMs (nested ESXi) on a physical ESXi host or within a VMware Workstation. However, you can also run Proxmox servers, KVM, Hyper-V, and other hypervisors as nested virtual machines with VMware. I leverage this for much of my testing.

This configuration is a powerful tool for testing advanced VMware features, such as vCenter Server, vSAN, or High Availability, without needing a lot of physical hardware.

It also allows you to experiment with different virtual networks, testing how they interact with each other within a contained, controlled environment.

Enabling nested virtualization in VMware ESXi for a virtual machine is a simple checkbox.

Configuring a vSphere virtual machine for nested virtualization
Configuring a vSphere virtual machine for nested virtualization

Pros:

  • Allows testing of advanced VMware features without significant physical hardware

  • Excellent for experimenting with complex virtual network setups

  • Allows using snapshots on nested VMs running hypervisor hosts, allowing you to easily roll back entire labs and configurations

Cons:

  • Networking configuration and concepts can be more difficult in nested configurations

  • Performance may not be as high as with physical hardware

4. Two-node vSAN Cluster

Before we delve into the two-node vSAN cluster in this section and the 3-node configuration in the following section, what is VMware vSAN? VMware vSAN creates a logical shared datastore between multiple hosts using locally attached disks. VMware vSAN is object storage and provides many features for protecting your data and achieving great performance out of your locally attached storage.

Two-node vSAN

If you have two physical servers or high-end workstations, you can set up a two-node vSAN cluster. Each server runs ESXi in this setup and contributes local storage to a shared vSAN datastore. VMware vSAN eliminates the need for external storage, as it creates a shared datastore from the local disks of the ESXi hosts.

This setup allows you to experience the advantages of shared storage, like VM migration, without needing an expensive SAN or NAS. The two-node vSAN cluster configuration also introduces you to advanced vSphere features, such as High Availability and vMotion.

Two-node vSAN also requires using a “witness node,” a nested virtual machine (running ESXi), deployed in your vSphere environment. You can run this appliance on your two-node cluster for home labs, although you would never want to do this for production environments.

Below you can see a two-node vSAN environment and configuring the preferred and secondary fault domains.

Vmware vsan two node fault domains configured by default
Vmware vsan two node fault domains configured by default

Pros:

  • Offers shared storage benefits without external SAN or NAS

  • Introduces you to vSAN, High Availability, and vMotion

Cons:

  • Requires two servers or high-end workstations

  • It also requires a witness node that can be run as a virtual machine

  • Limited redundancy compared to a three-node cluster

5. Three-node vSAN or Traditional Shared Storage Cluster

A three-node vSAN or traditional shared storage cluster is the way to go for a more advanced VMware home lab configuration. This configuration requires three physical servers, each running ESXi. For a vSAN setup, each server will contribute local storage to the shared vSAN datastore.

In a traditional shared storage setup, you will need an additional device for shared storage, like a NAS or an iSCSI server. The ESXi servers will access the shared storage through the iSCSI software adapter or other storage protocols like NFS.

You can then deploy vCenter Server and build a high-availability cluster, leveraging vSphere features like vMotion, Storage vMotion, and Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS).

The three-node configuration provides a robust, resilient virtual environment mimicking a production environment. It offers extensive hands-on experience with almost all VMware vSphere features, preparing you for managing enterprise-grade virtual infrastructure.

Below is an example of a three-node VMware vSphere cluster.

A three node vmware vsan cluster
A three node vmware vsan cluster

Pros:

  • Mimics a production environment closely

  • It provides a robust, resilient virtual environment

  • Allows extensive hands-on experience with almost all VMware vSphere features

  • Allow learning about networking concepts and configuration of both virtual and physical network gear

Cons:

  • Requires substantial investment in hardware

  • Complexity can be daunting for beginners

  • Requires external device for shared storage in a traditional shared storage setup

  • Requires a network switch for storage traffic which is an additional investment

  • More power consumption

  • More heat

Run VMware vCenter Server or Not?

Deploying vCenter Server in your VMware home lab is not a strict necessity, but it opens up many advanced features and streamlined management that most find useful

Benefits of Running vCenter Server

vCenter Server allows centralized management of your ESXi hosts and virtual machines. Here are some reasons why you might want to include vCenter Server in your VMware home lab:

VMware vCenter Server provides many additional enterprise features for home lab users
VMware vCenter Server provides many additional enterprise features for home lab users
  1. Cluster Management: With vCenter Server, you can create and manage clusters of ESXi hosts. This is crucial if you’re planning to experiment with clusters in your lab, whether it’s a two-node vSAN cluster or a three-node shared storage cluster.

  2. High Availability and Fault Tolerance: vCenter Server unlocks these vSphere features, which provide automatic failover and continuous availability for your VMs, mimicking a production environment.

  3. vMotion and Storage vMotion: These features allow you to migrate running VMs from one host to another (vMotion) or move a VM’s disk files while it’s running (Storage vMotion).

  4. Resource Management: vCenter Server offers advanced features like Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) and Storage DRS, which automatically balance resources across your environment.

Considerations for Not Running vCenter Server

If you’re starting out with your VMware home lab, running a vCenter Server might not be necessary. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Simplicity: ESXi hosts can be managed individually using the vSphere Client. This is more than adequate for basic setups like single host configurations or when you’re just beginning your virtualization journey.

  2. Resource Consumption: vCenter Server requires significant resources to run effectively. This might not be ideal if you’re trying to conserve resources in your home lab.

  3. Cost: Although you can obtain licenses through VMUG Advantage, running vCenter Server outside of this context can be expensive.

VMware Host Client in ESXi is an excellent interface to manage a standalone host
VMware Host Client in ESXi is an excellent interface to manage a standalone host

Deciding whether to run vCenter Server in your home lab will depend on your individual learning goals, resources, and the scale of your lab. While vCenter Server provides many advanced features, it’s not required to start learning and experimenting with VMware.

Use VMUG Advantage Licensing

The VMware User Group (VMUG) Advantage membership is an excellent resource for those embarking on their VMware home lab journey. VMUG Advantage provides members with a range of benefits for an annual subscription fee, including the EVALExperience license.

EVALExperience provides members with a 365-day license to most VMware products, which is invaluable when building a VMware home lab. I have often said this is one of the best values in the entire home lab ecosystem. Having access to licensed VMware products allows you to explore advanced features, which are often not available in the free versions.

VMUG Advantage EvalExperience provides enterprise licensing for home lab use
VMUG Advantage EvalExperience provides enterprise licensing for home lab use

Some of the included products are VMware vSphere, vSAN, and vCenter Server, which can power advanced lab configurations.

To make use of the VMUG Advantage licensing, follow these steps:

  1. Join VMUG and subscribe to the Advantage membership.

  2. Once subscribed, log into your VMUG account.

  3. Navigate to the EVALExperience page and click on the license keys you wish to use.

  4. These keys can be entered into the respective VMware products during installation or through the VMware vSphere Client.

It’s important to remember that VMUG Advantage licensing is intended for individual use, such as home labs or personal study. It should not be used in a production environment.

To stay updated with VMware news, best practices, and connect with other VMware enthusiasts, participating in the VMUG community can be an enriching experience.

This membership also grants you discounts on training, exam vouchers, and VMware events, which can benefit your continuous learning journey.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: How can I enable the ESXi shell for troubleshooting?

The ESXi shell can be enabled through the Direct Console User Interface (DCUI) or the vSphere Client. Remember to disable the shell when you are done troubleshooting, as it can pose a security risk.

Q2: I have an Intel NUC. Can I use it for my ESXi host?

Absolutely! Intel NUCs are popular choices for ESXi hosts in VMware home labs due to their small size, low power consumption, and robust performance. Just ensure your NUC model is compatible with the version of ESXi you want to install.

Intel NUCs are great hardware for your home lab
Intel NUCs are great hardware for your home lab

Q3: How can I add storage to my ESXi VM?

Adding storage to an ESXi VM involves creating a new virtual disk using the vSphere Client. You’ll have the option to choose the disk capacity, select the maximum disk size, and the location to store the virtual disk file.

Q4: What is a VMFS datastore?

A VMFS (Virtual Machine File System) datastore is a storage location that stores VM files like the .vmdk (virtual disk) file and the .vmx (configuration) file. When you set up your ESXi host, you create a VMFS datastore on your storage devices.

Q5: How does a VMware home lab environment compare to a production environment?

While a VMware home lab environment doesn’t typically have the same scale or high-availability features of a production environment, it is designed to mimic the latter as closely as possible. This allows for meaningful, practical learning and experimentation.

Q6: Can I use nested virtualization to run a nested VM in my home lab?

Yes, nested virtualization allows you to run a VM inside another VM. It’s a great way to experiment with advanced VMware features without needing a lot of physical hardware.

Q7: Can I migrate my VMs in a two-node vSAN cluster?

Yes, one of the advantages of having a shared storage setup, like a two-node vSAN cluster, is that you can use vSphere features like vMotion to migrate your VMs from one host to another.

Q8: How can I join my VMware home lab environment to an Active Directory domain?

Joining your VMware home lab environment to an Active Directory domain involves configuring your vCenter Server and ESXi hosts to connect to the domain. This provides centralized user and permission management.

Q9: What is an iSCSI software adapter, and when would I use it?

An iSCSI software adapter is a VMware virtual network adapter that enables the ESXi host to connect to the iSCSI storage device. This is particularly used in home labs where shared storage is handled by an iSCSI server or a NAS device supporting iSCSI.

Wrapping up

We have considered what I feel are the top options for building a VMware home lab in 2023. These lab configurations provide flexibility and potential growth from personal development, hands-on learning, experimentation, and testing.

You can start your journey in the virtual world with VMware Workstation and gradually progress through more advanced setups like a two-node vSAN cluster or even a three-node vSAN or traditional shared storage cluster.

Ultimately, your configuration will depend on your objectives, resources, and the extent of your current VMware home lab. Whichever path you take, each lab will likely be a snowflake for each individual, which is great as it allows customizing the configuration to suit your needs and learning goals.

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Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee is the Senior Writer, Engineer and owner at Virtualizationhowto.com and has over two decades of experience in Information Technology. Having worked for numerous Fortune 500 companies as well as in various industries, Brandon has extensive experience in various IT segments and is a strong advocate for open source technologies. Brandon holds many industry certifications, loves the outdoors and spending time with family.

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