Saving time with the AutoLab for vSphere

Earlier this year, I started building up a few labs for a little work, and a little learning.  (Three Labs for three reasons).  Not too long after that is when I started playing around with the AutoLab.  For those not familiar with what the AutoLab is, it is most easily described as a crafty collection of scripts, open source VMs, and shell VMs that allow one to build a nested vSphere Lab environment with minimal effort.  The nested arrangement can live inside of VMware Workstation, Fusion, or ESXi.  AutoLab comes to you from a gentleman by the name of Alastair Cooke, along with support from many over at the vBrownBag sessions.  What?  You haven’t heard of the vBrownBag sessions either?  Even if you are just a mild enthusiast of VMware and virtualization, check out this great resource.  Week after week, they put out somewhat informal, but highly informative webinars.  The AutoLab and vBrownBag sessions are both great examples of paying it forward to an already strong virtualization community.

The Value of AutoLab
Why use it?  Simple.  It saves time.  Who doesn’t like that?  To be fair, it doesn’t really do anything that you couldn’t do on your own.  But here’s the key.  Scripts don’t forget to do stuff.  People do (me included).  Thus, the true appreciation of it really only comes after you have manually built up your own nested lab a few different times.  With the AutoLab, set up the requirements (well documented in the deployment guide), kick it off, and a few hours later your lab is complete.  There are tradeoffs of course with a fully nested environment, but it is an incredibly powerful arrangement, and thanks to the automation of it all, will allow you to standardize your deployment of a lab.  The AutoLab has made big improvements with each version, and now assists in incorporating vCloud Director, vShield, View, Veeam One, and Veeam Backup & Replication.

Letting the AutoLab take care of some of the menial things through automation is a nice reminder of the power of automation in general.  Development teams are quite familiar with this concept, where automation and unit testing allow them to be more aggressive in their coding to produce better results faster.  Fortunately, momentum seems to be gaining in IT around this, and VMware is doing its part as well with things like vCenter Orchestrator, PowerCLI, and stateless host configurations with AutoDeploy.

In my other post, I touch a bit on what I use my labs for.  Those who know me also know I’m a stickler for documentation.  I have high standards for documentation from software manufacturers, and from myself when providing it for others.  The lab really helps me provide detailed steps and accurate screen shots along the way.

The AutoLab nested arrangement I touch most is on my laptop.  Since my original post, I did bump up my laptop to 32GB of RAM.  Some might think this would be an outrageously expensive luxury, but a 16GB Kit for a Dell Precision M6600 laptop costs only $80 on NewEgg at the time of purchase (Don’t ask me why this is so affordable.  I have no idea.).  Regardless, don’t let this number prevent you from using the AutoLab.  The documentation demonstrates how to make the core of the lab run with just 8GB of RAM.

A few tips
Here are a few tips that make my experience a bit better with the AutoLab nested vSphere environment.  Nothing groundbreaking, but just a few things to make life easier.

  • I have a Shortcut to a folder that houses all of my shortcuts needed for the lab.  Items like the router Administration, the NAS appliance, and your local hosts file which you might need to edit on occasion.
  • I choose to create another VMnet network in VMware Workstation so that I could add a few more vNICs to my nested ESXi hosts. That allows me to create a vSwitch to be used to play with additional storage options (VSAs, etc.) while preserving what was already set up.
  • The FREESCO router VM is quite a gem.  It provides quite a bit of flexibility in a lab environment (a few adjustments and you can connect to another lab living elsewhere), and you might even find other uses for it outside of a lab.
  • To allow direct access to the FreeNAS storage share from your workstation, you will need to click on the “Connect a host virtual adapter to this network” option on the VMnet3 network in the Network Editor of VMware Workstation.
  • You might be tempted to trim up the RAM on various VMs to make everything fit.  Trim up the RAM too much on say, the vMA, and SSH won’t work.  Just something to be mindful of.
  • On my laptop, I have a 256GB Crucial M4 SSD drive for the OS, and a 750GB SATA disk for everything else.  I have a few of the VM’s (the virtualized ESXi hosts, vCenter server and a DC over on the SSD, and most everything else on the SATA drive.  This makes everything pretty fast while using my SSD space wisely.
  • You’ll be downloading a number of ISOs and packages.  Start out with a plan for organization so that you know where things are when/if you have to rebuild.
  • The ReadMe file inside of the packaged FreeNAS VM is key to understanding where and how to place the installation bits.  Read carefully.
  • The automated build of the DC and vCenter VMs can be pretty finicky on which Windows Server ISO it will work with.  If you are running into problems, you may not be using the correct ISO.
  • If you build up your lab on a laptop, and suddenly you can’t get anything to talk to say, the storage network, it may be the wireless (or wired) network you connected to.  I had this happen to me one where the wireless address range happened to be the same as part of my lab. 
  • As with any VMs you’ll be running on a Desktop/Laptop with VMware Workstation, make sure you create Antivirus real-time scanning exceptions for all locations that will be housing VMs.  The last thing you need is your Antivirus thinking its doing you a favor.
  • The laptop I use for my lab is also my primary system.  It’s worth a few bucks to protect it with a disk imaging solution.  I choose to dump the entire system out to an external drive using Acronis TrueImage.  I typically run this when all of the VMs are shut off.

So there you have it.  Get your lab set up, and hunker down with your favorite book, blog, links from twitter, or vBrownBag session, and see what you can learn.  Use it and abuse it.  It’s not a production environment, and is a great opportunity to improve your skills, and polish up your documentation.

– Pete

Helpful Links
Twitter: @DemitasseNZ #AutoLab

vBrownBag sessions.  A great resource, and an easy way to surround yourself (virtually) with smart people.
Twitter:  @cody_bunch @vBrownBag

FREESCO virtual router.  Included and preconfigured with the AutoLab, but worth looking at their site too.

FreeNAS virtual storage.  Also included and preconfigured with the AutoLab.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: