My vSphere Home Lab. 2016 edition

Here we go again. I had no intention of writing a follow-up to my "Home Lab 2015 edition" post last year, as I didn’t foresee any changes to the lab in the coming year that would be interesting enough to write about. 

So much for predicting the future.

Sometimes Home Lab environments tend to border on vanity projects. I would like to think the recent changes in my lab were done out of need, but rationalizing wants into needs is common enough to be considered a national pastime. Nevertheless, my profession now has me testing workloads and new technologies on a daily basis, and this was a driving force behind these upgrades. Honest.

Demand often drives change. This is where the evolution of my Home Lab continues to mimic a production environment – just at a smaller scale. Budget, performance, capacity, space, and heat are all elements of a Home Lab design that are almost laughably similar to a production environment. Workloads evolve, and needs grow – quickly making previously used design inputs as inadequate. That is exactly what happened to me, and knew I had to invest in a few upgrades.

Compute – Performance/Testing Cluster
It was finally time to replace a few of the oldest components of the lab. My primary hosts that were built off of Intel Sandy Bridge processors used motherboards limited to just 32GB of RAM, and PCIe 2.0. I didn’t have any 10Gb connectivity without my old InfiniBand gear, and I was consistently pushing the CPUs to their limit.

I decided to go with a pair of SuperMIcro 5018D-FN4T rack mounted units. These are an incredibly small 1U form factor that feature built-in dual 10GbE and dual 1GbE interfaces, a dedicated IPMI port, a PCIe 3.0 slot, 4 drive bays, and can pack in up to 128GB of DDR4 memory. The motherboard uses the soldered on 8 core Xeon D-1540 chip and the power supply is built into the chassis. Both items reduce flexibility, but improve the no-brainer simplicity of the unit. What is most surprising when you get your hands on them is that they are incredibly small, yet still half empty when the case is cracked open. A third host will probably be in the works at some point, but it’s not necessary at this time.

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It probably will come as no surprise that multiple PernixData FVP based acceleration tiers are an integral component of my infrastructure, so a few changes occurred in that realm.

1. Adding NVMe cards to use as a Flash based acceleration tier for FVP. For this lab arrangement, I used the Intel 750 NVMe based PCIe 3.0 card. While they are not officially on the VMware HCL, they are fine for the Home Lab, as they borrow heavily from the Intel DC P3xxxx line of NVMe cards that are on the VMware HCL. Intel NVMe cards are outstanding performers. Enjoy the benefits of completely bypassing all of the legacy elements the traditional storage stack on a host such as storage controllers and SCSI commands. NVMe based Flash devices is still limited by the physics of NAND Flash, but it is an incredible performer that can make any SSD based Flash drive look quite feeble in comparison. Just make sure to use Intel’s driver for vSphere.

2. More RAM to use as a DFTM acceleration tier in FVP. I placed 64GB of Micron Memory which allows me to allocate a nice chunk of RAM for FVP acceleration. The beauty of using memory as an acceleration tier avoiding all characteristics of NAND Flash, and the ability for it to leverage compression techniques. This typically increases the effective tier size between 30% and 70% depending on workload. The larger the tier size, the more content that can live in the tier, and the less eviction that occurs against the working set of data.

Compute – Management Cluster
A management cluster in a Home Lab is great. It has allowed me to really experiment with testing workloads and new technologies without any impact to the components that run the infrastructure. My Management Cluster now comprises of three Intel NUCs. I would have been perfectly happy with just a couple of NUCs as a Management cluster, but unfortunately the 16GB RAM limitation makes that a bit tough. Eventually, the NUCs will outlive their usefulness in the lab, but the great part about them is that they can easily be used as a desktop workstation, or media server. For now, they will continue to serve their purpose as a Management Cluster.

Switching
Upgrading my network meant adding 10GbE connectivity. For this, I chose a Netgear XS708E, 8 port, 10GbE switch. This would serve as a fast interconnect for east-west traffic between hosts. My adventures with InfiniBand were always interesting and educational. It’s an amazing technology, but there was just too much administrative overhead to the gear I was using. Unfortunately, there are not too many small, affordable 10GbE switches out there. The Dell 12 port X4012 10GbE switch looked really appealing based on the specs, but the ports are SFP+, so that would have meant rethinking a number of things. As for the Netgear, what do I think of it?  After configuring the product, I’m convinced the folks at Netgear wanted to punish anyone who buys the unit. All of the configuration items that should be so basic in a CLI or web based UI are obfuscated in a proprietary interface that seems to be missing half of the options you’d expect. Dear Netgear, please let me configure LAGs, trunks, MTU size, and VLANs with something remotely resembling common sense. It does work, but if I could do it over, I’d choose something else.

My network core still consists of a Cisco SG300-20 Layer 3 switch. Moving away from hosts that had 6, 1GbE ports down to hosts that had just two 1GbE ports and two 10GbE ports meant that I was able to free up space on this switch. That switch still has a bit of a premium price for a 20 port L3 switch, but it has been a rock solid component of my lab for over 4 years now.

Ancillary Components
One thing I was tired of dealing with was my wireless gateway. I’ve grown sour on any consumer based WiFi/Router solutions available. Most aren’t stable, and lack features that require one to crack them with a DD-WRT build. Memory leaks and other reboot inducing behaviors are not what you want to deal with when attempting to access the lab remotely, so it was time to take a new approach. I went with the following for my gateway and wireless needs.

Motorola SB6121 DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem. This was purchased to replace the oversized cable modem provided by the service provider. It’s small, affordable, and prevents the cable company from changing settings on me, as they often would with their own unit.

Ubiquiti EdgeRouter PoE. This 5 port unit serves as my gateway, where one leg feeds downstream to my core switch, and another leg is used as a DMZ for my WiFi. This is a great switch that offers everything that I was looking for. Trunking, static routes, NAT and Firewalling. The multiple PoE ports makes it easy to add new wireless access points.

Ubiquiti UniFi AP Wireless Access Point. These access points pair nicely with the PoE based router above.

It’s been a rock solid, winning combination. Always on, with no random need to reboot. Total control over configuration, and no silliness from the cable provider. Mission accomplished.

Storage
This was one of the few components that didn’t change. Storage is served up by two, 5-bay Synology units with a mix of SSDs and spinning disk. I had plenty of capacity, with enough options to test various media if needed.

Mounting
Until this latest refresh, a $25 utility rack had housed the assortment of oddly shaped lab gear pretty well. With the changeover to small 1U rackmount servers and additional switchgear, it was time for an official enclosure. I went with a Tripp Lite 9U Wall Mount Cabinet. It will eventually be wall mounted, but for the time being, sits perfectly on a $12 moving dolly from Harbor Freight. The cabinet has some nice mounting ports for supplementary exhaust fans should the need arise.

Relocation
Within the first few minutes of powering up the new hosts, I realized the arrangement was going to need a new home. Server room loud?  No. But moving from 38dB to 50+dB is loud enough that you wouldn’t want to be working by it all day. There is no way 1U fans spinning at 8,000 RPM will ever be soothing. I had been quite proud of how quiet my lab gear had been up until this point. I stayed away from 1U anything, and when with quiet fans wherever I could. I tried desperately to suppress the noise, replacing all of the fans with ultra-quiet Noctua fans. Unfortunately, ultra-quiet can also mean they don’t move much air. It’s not good to disregard any delta in CFM between fans. The heat alarms made it very clear this wasn’t going to work, and I didn’t want to burn up perfectly good gear. I chose to place all of the factory fans back in the 1U servers, and the 10GbE switch, and used the Noctua fans as supplementary fans in each device. They do help the primary fans to spin at a lower rate, so the effort wasn’t a total waste. The 9U cabinet will be relocated to a more permanent location than it is now, but for the time being, its making a coat closet nice and warm.

What it looks like
The entire lab, including the UPS is now self-contained, which should make its final relocation straight forward. The entire arrangement (5 hosts, 2 switches, 2 Synology NAS units, etc.) draws between 250 – 300 watts depending upon the load. Considering the old, much less capable arrangement ran at about 200 watts, I was pretty happy with the result.

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In the spirit of full disclosure, the cabinet door does cover up some rather careless cable management practices. Regardless, I am thrilled with the end result and how it performs. A space efficient arrangement that is extremely powerful.

No matter how little, or how much you decide to invest in a Home Lab, I’ve learned that the satisfaction seems to be directly proportional to how much value it brings to you. Whether it be a hobby, used for professional growth, or a part of your day-to-day job duties, any sense of buyer’s remorse only seems to creep in when it’s not used. For my circumstances, that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

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