Virtualisation offerings coupled with powerful laptops and tablets configurations nowadays provide a comfortable playground to move and test different scenarios with confidence. But as expected the best performances come with a price and this not always meets with the available budgets. The alternative is to create your personal “home lab”.
Building a home lab either for testing or learning about new solutions is quite a common practice. The good news though, there are plenty of providers in the market with several solutions making the idea of building your personal home lab more affordable. To name a few I can definitely mention Intel NUC, Mac Mini, Gigabyte BRIX and HP MicroServer. A quick Google search will also show the specs of these systems where another critical parameter to take in consideration is the power consumption assuming the home lab will be running on a 24/7 basis.
In my experience I would suggest the Intel NUC (Next Unit of Computing) for the simple reason they provide enough resources even for demanding home lab scenarios with a competitive pricing. Also in terms of power consumption they should not exceed the 65W for an Intel Quad-Core configuration packing up to 32GB or RAM Memory. Not too bad for home lab or personal mini Data Center! To be honest this is my second unit I have purchased. I did buy the first unit last year in 2016 and satisfied by the performances and costs I have decided to invest in a second unit mimicking the former one adding consistency and to leverage cluster scenarios in the future. The configuration I will be using for this article is comprised of the following:
- 1x Intel NUC6i5SYH
- 2x Kingston 16GB RAM Memory
- 1x M.2 Solid State Drive SATA 120GB
- 3x USB 3.0 to Gigabit Network Adapters
In my case the total bill for this configuration is around £650. Of course the 16GB RAM modules are still expensive but totally worth it. The alternative would be to aim at the NUC6i5SYK model which packs the very same features of the bigger brother minus the extra slot for an additional SATA Disk as shown later on in this article. So let’s take a look at the main features at a glance:
- 6th Generation Intel Core with i5-6260U (Dual Core, up to 4 CPUs)
- 32GB RAM Dual-Channel on DD4 SODIMM
- 4x 3.0 USB ports (3 of them will be used for adding extra vNICs)
- Internal support for M.2 SSD card
- Internal support for 2.5 HDD/SSD
- Intel 10/100/1000 Network connection
- Intel wireless Antenna soldered into motherboard
- a lot more..
At the time of writing there are also new Intel NUC based on the 7th generation of Intel Processors. The rest of the features is very close to the previous generation. Also considering I will be using shared storage there is not really the need to push for the latest model available thus saving and investing in extra components for our home lab. Of course requirements can be different and I would highly suggest to invest time scoping the chances for future expansions when required. So at this point let’s get our hands dirty and see the steps on how to build our home lab. I have organised the steps as follow:
- Build an Intel NUC
- Configure BIOS settings
- Prepare the ESXi installation media
- Install the ESXi Hypervisor
- Configure the ESXi first steps
Build an Intel NUC
Building and assembling our Intel NUC is a very easy and straightforward process. First thing would be to open the chassis from the bottom and locate where the M.2 SSD drive and RAM modules will be installed. As per screenshot below I’m going to install the M.2 Drive first by removing the screw on the left with a magnetic screwdriver. Take a look at the card-slot holder paying attention on which direction the SSD drive card will be mounted
After the M.2 card has been inserted let’s secure this one with the original screw
We now install the RAM Memory. Let’s start from the lower Bank. The same technique used for adding memory to laptops applies to this instance as well.
Let’s push the memory bank down until it is firmly clipping to the motherboard memory holders
Let’s repeat the same steps for the second Memory slot
Additionally we can also install a 2.5 HDD/SDD drive increasing the Intel NUC capacity. In my scenario I will be using a shared storage configuration therefore it’s not needed. But if a spare hard drive is available is a great way to configure this one as an additional VMware Datastore to keep local copies of ISOs, Apps, Drivers and other frequently used files
Now paying attention to the internal wire let’s close the back lid by securing the 4 screws at the bottom
We are now ready to proceed with the next steps. Let’s add a keyboard, mouse (USB/Bluetooth/WiFi) and a monitor to review the BIOS setting