vSphere Lab-in-a-Box 01: Introduction, Hardware and Software

This weekend I rebuilt my home vSphere lab with vSphere version 5.1, so took the time to document the procedure, both as a record for myself and a set of instructions that others might follow to set up their own “Lab-in-a-Box”.

The posts below will guide you through setting up ESXi 5.1 on a physical host, and then creating a full virtualised lab on that host, including virtual ESXi servers, for testing and research.


Before starting, you need the appropriate hardware to run the Lab-in-a-Box, and I focus on the following areas:


Most important is a 64-bit CPU with either AMD-V or VT-x processor extensions.  Pretty much any modern desktop processor manufactured in the last few years will be suitable.

If you already have an appropriate PC but are unsure whether your CPU supports these extensions, download CPU-Z and look for VT-x or AMD-V under Instructions.

If you want to check out compatibility before purchasing, Wikipedia has some nice lists of processors and which extensions they support.  For AMD there is just a single list.  For Intel, you will need to look at a list for your specific processor family – Core 2, i3, i5 or i7.


Since you will be running multiple virtual machines on a single physical PC, the speed of your disk subsystem (which is often the slowest part of a desktop system anyway) will be felt most strongly.  For a more responsive experience I definitely recommend using an SSD to run the majority of the lab from.

For my Lab-in-a-Box, I have a 1TB 7200 RPM HDD which I use for storing downloaded ISOs and other apps, and for any of the VMs that run mostly from RAM, such as ESXi.  I have an old 120GB and a newer 256GB SSD for running the rest of the servers.


RAM is the last important bit of hardware you should look at.  I recommend as much RAM as possible, but I don’t place much importance on the speed.  I’d rather have 12GB of slightly slower memory than 8GB of high performance memory.

I have 32GB in my Lab and would recommend at least 16GB if you want to run a couple of virtual servers and workstations without needing to constantly stop and start servers to make room.  The absolute minimum for the Lab-in-a-Box setup would be 8GB.

Network Card

You will need a network card on the VMware Hardware Compatibility List in order to access your Lab-in-a-Box.  I have found that most embedded network cards on workstation motherboards are incompatible with VMware ESX, so I suggest purchasing an old Intel network card on ebay.

Here is a list of compatible consumer network cards, or you can look through the official VMware HCL.



The following software can all be downloaded and tried for free, albeit for a limited time (60 days or longer).  If you have no access to a VMware NFR license or similar, then you will need to reinstall your environment every 60 days.

Windows Server 2008 R2

The 180-day evaluation ISO can be downloaded from here.

VMware vSphere Hypervisor (ESXi)

This is free forever and can be downloaded from here.

VMware vSphere

You can download an evaluation version from here, valid for 60 days.  This download includes vCenter Server and the vSphere Client.

Storage Server

OpenFiler, who provide a virtual appliance for VMware, making it quick and easy to set up.


The next post will detail installation of ESXi on your physical hardware.  It would be a good idea to start the download of the above software while you read through the rest of the posts in this series.


Lab-in-a-Box Series:
01 Introduction
02 ESXi Installation on Physical Hardware
03 Installation of vSphere Client
04 Lab Host Configuration
05 Domain Controller Setup
06 Domain and Related Services
07 Configuration of Virtual ESXi Servers
08 vCenter Server Setup
09 vCenter Server Configuration
10 Set up OpenFiler NAS
11 Set up iSCSI
12 Set up NFS
13 Set up Secondary Domain Controller
14 vMotion Tests