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Behind the Curtain: My Out-of-Pocket Lab

An IT pro's lab is personal. No two are alike. I've seen labs ranging from handfuls of cast-off desktops to fully populated datacenter racks that dual-purpose as basement furnaces. Equipment costs vary, too, from nearly nothing to tens of thousands -- and sometimes more.

My company, Concentrated Technology, is no large enterprise. Short of a few cloud services, we don't have an "IT budget" per se. That means our personal training labs are probably like yours: out of pocket.

Bang for Buck
It took some careful engineering to settle on the two-machine lab that works for me. My two machines together deliver impressive horsepower at a reasonable cost, which translates to a surprising number of concurrently running VMs and enough resources to spare for Office, Outlook and Camtasia. Both are custom-built white boxes, thanks to the excellent configurator at CyberPowerPC.com (hat tip). Here are their specs.

My primary workstation is where e-mail is processed, articles written, webinars hosted and training videos recorded. Currently running Windows 7 (and awaiting the release of Windows 8.1), it's my first location for hosting VMs atop VMware Workstation.

Six fans cool a Gigabyte Z68A-D3-B3 motherboard and liquid-cooled Intel i7-2600K 3.4GHz processor with 32GB (8GBx4) of Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR3-1600 RAM. High-speed storage -- used only for VMs -- is provided by a pair of 512GB Crucial m4 6Gb/s solid-state drives (SSDs). Low-speed storage for documents, videos and other miscellanea is provided by 2x1TB SATA III drives in a hardware RAID-0. Purchased originally in 2011, the total cost for this machine was a bit north of $2,000.

My primary's raw horsepower continues to impress. While filming a recent training series, I ran nine simultaneous VMs (plus two more nested inside one of the first-level VMs) with acceptable performance and enough resources to run Office and my video software.

Even more impressive was the near-unnoticeable performance hit when at one point available memory ran out and the machine began swapping to SSD. I get the science; seeing it in action is downright exciting.

My second machine runs Windows Server 2012 as a domain controller that hosts Windows Deployment Services and a specially tuned instance of the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT). Its job is threefold: Hosting my Active Directory domain, driving additional VMs and automatically deploying Windows to newly created VMware Workstation VMs. That automation is facilitated by a PXE server, a bare-bones Windows image, a carefully constructed unatend.xml file, and some nifty hacks to the MDT Rules tab and bootstrap.ini. With it, I need only boot bare-metal VMs to spin up a new test environment in about six minutes flat.

Liquid cooling and a half-dozen case fans chill this Gigabyte GA-Z77-D3H motherboard and Intel i5-3450 3.2 GHx processor machine with 32GB (8GBx4) of Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR3-1600 RAM. VMs are housed on a single 512GB SSD, with everything else on a 1TB SATA III drive. Purchased in 2012, the total cost for this machine was around $1,500.

Office Network
My office network is shared with a handful of other companies on the floor of my building. Keeping my business secure from theirs mandates a double-Network Address Translation (NAT) configuration, with a first hop through a Comcast router/firewall I can't touch, and a second hop through one of my own. Double-NAT inhibits outside connections from reaching the inside, but my training classes on the road regularly need me to access VMs on my primary workstation.

I get around the hurdle with the aid of a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) connection that's tunneled through LogMeIn Hamachi. With it I get acceptable remote control for all my VMs without having to lug multiple laptops through airport terminals. It ain't the fastest solution, but it's met my needs in training centers and hotel ballrooms worldwide.

Got a lab of your own worth sharing, or suggestions on improving mine? Share your thoughts, because while no two labs are alike, there's always room for improvement.

About the Author

Greg Shields is a senior partner and principal technologist with Concentrated Technology. He also serves as a contributing editor and columnist for TechNet Magazine and Redmond magazine, and is a highly sought-after and top-ranked speaker for live and recorded events. Greg can be found at numerous IT conferences such as TechEd, MMS and VMworld, among others, and has served as conference chair for 1105 Media’s TechMentor Conference since 2005. Greg has been a multiple recipient of both the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and VMware vExpert award.

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