Homelab Journey – Part 1: The First Lab

So, as promised, here is part one of my homelab journey! In this series of posts I don’t expect to be detailing technical configs and step by step guides on how my homelab got to where it is today, but rather I plan to just share my journey in the hope that it’s vaguely interesting and/or useful!

My very first homelab was, like many others, a simple VMware Fusion setup on my laptop. This started way back over 10 years ago, and was more just me taking my first tentative steps in to virtualisation. Primarily as a Mac user I wanted a way to use one or two Windows apps, so I experimented with VMware Fusion and Parallels. I had no idea what a Hypervisor was or really what I was doing!

Jump forward a few years and I was involved in a small project at work to deploy a couple of VMware ESXi 6.0 hosts with a single vCenter VM to provide increased uptime for two or three VMs. I remember being amazed at both vMotion and the fact that if we pulled the power on the host running the vCenter VM, somehow it got restarted on the other host! Magicians were clearly involved!

And hence my curiosity was sparked. I started to wonder why on earth we were running so many applications at work on bare metal. We literally had hundreds of servers (thousands probably) running a mix of Windows and Linux server OSes, all hosting single applications (and scarily still do to an extent!)

After a bit of persuasion I managed to convince my manager that I needed to go on the VMware Datacenter Virtualisation: Install, Configure, Manage (v6) course. And this really opened my eyes to the possibilities we were missing! On this course I also learned about the the VMware User Group (VMUG) and their “Advantage” programme which includes 12 month licenses for most of the VMware product lineup and is perfect for running your homelab

So, in 2017 I finally bought my first homelab server. I managed to pick up a Dell C6100 off eBay for £300. This is a 2U server platform that contains 4 discreet dual CPU server modules, with dual 1GbE NICs, IPMI management and a PCI slot on each. Ideal for running three ESXi hosts and a small amount of shared storage. You can still get hold of this platform on eBay pretty cheaply and it makes a good low cost introduction to server hardware I think, although be warned that it was dropped from the VMware HCL at vSphere v6.

With a 24 port fully managed Netgear Switch (GS724T also off eBay for ¬£160 in 2010) and a few patch cords I had my first homelab ready to go. The first thing I found was just how loud the C6100 is (and I mean, seriously loud!). After it’s booted and calmed down a little it wasn’t too bad up in the loft, but the problem with a loft is it does tend to get a bit warm up there, especially in summer. Let’s just say that the other members of my household weren’t overly keen on my new-found hobby!

There are stacks of forum posts about taming the fan noise on the C6100 – in the end I replaced all the fans with some SanAce fans which were quite a bit quieter and less annoyingly whiney which made it tolerable… but it wasn’t very long before my homelab “needed” to grow and with that came the inevitable move out of the loft and in to the garage (but that’s for a different post!)

I ran my C6100 all the way up to ESXi v6.7 but had to swap the CPUs it came with (L5520s) for 56xx Xeon units (I chose the L5630s for reduced power consumption) to get it to run. With some fairly dubious hackery (see William Lam’s blog post here for a starting point) I even got ESXi 7 to boot and run VMs reasonably easily, however this really is pulling at straws at this point! And before ESXi 7 was released I’d already taken the plunge in to an updated hardware platform I’ll talk about another time.

So I installed and ran ESXi on USB flash drives attached to three nodes, and FreeNAS on the 4th node. I found that with a bit of patience you can rewire the SAS cabling between the drive backplane in the C6100 and the server node interposer boards to allow up to 6 drives to be attached to a node. With some 1TB drives installed as a RAID Z1 in FreeNAS that gave me about 3TB of VM storage shared via iSCSI.

And that was my first “proper” homelab for a couple of years at least where I was able to learn vSphere, Active Directory and some network bits and pieces too. I made plenty of mistakes along the way and had to rebuild stuff over and over as part of my learning but that’s all part of the fun!

Next time I’ll talk some more about the evolution of this humble beginning and particularly the storage aspect of my homelab.

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