My home lab and virtualization challenges

This time I’m going to write about something less SQL Server related. It’s about my home lab and I’m planning to do with it in the next couple of weeks.
First few words about the hardware. Since I’m always tight on budget, I’m on AMD team since 10 years and as they have been doing some marvellous job in Athlon XP and Athlon 64 era, last five years are completely dominated by Intel. The only field where AMD remained competitive is price – past tense is not by accident, because I consider last year’s release of AMD FX CPUs (also known as Bulldozer) as marketing move without necessary (or promised) technical advantage. I use 3-year-old Phenom II X2 550 with 4 cores unlocked and I’m extremely satisfied with performance of this little 100$ worth CPU. However, if I were to buy a new computer at the moment, I would definitely go for Intel’s i5-2500 or i7-3770 – their performance is simply mind-blowing, not to mention their overclockability (they easily reach 4,5 GHz). Looking at the performance charts (for example at hwbot.org) you will see that today’s desktops have higher performance ratings than three year old dual socket servers.
The Phenom II uses AMD AM3 socket which backwards compatible with AM2+ motherboards, therefore the CPU has two integrated memory controllers – one for DDR2, second for DDR3. I tested both and found that two sticks of DDR2 and DDR3 are no problem for it, however it has some issues with 4 DDR3 sticks – requires dropping down memory frequency and loosening tmimings to work correctly. I use 16 GB (4×4) of DDR3 RAM and I’m quite happy about it – it really allows to have fun with virtualization.
Speaking of virtualization, I use virtual machines a lot thanks to wonderful guide by Jose Barreto – before reading it I had three separate machines creeping in size and hardly manageable. After reading and utilizing techniques inside I became resource-hungry since my VMs started to consume all RAM I had, so I expanded in one year from 4 to 16 GB. It also helped me get some basic acquaintance with Active Directory, clustering, DFS and System Center. I recommend setting your own environment like this one to every Windows administrator – fantastic educational purposes. It really does not cost you a lot – you might consider using your laptop for it and if you don’t like to mess with another OS on it – install Windows Server 2008 R2 on USB drive or even flash stick (I used PWBoot together with Windows image – confirmed to work with Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V Server 8 Beta).
In short how this environment looks like – you need Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 Enterprise or Datacenter Edition – you may even use Evaluation which is available for free from Microsoft. SP1 is highly recommended – it extends significantly Hyper-V role features giving it for example Dynamic Memory option. You install in on a physical machine, configure to get it working, apply necessary patches and enable Hyper-V role. Inside Hyper-V, you require one base virtual disk for each operating system you are going to use and a number of differencing disks relating to base drives. Base virtual is obtained by using following procedure:

  1. Create a new machine with an empty dynamically expanding VHD
  2. Adjust VM parameters as needed (CPU, RAM), mount OS image and install it
  3. Apply latest Service Pack and security updates
  4. Perform sysprep with generalize option and shutdown the machine

After those steps the base VHD is ready and you can start spawning VMs by creating differencing VHDs linking to this one. Then you create virtual machines, assign an empty differencing VHD to each VM, configure parameters (CPU, RAM, network) and start it. This way you can have 5 new VMs operable in about an hour – it saves a lot of time if you install the OS only once. By the way, sysprep is supported for each system since Windows NT 4.0, so if you want to do a lot of experiments you can build your base virtual disks library by expense of less than 100 GB and then just create ready-to-use VMs with a few mouse clicks.
My home lab contains following VMs at the moment:

  1. Domain controller
  2. Storage server – using iSCSI Target
  3. 2 clustered file servers
  4. 3 clustered SQL Servers (using 2008 R2 and 2012 RTM – it’s a multi-instance cluster)
  5. System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012 RC
  6. System Center Operations Manager 2012 RC

I rarely have all of them running – no need for that, but this setup fits just fine in 16 GB – if I wanted to add more VMs to this, I would definitely require more RAM or build another Hyper-V host and play with Quick/Live Migration.
Since there are two factors limiting me at the moment – RAM and disk space – I’m thinking of doing something spectacular with this but don’t have too many options. At first, I considered building a massive NT 4.0 environment, but since NT 4 allows only 2 servers to be grouped in a cluster, it’s not that interesting (on the other hand, spawning 50 NT 4s in an hour seems feasible with help from SCVMM, but it’s of little use, apart from pure fun). I might also consider using Windows 2000 but Advanced Server requires 128 MB RAM, the same as Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition. So it needs to be decided – maybe 8-node failover cluster of SQL Server 2005 on Windows Server 2003 is not that far away.
Definitely I need a facelift for this lab – upgrade from Windows Server 2008 R2 to 2012 once RC comes out end of June. This will also allow me to rebuild whole environment since it’s got a bit messy during last year. I might scrap SCOM in favor of Sharepoint 2010 and have some fun with new BI features of SQL Server 2012. I’m also considering playing with big data by distributing the load between a number a virtual computers.
Well, that’s it for now, so if you have some comments on a home lab design or want to ask something, please comment, I’m awaiting responses.

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One thought on “My home lab and virtualization challenges

  1. Pingback: Building a clustered test lab with Windows Server 2012 RC and SQL Server 2012 RTM Evaluation « Yet another SQL Server DBA…

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