In order to get familiar with different operating systems and software, you will want to use some sort of virtualization.  Fortunately, building a VM lab at home is easy and surprisingly inexpensive.  Lets go over what you’ll need.

  • Computer to host the hypervisor (allows multiple VMs), also known as the “Host”
  • Hypervisor software (VMware is my preferred choice, I’ll go over why in a moment)
  • Some way to network the host machine to the machine you will manage the host from
  • Some time to put it together

Let’s go over what you should be looking at for a host machine.  You could build a custom machine to serve this purpose, but you will incur significant expense in doing so.  Search your local craigslist or other want ads for “PowerEdge”.  What you are looking for is a Dell PowerEdge 2950 or 1950 server.  These servers came with powerful Intel Xeon processors that even with being 5 years old now, still hold their own against modern CPU’s.  Aim for a server that has two physical processors and quad cores for 8 cores total with the highest clock speed you can get.  You can get by with 2 dual core processors but your performance will suffer some when running multiple VM’s.  It doesn’t matter if it has hard drives or not or how much RAM it has (but more RAM is better).  These servers can be had for $200 or even less.  The downside is they are big and loud, but we are saving money here right?  Avoid anything less than a 29xx or 19xx because they do not support SATA drives.  There are different models of 29xx and 19xx (Model II or Model III).  The difference is the Model II is limited to 32GB of RAM and the Model III can utilize 64GB.  Try to get a Model III if you can.  Make sure that the server powers on and will get through the POST process before you take it home.

Now that you have your server, you’ll need to beef it up.

These servers cannot use regular, off the shelf RAM.  They need special RAM called ECC RAM.  The good news is that because of the age of these servers, this RAM is now incredibly cheap.  Two 4GB sticks are just $10.99 from amazon.
Fully-Buffered-Upgrade-PowerEdge-DDR2-667-PC2-5300F

 

I would suggest buying at least 4 of these kits to bump your server up to 32GB.  These servers have 8 RAM slots so this would populate all of them.  Not bad for $44+shipping.

The great thing about these servers is that they support regular, off the shelf SATA hard drives unlike the older 28xx series and before that used special, expensive SCSI drives.  This means you can head right down to your local Best Buy, Wal-mart, or any other store that sells internal SATA drives and you can pick one that will work.  In this case you are concerned about space, so go big or go home.  Get a 1TB or larger drive (or several if you want to RAID them together).  This will give you plenty of space to store virtual machines for all the different versions of windows, Linux and other VM’s you want to test.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll talk about the server setup and the install of the hypervisor.