Building a lab: from wood to cloud – part 1.

I needed to build a new lab to work on different cloud stacks and as I also love woodworking: I though why not building a custom rack to host my lab. The requirements were quite simple:

  • Host a full VMware stack: vSphere, vRA, vRO, vROM and NSX stack (with all required supporting infrastructure)
  • Host an Openstack instance as well
  • Consume minimal power (even a lab must be energy efficient)
  • Look good
  • Ease maintenance and cabling
  • Portable: I want to be able to move it arround without a forklift
  • Provide a large NAS storage space for various non-lab usage like time machine backups

So with that in mind the first thing was to select the hardware:

Small size and low power consumption leads to two platforms Intel NUC and Apple Mac mini. One of the requirements being looking good: the mac mini was the obvious choice. It is small, power efficient, good looking an easy with ESXi (thanks to William Lam for his numerous and usefull articles on installing ESXi on Mac mini).

But the latest edition of the Mac mini has some limitations:

  • It is non upgradable: RAM is soldered
  • core speed are very low: the entry level nodel runs @ 1.4Ghz

As a consequence it will be quite expensive to get the correct configuration.
So I’ve ordered 3 previous gen MD387LL/A entry level model (on sale @ 499$ each), 3 16Gb upgrade and 3 32Gb SD card (more about those later).

The compute kit

You may ask why the entry level dual core ? the answer is simple, I found that 8Gb of RAM per core is the RAM/core sweet spot. So as the max RAM is 16Gb on those machines, 2 cores is enough and the clock speed is good.

For the storage, I am an NFS fan but I also like VAAI and found that VAAI for NFS is making NFS too complex. So I went with iSCSI storage. I also wanted a large upgradable array. After seeking for the perect array I found that a Synology 1813+ will do the trick:

  • 8 bays upgradable to 18 bays by adding external enclosures
  • 4 Gbe network ports
  • VAAI capable firmware
  • SSD aware, they can be used as read cache or very fast storage.

On the disk side: I had 2x2Tb WD Caviar red, a 512Gb Crucial M500 SSD and another old 2Tb WD caviar green hanging around. I just order 2 extra 3Tb caviar red. The disk configuration will be detailled in a later post.

As NSX is involved the following requirements comes with it, physical switch must support:

  • Jumbo frames: more precisely MTU of at least 1550 for VXLAN
  • 802.1q VLAN
  • IGMP snooping

Again I found that repurposing an old Netgear switch is the most economical option. I had for a long time a Netgear GS108Ev3 which actually meets all the requirements. It even has a nice web admin UI. It only has 8 ports but that will be enough for now.

I am looking for something easy to work with medium mechanical resistance (the lab is not going to be that heavy, neither will it withstand heavy mechanical constraints). So I’ve choose to do it in 1/2 inch particule board (which also happen to be hanging around in the workshop).
Particule board are easy to work and finish. The only drawbacks are:

  • No advanced joinery is possible. i.e. no dovetails
  • It produce nasty particule when cutting or working with a routeur: proper eyes and breathing protection are mandatory, earing protection is always a plus.

Now that everything is chosen. I need to draw my custom enclosure and start working the wood. The next article will cover the building and fitting of the enclosure.


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