Building a Lab computer

My desktop computer recently died an ignominious death.  And by that, I mean it just refused to boot.  Not even a beep code.  Troubleshooting it seemed to indicate that the old AMD Athlon64 processor had finally croaked.  I was kind of in the market for a new PC anyway, but I’d rather have done a graceful migration, not a dead-PC replacement.

I had a couple of goals I wanted to accomplish:

  • I wanted something reasonably cutting-edge.  My last PC was mid-range when I built it, and so it was already two years behind the curve.  I wanted my new one to be ahead of the curve.
  • I wanted to recycle as much of my existing hardware as practical to minimize costs since I’m made of meat, not money.  Well, mostly meat.
  • I wanted something beefy enough to run a virtualization lab.  I even had a fresh license for VMware Workstation 10 that I got when I passed my VCP test in October.  Perfect timing!  I really REALLY like VMware Workstation. The price is a bit high for home use, but it’s not unaffordable and it is so powerful and flexible that it’s totally worth the cost.  The fact that it was a free benefit with my certification was an awesome bonus.  I squeaked in right after they upgraded the offering from 9 to 10, too.

The last time I built a computer, processors were still classified according to clock speed.  They aren’t anymore.  I had a bit of trouble even deciding where to start because it’s like comparing apples and oranges now.  I knew I wanted an Intel this time, even though it was a little more expensive because it edged out the AMD processors by a small margin.  I also wanted a MINIMUM of 16GB, with the option to add more as my budget allowed.  I needed two PCIx slots for video since I use four monitors (once you go four, you’ll always want more!)

After a bit of shopping around, I settled on an Intel Core i7-4771 Haswell quad-core CPU.  I elected not to get the model that’s unlocked because I really don’t do any overclocking and so I could save myself a few bucks this way.  Interestingly enough, this chip also has onboard video, which was news to me.

I also picked up an ASUS Z87-Pro (V Edition) motherboard.  I chose this one because I’ve had experience with ASUS and I’ve been very happy with their products.  It had four DDR3 slots and supported up to 32GB of RAM.  High-memory boards seem to be the exception rather than the norm, but this one was in my budget and had the features I wanted.  It also supported the video I needed, and had onboard RAID on one of the SATA channels.  The “V Edition” just means that it lacks onboard wireless, which I didn’t really need anyway.

Lastly, I put in 2x8GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1866 RAM.  The board will handle faster speeds, but after 1866, the prices start getting a little nutty.  I figured it was worth the minor speed sacrifice to stay in my budget.

All told, I spent a little over $700, which was right at my target.  I recycled my two data drives (in RAID 1) and my system drive (an old 128GB drive), as well as my (not-very-well-designed) case, my power supply, and my optical drives.   A week later, I remembered that I had a $50 Amazon gift card and so I bought a 240GB SATA3 SSD drive to replace the system volume.  After the gift card, the drive was about $80.  Not bad!

It took me two days to get the computer back to a usable state.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to re-install anything.  Migrating Windows 7 to a new drive was…interesting.  Microsoft really doesn’t make it easy.  I’ll discuss that process in another post.

What I ended up with was a desktop PC that, while not the fastest in the world, is plenty fast and plenty capable of running my virtualization lab.  The next step was to download and install Alastair Cook’s extremely awesome free Autolab.  Autolab is a fantastic tool that will automate the process of building a nested ESXi virtualization lab.  With the new setup and Autolab, I can run a couple of ESXi hosts, a domain controller, vCenter server, a router, FreeNAS, a couple of desktop machines and a few assorted others, all virtualized under VMware Workstation 10 with room to spare and I spent a little less than if I had bought some low-end PC off the shelf from the local big box store.  When I add more memory, I’ll be able to run even more.  This is my VCAP5-DCA study lab.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.