Building your lab environment

Trying to learn how to deploy and administer Lync in your live production environment is what I like to call a resume-generating event. It’s a great way to find yourself looking for a new job. Setting up a lab environment doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult.

You may be thinking that you need to hit eBay and drop a bunch of money on some gently used server hardware to equip your lab. The reality is that server hardware is the worst purchase you can make for your lab. Servers are full of top-quality scalability, redundancy, management, and resiliency bits that you just don’t need for a lab.  They also use a lot of power, and can be quite loud.

Somewhat better than a server is a workstation. Workstations may be cheaper than a server, but still aren’t quite the configuration we’re after. Often, workstations have high-performance components that are expensive and unnecessary for a lab server. You don’t need super high resolution graphics, which most workstations will come with.

Well, what’s left? A regular PC, with a few carefully selected features and components, can do the job! Your lab won’t have the demands of a production system, and if some component fails you shouldn’t have anyone at your door asking when things will be back up. To be clear, I’m not talking about the latest Dell online special, as that’ll be aimed at the lower end of the market and won’t quite have the right features. What you’re after is a PC that you put together yourself (or have someone put it together for you). Some things to look for are:

  • The ability to go to 64G of RAM. This is a must – you’ll regret buying a new motherboard that only takes 32G.
  • 6 SATA ports is nice. If you wind up with less, you’ll likely need to buy an SATA card down the road to add more.
  • Buy a quiet case. Nobody likes loud, rattling computers. Make sure it has lots of empty drive bays.
  • Buy a liquid CPU cooler that exhausts using a large case fan. Bigger fans are quieter, and this type of cooler is only a few bucks more than the type with the screeching little fan.
  • Buy a passively cooled video card. No fan means no noise, and you don’t need screaming graphics performance – in fact if you RDP to your server and VMs, you’ll only need the card when you’re installing your OS.
  • At least one SSD. You’ll thank yourself when you’re not sitting around waiting for all of your machines to boot at once from your 5400 RPM econodrive. Windows, SQL, and Lync install a lot faster on an SDD than they do on a hard drive. If your virtual machines take too long to boot, services may not start and you’ll spend a bunch of time trying to troubleshoot, and then a bunch more time checking that every service started. (You can also start your machines in waves: DCs first, then SQL, then front ends, then edges, then everything else)
  • You will want a nice big HDD for backups, your ISO library, and VMs that don’t need SSD levels of performance. You can also boot from this drive if you don’t want a dedicated boot drive.
  • Buy extra NICs – get cheap ones! You don’t need performance, but one or two extra ports are nice to have. Some enthusiast motherboards come with two NICs, which is a great start.
  • For the CPU, check out prices for the various speeds available. Be frugal here. You don’t need to pay a premium for a tiny bit of extra performance. Make sure that the CPU you get fits both your motherboard socket and make sure your cooler is compatible.

If all of this is still too much for your piggy bank, here are some options for you: Put some VMs on SSD, others on HDD. You can build new machines on the SSD, then move them to an HDD. Over time, you can add more SSD space as your budget permits. There’s no problem with buying a smaller drive now and then adding another later.

  • Start with 32G of RAM. Make sure you buy modules sized so that you can add the other 32G later, without having to replace any modules.
  • You might have some older, lower capacity HDDs around. Don’t be afraid to use what you’ve got! You can always migrate VMs to different storage later.
  • If that’s still too much, you may find you get good results with adding some RAM and an SDD to a lower end PC. You likely won’t be able to move the RAM to new PC later, but you can most certainly move the SSD.

Next up, I’ll cover what you can do with your new lab environment.