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The Ultimate Portable Lab part1

Last year I delivered several Veeam training workshops at the Dutch VMUG. Dell kindly donated a server to run our labs off but the problem was it was one noisy beast. And we couldn’t work out how to deploy the agent in ESX that controls the fans (no help from Dell either). I want to start delivering these workshops more often and the Dutch VMUG is coming around soon, so I went about planning building our own portable lab.  Now this is nothing new I hear you say but I thought it might be interesting to blog the build as I’m planning to build some small but powerful units.


I knew if I was going to build it small enough I would have to use a MicroATX motherboard and this was what I stumbled upon.

Now the thing I liked about this board was that it had 6 memory sockets which is rare for MicroATX. Which meant I could get 24GB ram (6 x 4GB DDR3) on it. Now I always had it in the back of my head that I was going to go down the vTardis route and use an SSD drive to beef up the Vmkernel swapping speed and over allocate to the max. So I found what seems a pretty fast SSD from Corsair.  And I wanted tons of CPU cores so I went for Core i7 950 Bloomfield < 4 cores with HT = 8 cores. For the main storage I went for a 7200rpm 2TB SATA disk.

I’ll give add a kit list at the end of this blog.

So let’s walk though how I build it.

First unpacked my eCube portable MicroATX cases:


Remove the motherboard tray and attached the motherboard:

Add the 6 sticks of memory and CPU, Graphics card and dual Intel Nic:

Slotted the motherboard tray back into the case and attached the case-2-motherboard cables:

Attached and cabled the SSD drive and the SATA disk:

Then wired in the PSU:

Put the lids back on and I’m ready to go:

So what I got here is twin sisters with the following spec:

  • 24 GB Ram
  • 120 GB SSD (500Mbs read/write)
  • 2TB 7200 rpm SATA harddrive
  • Core i7 3GHz (Quad core with Hyper-threading = 8 cores)
  • 512mb Graphics
  • Dual Port Intel E1000s

These cost me about £1000 each but if you are prepared to sacrifice a little you could probably get them down to £800~ each. Use OEM memory instead of branded, slower CPU, 5400 rpm instead of 7200 rpm for example.

Kit List:

Memory 24GB 266.69  
CPU 187.4  
Motherboards 184.3  
SSD 140  
Harddrive 74.86  
Graphics 27.56  
Case 56.36  

Parts may have changed since I spec’d up but it’s a good reference.

So in the next blog I’m going to discuss how I plan to design the software deployment. Remember I’m going for the vTardis approach so all out on nested hypervisors and so on.

After some usage I found I ran out of SSD very quickly. So I did some research and found a cheap alternative. A hybrid drive, part SSD part SATA:

Not as good as SSD but marginally better than standard SATA.

But I have to say, VMs running on the SSD booted and running under a minute.

I’ll post part 2 with some results of these beasts.

3 Responses to The Ultimate Portable Lab part1

  • A question – where is your “SAN” of some sort? If you used a similar board/cpu/case/NIC, you could forgo the SSD/HDD in the two systems and combine them in your SAN. Then the lab would be able to participate in HA/DRS/etc by having shared storage. As long as the SAN wasn’t too resource intensive (most I’ve seen are not) you could scale back to a non-X58 based MB, use 4-8GB RAM, and a slower chip. It would cost more than these two boxes, but for not a lot more, your lab could have the benefit of some manner of shared storage. Also, your table doesn’t include the cost for the dual port Intel NIC’s – which are you using? I’ve used the HP NC380T (full height) PCI-e for about $45 on eBay. You should definitely be able do better on the RAM though – my last 3x4GB kits were $120CAD each.

    • Well if needed to I could nest virtual ESX and and use a VSA if the plan was to demostrate HA/DRS/etc… but seen as its not my plan I need not do as you say.. However I already have two other SAN options and don’t need a third. I either use DATACORE for FC/ISCSI or IOMega for ISCSI. My plan is to make my solution as portable as possible.

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