Exchange Labs for Engineers – Part 1

In this series I will cover my thought process for creating a home lab to be used for keeping your skills fresh and for testing out scenarios that you encounter or wish to simulate for your own knowledge.

History of home my lab environment
About 5 years ago I decided that I needed hardware at home to keep up with my skillset in Exchange, AD and anything else that I wanted to learn. Prior to this I had been using single physical servers with low amounts of RAM. It was time to get a real server, in this case one that could run more than one server at a time. After doing quite a bit of research I ended up building from scratch a white box ESX 4.1 server. I had acquired a NFR license at a VMWare convention and decided to use it in my lab. I purchased the following items:

The reasons I chose the above parts were:

  • Server class motherboard
  • ECC RAM for extra protection
  • ESX Hypervisor
  • Higher end case with lots of cooling
  • High end Power Supply for reliable Power to server
  • Good mid to high quality hard drives
  • UPS for power outages
  • Etc.

** The configuration cost me (at the time) around $3000. For those of you flinching, remember there were workstations at that time not used for virtualization but were single user and cost around that much. I thought it was a good price to pay at the time.

My new ESX server provided an easy way to run multiple servers at one – Windows 2008 and Exchange 2007 at the time as well as some Windows 2003 servers with Exchange 2003 or 5.5 for migration testing. Over time I added Windows 2008 R2 and Exchange 2010 (when they were released) to the box for testing. I arranged the drives to allow for local backups, snapshots, ISO storage and so on.

I was able to run clusters for Exchange 5.5, 2003, 2007 and 2010. Worked with OCS, Lync 2010 and now Lync 2013. I also tested TMG and UAG rules as well as some ISA 2004,2006. FreeNAS was also used for iSCSI targets for cluster servers.

Overtime the setup became a bit cramped in terms of RAM, storage and CPU power. New memory requirements and space requirements were limiting my testing. I added an additional E5410 CPU (8 cores total now) and 32 GB more RAM (64 GB total now). I then added an Areca 1231ML RAID controller and three 3 TB SATA hard drives for additional storage. A SSD drive was added for my production Exchange 2013 and primary DC for performance reasons.

Now I was able to create a lab with Exchange 2013 servers (4 or 5 in all), but Windows 2012/R2 were out of reach due to ESX 4.x restrictions. I had to make due with a SAN box at work, but this was limited as well since it was a shared platform with many engineers and their own testing.

Now
Currently this server runs three Windows 2008 R2 DCs (one for a hosted solution I run), my production Exchange 2013 server, Hosted Exchange and FTP/Web server, TMG server, a Windows 7 workstation, my son’s Minecraft server, and my Exchange 2013 lab which has 5 VMs associated with it.

With all of this running on this 64 GB ESX server, I am now on the border of inadequate for testing larger and more complex scenarios as well as running Lync at home for production. In order to accommodate the larger memory needs of Exchange 2013 I set my sights on building a 128 GB server. In the next part of the series I will cover my next steps for making the lab a bit expandable, but not entirely future proof as I am still limiting my costs (i.e. staying on budget).

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