Network-based storage options for robust home labs

Building a proper home lab should involve some form of shared storage. That doesn't necessarily mean purchasing a SAN product targeted for small business, as Rick Vanover points out.

Last week's post by Brad Bird hit home with me. Making a home lab is important, but it can really add up! I maintain a private lab at home where I do extensive testing with virtualization for various network and Windows Server technologies. The one technology, above all else, that needs to be in place to make any degree of home lab effective is some form of shared storage.

My lab has a DroboPro device for my network-based storage. Both the DroboPro and DroboElite units can function as an iSCSI target for SMB or home lab situation. Be sure to check Scott Lowe's review of the DroboElite in this TechRepublic post. I've used the DroboPro as a storage target in my lab, and have been generally satisfied with it. The Drobo series of iSCSI storage devices support VMware connectivity, but not fully supporting Hyper-V with clustered shared volumes (CSV) as persistent SCSI-3 reservations are required for Hyper-V virtualization in clusters.

Another popular product is the iomega StorCenter series of products. These offer iSCSI connectivity at a nice entry price as well. Storage expert Stephen Foskett has done a nice independent review of the ix4-200d device on his personal blog site. The StorCenter does have VMware and Hyper-V compatibility, but again does not support persistent SCSI-3 reservations for clustering operations with Hyper-V.

The shared storage wish-list item does not have to be met by purchasing a storage device, however. There are a number of free products that can function as shared storage resources for labs. Here is a breakdown of the one's I've used over the years:

StarWind Free: This free software engine can virtualize the storage on a local server, and present it as an iSCSI target. You can purchase software to increase the feature set, including mirroring and failover. StarWind does support Hyper-V clustering with persistent SCSI-3 reservations with their iSCSI target implementation.

Openfiler: This free software-based storage virtualization engine is multi-protocol, including iSCSI and NFS. Should also have a fibre channel or CIFS itch to scratch, this free product can help here as well.

NexentaStor: This software-based storage virtualization engine also can do many different protocols, including iSCSI and NFS. Further, there is a VMware-based image as a storage device to plug into your existing test installation.

FalconStor Network Storage Server: This software-based storage virtual appliance has a free offering for the small business or remote office.

When it comes to deciding between a dedicated, purpose-built storage device like the Drobo or StorCenter devices or software-based devices like StarWind or Openfiler; there are a number of considerations one must take into account. First of all, both products should be given their own network. Running a storage protocol over a network that may approach line rate with normal traffic will be less than optimal. Performance wise, you may have better disk access from the software-based solutions that utilize potentially higher-performing array controllers.

One last recommendation is to create two classes of logical unit numbers (LUNs). One class would be for static data that will never be erased. The second class would be true lab use LUNs. The best way to distinguish between them is to do both LUN masking at the storage controller (if possible) and in my case, I make them a special size. For example, I know that the 2 TB LUN is the permanent LUN with all of my CD-ROM .ISO files and permanent virtual machines. Therefore, any 1 TB LUN is a lab-use LUN that I can break down and re-use as needed.

Above all else, dedicated storage allows the lab to reset and be rebuilt. Whether or not virtualization is in play, it is important to have a storage environment that is relatively removed from the constant tear-down and rebuild of the lab systems.

How do you provision storage in your lab? Do you use a network-based storage protocol? If so, which product?