Learn virtualization by creating a vSphere 5.5 home lab

If you're new to virtualization, a good way to familiarize yourself with the topic is to create a vSphere 5.5 home lab. Here's how to do it.

I've received a couple of emails from readers asking how virtualization beginners can gain experience. My first piece of advice is to create a home or practice lab. This high-level overview outlines what you need to get a VMware vSphere 5.5 home lab up and running; there's a lot of documentation out there to help you with the actual installs. (Note: The intent is not to suggest the best hardware, because you'll most likely be using old servers or desktops that you already have.)


  • One server, though two servers are preferable so you can work with cluster features such as Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) and High Availability (HA). These servers need at least 4 GB of RAM each, but more RAM is always better. Also, you need to make sure the servers offer virtualization support, which often can be enabled in the BIOS.
  • A storage device (e.g., Iomega StorCenter) that you can connect to your servers. This isn't necessary for a vSphere install, but you'll need it if you want to practice cluster features. It's also possible to use the vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA) with your local drives on the physical hosts, though this is a more advanced installation for a first-timer.
  • A switch to connect all the hosts, storage, and potentially the laptop or desktop you plan to use to connect.

Once all your hardware is connected to the switch, you can start installing the software. You'll need to download trial versions of vSphere components. As of this writing, vSphere 5.5 is the most recently released version, though the basics apply to all the versions. To download the trial versions of these components, you'll need to create a new login (it's free when you supply your email address).


  • ESXi 5.5: ESXi is the VMware operating system you load on to each of your physical hosts (or servers). 
  • vCenter 5.5: This is the management software that gives you all the cool features you hear about, including HA, DRS, vMotion, and dozens more. vCenter can be a Virtual Appliance that you download and deploy, or you can download an installer to put on a Windows 2008 R2 or Windows 2012 server. I recommend using the Windows version first; then, after you gain some experience, you can try to deploy the Virtual Appliance.
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012: Although this isn't absolutely necessary, you'll need this for vCenter as noted above, and you'll probably want to create a domain controller so you can test domain connectivity. Download the ISO evaluation from Microsoft.com.

How to create your lab


  1. Create a boot disk with the ESXi image (.ISO) file you downloaded earlier.
  2. Load the CD and start the server (make sure you're booting from the CD).
  3. Follow the wizard to install ESXi. You'll specify which drive you want to install ESXi on and click F11 and Enter a lot.
  4. Once it's installed, press F2 to configure the server with things like IP addresses, gateways, and host names.
  5. Once you have it configured, try to ping the new server from a different computer.
  6. Repeat these steps for each physical server.


Now you can connect to your ESXi server from a remote computer.

  1. On your remote computer, open a browser and browse to the IP address you gave the ESXi server.
  2. You'll get a Web UI that has a link to download the vSphere Client. Click the link and open the vSphere Client.
  3. In the vSphere Client, enter the IP address of your ESXi server, along with username (root) and the password you specified during the ESXi install. Now you're in the vSphere Client, which is where you'll do most of your work. There's also a Web UI that you'll see during the vCenter install.
  4. Create a new VM for your domain controller by right-clicking the host.
  5. Attach the Windows Server ISO to the VM and power it on. Install Windows as you normally would.
  6. After Windows is installed, do a DCPROMO to create the domain controller.
  7. Create domain admins to use for your vCenter install.
  8. Create a new VM for your vCenter VM by right-clicking the host.
  9. Attach the Windows Server ISO to the VM and power it on. Install Windows as you normally would.
  10. After Windows is installed, attach the vCenter ISO to the VM and do the Simple Install (SSO, Inventory Service, and vCenter) to install everything you need for vCenter (use your domain admin account).
  11. Once vCenter is installed, you can close your client, re-open it, and connect to the IP address of your vCenter server. 
  12. Create a data center and a cluster, and then add all your physical hosts.


If you have questions about the process, please post them in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer them.