The SSD and the Home Lab
I thought I’d do a quick post about the impact an SSD (and perhaps a memory upgrade) can have on a home lab. I tend to lag behind when it comes to access to both technology and experience (which I’m trying to change) so this isn’t a super-duper state-of the-art lab, but it does show what can be done in many cases with a modern PC and a modest investment.
A few months ago, I wrote this post on building a VMware View lab using just a PC with 8GB of RAM. Yes, it was slow and painful, but it was possible and it could be done. I had wanted to do so much more in the home lab – ranging from vCloud Director to vCOPS to vShield, but I found my home lab (with one SATA spindle) either inadequate or intolerable. The break in the clouds came when I realized that I had a line of credit with Dell (note: I’m not advocating personal debt here, but I viewed this as an investment in my development).
The CPU (Intel Core i7 (Sandy Bridge)) was fine, but I would need both more RAM and faster disk if I wanted to do more with my lab. Dell only had one model of SSD available (Intel 320 SSD) so there wasn’t much research to be done. I ordered the 120GB SSD drive along with an additional 8GB of RAM (for a total of 16GB) using my Dell credit for about $300.
The memory alone had a profound impact on what I could do – with more RAM available there would be less swapping and I could be more generous in memory allocation to VMs, but the biggest impact was the SSD.
The SSD drive (and RAM) appeared the next morning and I quickly ran a few tests. One of the biggest problems in traditional hard drive is the “seek time” that is consumed when the hard drive head moves across the platter to locate the desired blocks – most commonly seen in random I/O patterns (as opposed to sequential).
Sequential operations were anywhere from 50-150% improved, but the real “WOW” factor came with random access patterns. Consider the following random access tests from first the hard drive and then the SSD:
A max of 52 IOPS and a max of 35 MB/s. Now for the SSD:
Huge differences of a factor of thousands in some cases. For the random transfer size the SSD was about 8 times faster!
How would this transfer into real world scenarios? One of the first tests I did was an automated “smart install” of Windows 2008 R2 on VMware Workstation 8. There are significant amounts of time where the disk is not used during a Windows OS install, so I wouldn’t experience anything like a 800% improvement, but the time required was reduced from 19 minutes to just 9 minutes – a very significant and welcome improvement. I was able to rebuild most of my lab VMs in the single day as opposed to several days for the same task in the old lab. I used the linked clone feature of VMware Workstation 8 which – when combined with the SSD makes it really fast and efficient to provision new VMs as well as being space efficient.
There’s a few steps and details in the home lab setup ranging from networking, DNS, AD and more that I worked through – not sure if there’s any interest in a step-by-step configuration for a home lab but perhaps I’ll save that to write on a rainy day if there’s interest.
Intel SSD Toolbox
My SSD was OEM so it literally came with nothing, but I looked around and found that Intel has this nice SSD Toolbox for their SSD drives. It gives detailed info on your SSD drive and includes some optimization checks including:
- Disabling Superfetch/Prefetch on the SSD drive
- Disabling ReadyBoost on the SSD drive
- Checking for defragmentation tasks (Intel recommends that defragmentation not be run on their SSD drives)
It also has an “optimization” feature which Intel recommends that you run weekly, which will basically de-allocate blocks which are no longer in use.
The Home Lab
The home lab I think is critical for many who wish to gain more experience and/or test scenarios which they may be unable to do in the office for one reason or another. Much like certification, you need to make a financial investment for the opportunity that a home lab provides and not everyone is able to make these investments, but if you can afford it, it can often be a very efficient investment.
The combination of increasing RAM to 16GB and adding an SSD can make a world of difference for a home lab. Working on VM’s now feels like I’m running on a really fast SAN – and I have more RAM to support more complex combinations of VMs (including ESXi hosts) to enable many more lab scenarios. I’m looking forward to being able to do many things with VMware View, vShield, vCloud Director, ESX5 features and much more.
If you’re looking for a new system or upgrading an existing one for the educational opportunity that a home lab can provide, keep these points in mind. In my case it took a $300 investment in RAM and SSD to open a whole new set of possibilities with what I could accomplish in the home lab. As for me, I’m really excited about what this upgrade now allows me to do, and I’m sure that I’ll be posting more entries here about various lab activities and experiences that I’m looking forward to both experiencing and sharing the results.