Online virtualisation labs come of age

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With the launch of the new vCloud Suite along with new VMware certification tracks there’s no shortage of technologies to learn so I’ve been building up my home lab in anticipation of some long hours burning the midnight oil. While doing this I’ve been mulling over a simple (I thought) question;

Why buy hardware to build home labs? Can’t we use ‘the cloud’ for our lab requirements?

I spent a while investigating the current marketplace and while some areas are well covered some are just getting started.

A typical IT ‘stack’

As an infrastructure guy I’m interested in the lower half of the IT stack, principally from the hypervisor downwards (I expect that some infrastructure professionals will need to focus on the top part of the stack in the future, but that’s a different post). There are a plenty of cloud services where you can quickly spin up traditional guest OS or application instances (any IaaS/PaaS/SaaS provider, for example Turnkey Linux do some great OSS stuff) but a more limited number that let you provision the lower half of the stack in a virtual lab;

  • At the network layer Cisco’s learning labs offer cloud labs tailored to the Cisco exams (primarily CCNA and CCNP) and are sold as bundles of time per certification track. In October last year Juniper launched the Junosphere Labs, an online environment that you can use for testing or training.
  • For storage EMC provide labs and this year their internal E-Lab is going virtual and a private cloud is in the works (thanks to vSpecialist Burak Uysal for the info). Scott Drummunds has a great post illustrating what these labs offer – it’s pretty impressive (and includes some VMware functionality). These labs let partners test and learn the EMC product portfolio by setting up ‘virtual’ storage arrays and is something that you’d probably struggle to do in most labs. Other storage vendors such as Netapp offer virtual storage appliances (or simulators) but you’ll need to use a separate IaaS service to run them – there’s no public cloud offering.
  • At the hypervisor layer (although more application and guest OS focused) there’s Microsoft’s Technet labs. These have been available for years and for free (are you listening VMware? :-)) and let you play with many of Microsoft’s applications, including Hyper-V, in a live, online lab (Vladan has a good article here, and you can try Windows 2012 labs too). At the latest TechEd2012 conference the labs were made available online for two months afterwards and they were also available at the recent Microsoft Management Summit. As Hyper-V can virtualise itself but can’t run nested VMs the labs are limited to looking at the Hyper-V configuration. I tried these labs and was very impressed – they’re free, easy and quick to use (even if they do require IE).
  • According to this post on Linked-In, HP are also looking at the option of publicly available virtual labs although I couldn’t find any information on what they’ll include.

While not strictly cloud labs (depending on your definition of a cloud service) you could rent space and/or infrastructure in someone else’s datacenter – recently I’ve seen companies start to specialize in offering prebuilt ‘lab’ environments which you can rent for training/testing purposes;

Many large companies will have their own lab facilities and some global companies might offer them internally via private clouds but until recently there were no public cloud services which let you experiment with the hypervisor layer. The well known blogger David Davis had similar thoughts last year and investigated cloud providers who provide ESXi as a VM and was unable to find any. There’s no technical reason why not – vSphere has been able to virtualise itself and run nested VMs for years and although performance might suffer that’s often a secondary concern for a lab environment. It’s also not officially supported but if it’s for training and test/dev rather than production is that a barrier?

Cloud labs on the horizon

Although they’re not a public cloud provider (despite the rumours) VMware have the capability to offer online virtual labs and they’re beginning to leverage them for various purposes;

  • they’ve offered online hands on labs for the last couple of years at VMworld (unlike Citrix and Oracle who still use local labs at a much smaller scale). VMware’s labs are not yet available to the public as a paid service although they are available to select customers and a public beta is about to start (register here). This year (for the first time) the HOL at VMworld will be BYOD – a good sign that access is becoming more flexible. If you’re not familiar with the technology behind the labs you can read some great info in this VMware technical journal article. You can follow them on Twitter (@vmwarehol) and check out the forums dedicated to the HOLs.
  • VMware are also offering online access to ‘training labs’ when taking their official training courses – while a distinct use case from the VMworld HOL they’re probably using much the same technology under the hood. Presumably this is a precursor to ‘project NEE‘ which was being shown off at VMworld – like Appblast and AppShift this is another area where VMware are looking to disrupt the status quo.
  • The VCAP5-DCA exams are also run from a cloud lab, this time one customised to test candidates skills. I’m still hoping Randy Becraft, the program manager behind the VCAP5-DCA exams, will find time to share some of the ‘behind the scenes’ technology as I believe a lot of people would be interested. Other vendors have ‘hands on’ certification tests (the RHCE, CCIE etc) but they’re still delivered using local infrastructure (someone please correct me if I’m wrong).

Public access to the VMware labs has been a long time coming but the beta is a good sign that it might actually come to pass. Pricing has yet to be announced and VMware are not known for being overly affordable but as VMware need to accelerate their customer’s move to the cloud maybe they should offer some of these online labs for free, maybe as a perk to VCPs, VCAPs or vExperts?

If you don’t want to wait for the VMware labs to become available there are alternatives. During VMworld 2012 Skytap announced that ESXi is now offered via their cloud and they were a finalist in the Best of VMworld 2012 awards in the hybrid cloud category so must be doing something right! Skytap’s focus is on automating test and development in the cloud so adding virtual hypervisors to the range of products you can test against is a natural progression. When I spoke to Nate Odell, Marketing Director at Skytap, he told me that customer demand has been the driver behind this latest addition – customers want to test third party products against ESXi or prove an upgrade to vSphere5 for example, as well as the obvious training potential. Like a VM template you can create a whole test environment consisting of multiple virtual ESXi instances and save it as a ‘gold image’ which can then be spun up quickly when required – ideal for quickly replicating a complex lab environment. There are already around 125 templates on offer from Skytap, including a Cloud Foundry stack, and this is likely to grow significantly in the near future. Today ESXi is the only hypervisor on offer as Skytap haven’t seen customer demand for any others but in a rapidly changing marketplace never say never.

Skytap offer a flexible service comprising elements of IaaS/SaaS/PaaS – you spin up as many VMs as you want for whatever purpose you need (training, product development, upgrade testing etc) in contrast to the more prescriptive nature of the guided labs likely to be offered by VMware. Which of these approaches you prefer will depend on what you need – for focused VMware product training I imagine the VMware labs will be ideal but if you want a broader choice Skytap’s the way to go. If you’re interested in seeing what Skytap can do there’s a 14 day trial which you can sign up for here (although it’s not instant access) and a white paper authored by David Davis which walks you through deploying virtual ESXi instances along with vCenter. You can also import a VM from your local network directly into their cloud which looks like a very useful feature and Nate confirmed that the restriction on running nested 64bit VMs (mentioned in the white paper) has been removed after recent upgrades.

Virtual labs in the workplace

One area where online virtual labs could make immediate inroads is company labs and training. Maybe you need a lab for a week or two as part of a project, maybe you don’t have space for kit, maybe you need to scale up your lab facilities in a hurry, or maybe you’ll struggle to get the expense signed off because of the upfront cost. In all these scenarios a cloud based lab might be the answer. In the cloud lab’s favour you won’t have to worry about scalability, and build time is often automated and almost immediate. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t use multiple labs based on your requirements – like many companies exploring hybrid clouds a mix of local and remote might be the best option.

There’s an obvious potential for training too. Just as VMware have started to offer access to a cloud based lab with their training courses, well known companies like TrainSignal could complement their virtualisation training by offering access to a predefined online environment designed to run alongside their courses. Taking the VCAP-DCA troubleshooting course online while actually getting hands on experience with configuration would be the best possible training and it can all be offered on demand (if the price is right).

Will virtual labs replace your home lab?

The answer depends a lot on what you use your lab for and the pricing of cloud labs (especially VMware’s if and when they become available) for but for many I doubt it.

Hardware knowledge. Most cloud labs can’t substitute what you learn by getting your hands on kit and building it yourself. To build even a small lab it helps to understand BIOS settings, CPU’s, maybe consult the HCL and update a few drivers. Some people want to replicate the environments they work with more closely so their home labs rival a midsized company (I’m looking at you Jason Boche and Michael Webster). Many people also enjoy tinkering with hardware – wanting to know how things work is one of the traits which makes a good engineer! Some hardware skills can be learnt via simulators (the UCS simulator, GRE for Cisco skills, the Netapp simulator etc) which saves expense but not everything can be learnt this way.

Control over what you build and flexibility. Most cloud labs won’t give you as much exposure or choice as running your own kit. The VMware HOLs are pretty structured – click here, configure this, check that – although you can sometimes deviate to a degree. If you go with a vCloud service (such as Stratogen‘s) the underlying networking, compute, and storage are already setup and you won’t have much visibility or control over it for example. Want to play with Nexenta? You’re out of luck unless you can find someone offering Nexenta as a cloud service. Cloud services are also not useful if you’re at the leading edge of technology as many consultants need to be. Someone has to build those cloud labs before they can be offered to customers right? You’re also free to break your home lab without impacting anyone else!

Cost. This is still the big one as mentioned by Jason Boche on his lab page (and he should know). Software licencing costs, hardware depreciation, colocation costs, power, cooling etc all have to factored into a cloud offering whereas these are often ignored in the average home lab. To replicate a typical two server ‘whitebox’ lab at YourLabTime for example costs Ā£120 per week rental (though you get enterprise grade h/w etc so not an exact comparison). One month’s rental therefore is about the cost of a cheap home lab which you keep forever! The cost of a cloud lab will vary based on your usage and that’s one of the problems – it could come in higher than you expect but you’ll only find out at the next billing cycle. Keeping costs low is often a top priority for home labs and at this small scale I’m not sure the cloud labs can compete.

Final thoughts

The cloud (as usual) seems to be the future and more comprehensive virtual labs are just the beginning of this evolution. Over the last few years most of the onsite lab management products have been acquired and turned into ‘cloud’ solutions – vCloud Director has succeeded Lab Manager, VMLogix was purchased by Citrix and Surgient was purchased by Quest. If we move towards a software defined datacenter the options will increase as storage and network become less reliant on hardware and more controlled via software. This trend of cloud labs isn’t just for small home labs and company training – enterprise development and testing are moving to the cloud.

Further reading

Strategy: Development Labs in the Cloud (InformationWeek)

Using EMCs vLabs (YouTube)

Labs options – whitebox, laptop, cloud etc – a summary of the options

Skytap’s cloud offerings

In support of the home lab (Jason Nash)

Which VMware certification is most valuable for your career?

7 thoughts on “Online virtualisation labs come of age

  1. Edward – enjoyed your article, I think we all have started out with a home lab of sorts and the trend sure is shifting to a lab in a browser… I have to admit I sometimes miss the sounds and sights of a home technology lab ( I dont miss the power bill though),.. If you happen to be in VMworld Barcelona gives us a shout..

    Thanks for your support

    Pablo Roesch
    VMware Cloud Infrastructure
    Hands on Labs Online Team

    1. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment Pablo. I like your reference to ‘Lab in a browser’ it’s an elegant phrase. I’ll be in Barcelona and no doubt I’ll spend a chunk of time in the HOLs (presumably the BYOD is also available?) so will indeed say hi.

  2. Great post Edward! Thanks for the mention!

    I am sure that there will be a mix of both in the future. I will be thankful to have the HoL options but will likely also keep a home lab.

    All the best,
    David Davis

  3. Excellent post! Working for VMware we have our internal labs, but I still can’t prise myself away from having my own home lab. I recently added another host to add more capacity and access it remotely on a regular basis. My home in the cloud!

    Take care


    1. I think this is the way forward and is what I’m doing too. I’m expanding my home lab and plan to use it for work demonstrations as well as personal use while retaining 100% control. I tell myself it’s the only way to get things done without the bureacracy and red tape that comes with any significantly sized company but a bit of me thinks I’m just a control freak! šŸ™‚


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