The Surly Lab
One problem I’ve had for a while now is the lack of a good testing lab. I’ve had a pretty nice server downstairs in the basement, and it was running VMware vSphere 4.1 with a couple of servers on it but then one day awhile back I decided to upgrade from a 2003 infrastructure to one based on 2008 R2 and that’s when things started to go bad.
A Little Boring Background
So my Windows 2008 R2 environment here at home never really worked too well. Not entirely sure what I did wrong, as the server installed fine got the DC promoted and everything but was never able to join PC’s to the domain nor get DNS to completely work. Checked the firewall, did some Googling, etc but nothing. And to be honest, I do this everyday at work and my tolerance for working on problems at home is pretty low. That meant my home lab pretty much sat in disarray for months.
Time to Upgrade
But eventually I built up enough need, and energy to tackle this problem. So I fired up my vClient and started to look at the lab when something really awful happened. My servers were GONE. The vClient still knew about them, but the servers were unable to start. Checked the hard drive and the files were just gone. All my backup files, all the configurations, all the family photo’s, everything just gone. You know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach?
Luckily, I backup my files using TrendMicro’s SafeSync. It’s one of those typical online backup programs out there and it does a pretty good job and the price isn’t too bad. And I keep all of my scripts and “current” files in Dropbox so everything was still out there for that. The only thing I actually lost was I had a few movies and seasons 1 and 2 of Avatar: The Last AirBender copied from DVD so I could play them on my iPad. That sucks but hardly a show stopper.
So before I could do anything I had to get my house back in order. First thing I wanted to do is make my lab servers more test environment and less needed for saving and backing up my files. So I just configured SafeSync to back up my laptop and I downloaded all those files back to the laptop. Bought a 1TB USB drive for local backups too.
OK, Now It’s Time to Upgrade
I had 2 500gb SATA drives in my old server rig–in fact, before I get to that let me tell you about my server. It’s a Dell PowerEdge T110 and if you’re looking to build a little home lab this is a great rig to get.
I bought the T110 about 2 years ago and it’s armed with a Xeon X3430 (2.4 GHz) and 8gb RAM. It has an abundance of USB ports (front and back) and even 2 more internal (I put a USB stick in the internal one and installed vSphere there). It even has an eSATA port. It also has one of the easiest cases I’ve ever worked with, simply pull the lever in the back and the side panel pops right open. The hard drives are in simple to use chassis that you put your HD into and then just slide it in. Manually connect the very well-managed SATA and power cables and you’re done. Great for home server needs.
Anyway, I had those 2 hard drives and since they ate my last VM’s I didn’t feel I could trust them anymore so time to replace them.
VMware vSphere 5.1
I bought a 1.5TB SATA drive and popped it in there, then downloaded VMware vSphere 5.1 and burned it to a CD. About 15 minutes later vSphere is installed on the server and configured to my network. This is my first experience with 5.1 and so far so good. I can’t say the install was that much different from 4.1–maybe a little more polished–and getting the server up and running took about the same amount of time.
Where I soon saw improvements was after installing the new vClient and opening it up for the first time. The vClient on 4.1 was pretty slow and you had to be fairly patient if you wanted to perform any tasks, but the new version really rocks. Very fast, even when using the console screen over a wireless network I mostly couldn’t even tell I was ON the console screen over the wireless. Version 4.1 with Windows 2008 R2, before you got the VMware Tools installed it was almost impossible to use the mouse and I got pretty good and doing an install using keyboard shortcuts! Now, even before the VMware Tools are installed it’s almost perfect and once the Tools are installed you can’t tell the difference between it and an RDP session. Well done, VMware, well done!
At this point it was time to come upstairs, attach remotely to my new vSphere host and see what installing Windows 2012 was going to be like. Uploaded the 2012 DVD to the host (which I cleverly named “host”), created a new VM and powered it up without a single problem. Not more than 10 minutes later I have a working Windows 2012 server. This is one of the advantages of Windows 2008 and higher, it doesn’t install everything and the kitchen sink anymore but requires you to install it later. This makes the initial install go very fast!
But there is bad news. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to put a tablet interface on a server, but Microsoft has done it and if you have any experience with Windows servers 2012 is going to be a painful experience for you. It has been Microsoft’s goal for many years now to make the life of an IT Administrator harder than it used to be. Things that used to be a couple of clicks away now are buried, 4, 5 or 6 clicks away now.
Luckily, Microsoft has perfected this trend and 2012 is truly painful to navigate.
After about 10 minutes, I finally found where they buried Windows Update and got patches installed. Another Google search found a pretty good document at Microsoft that shows you how to do some basic navigation. Want to get to the Start screen? Hit the Windows key to get in–isn’t the point of a GUI to keep your hands off the keyboard?–or “hover” your mouse over the right side and wait for the sidebar to come up. Then click on start.
Want to log off? Hover, Start, click on the user name in top right, click on logoff. That used to be 2 clicks away. Very frustrating. I guess it’s time to start memorizing the keyboard shortcuts because the GUI is getting more and more useless.
That said, Windows 2012 does use the Windows 7 taskbar where you pin things to the bar and when you click on the app it just “highlights” that icon allowing you to manage your most often used apps quite well. I love this feature in Windows 7 so glad to see it in 2012.
One frustration I had with Windows 2008 was its performance. The interface was very slow, slow to log in, slow to open windows, slow to do just about everything. File serving seemed fine, SQL performed well so applications were mostly unaffected but trying to administer them through RDP was pretty painful at times. My completely non-scientific observations are that 2012 has solved this issue. It boots wicked fast, login is quick and painless and moving from window to window performs the way you expect a modern operating system to perform.
Installing the domain controller roles, DNS, DHCP and other things I wanted on this server was fast and mostly easy, though the DC promo wizard kept warning me it couldn’t create a DNS delegation. A delegation it turns out it only needs if you’re integrating into an existing DNS zone or a 3rd party DNS server, neither of which I had (so wasted 10-15 minutes chasing that down). After that the server was installed and working flawlessly. Inserted my laptop into the domain without issue and everything was great!
Being a pretty conservative Administrator I don’t know if I’m ready to anoint Windows 2012 as the next greatest thing, but so far I’m loving its speed and simplicity. Coupled with the improvements with vSphere 5.1 and I’m suddenly excited about virtualization again!
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