Building a Killer SharePoint Lab Infrastructure


Being Held Hostage

Just recently (ok, yesterday), I finished the final touches on my home lab. Hopefully this article will be useful to someone trying to build a scalable home lab for any purpose, though mine was built for testing various SharePoint Farm scenarios. For a long time, I’ve used my Sager laptop (more of a desktop replacement) running Windows Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V. This served me well in SharePoint 2007 days but for SharePoint 2010, it just doesn’t cut it. Part of the reason is because SharePoint 2010 requires a lot of memory to run well. Although my laptop holds 12GB, it wasn’t enough. Normal activities (browsing the web, checking email in Outlook) were frustratingly slow. Anyway, here’s a screenshot of what I had:


As you can see, I have lots of machines! It became hard to test scenarios, specifically around disaster recover. My laptop just couldn’t run a DC, 2 SQL Servers, and 2-4 SharePoint servers. I felt like I was being held hostage to the limitations of the technology I had.

I decided to “invest” (isn’t that the term we use when we don’t want to admit we spent too much money on something??) in a real solution. Below is an explanation of how I put together my new infrastructure.


Core: Networking

This one’s easy, I already had wireless networking. The problem was that the server NIC was not wireless. I looked at the cost of adding one and weighed the pros and cons. In the end, I decided that I still don’t trust wireless enough to run a server on and that relocating my router was easier and cheaper. Originally, I had a Cisco WRVS4400N which I bought because it had VPN capability. After using it a while, I realized the VPN wasn’t that great. What was more frustrating was that my wireless connection would drop. I tried firmware upgrades and called support. Their resolution was to swap it out; so I went to Fry’s and did just that, except I went with a different vendor. I got a Netgear RangeMax WNDR3700; it has these features:

  • 680 MHz 32-bit MIPS CPU
  • 8 MB flash / 64 MB RAM
  • USB Connection (ReadyShare to create a NAS)
  • Firewall (Stateful Packet Inspection); VLANs; multiple SSIDs
  • Dual band (2.4GHz + 5GHz) gives you 300+300 = 600Gbps
  • Gigabit Ethernet Ports (GREAT for my server!)

I liked the router, asked for an open box and they had one at a slight discount (original price is $149). With top-of-the-line security, wired and wireless speed, I was ready to rock! The router connects all of my systems with uncompromising speed.

COST: $143

Weapon: Server

Next thing I needed was a server. I looked around for something cheap and powerful. What I ended up with was a Dell PowerEdge R805 which I won on eBay. This server will serve my needs for quite some time. Here are the specs:

  • 2 Quad-core 2.2GHz AMD Opteron Processors
  • 32 GB of RAM
  • 2 x 146GB SAS Drives
  • 3 x 1Gbps Network Interface Cards
  • Dual Power Supply, DVD-ROM, RAID Controller, etc

I thought for all it came with, I got a good value. It was pre-owned and came with the original warranty, which amounts to 18 months for me. Armed with this server, I could now fire up multiple VMs, create complex SharePoint Farms and scenarios and maybe even host a SharePoint Internet site.

COST: $2400

Protection: Storage

I knew that running all my VMs on those two SAS drives wasn’t ideal. I think the #1 concern for SharePoint and other enterprise applications in general is that when you virtualize you must pay attention to disk configuration. I needed external storage. Something fast. Something scalable. Something redundant. I asked around at work actually, to some storage experts and they told me that I couldn’t get everything I wanted for the price I wanted to pay (under $2500). However, they did suggest looking at the Drobo line of products. Drobo is interesting, it looks like a traditional NAS but has some pretty cool functionality built in. Here are some of those features:

  • Support for multi-host (in case I get another server in a few years!)
  • Gigabit Ethernet for iSCSI and multi stream optimization
  • Support 8 drives (start with 1, add more later)
  • VMWare vSphere Ready (Certified)
  • BeyondRAID

What’s BeyondRAID? Pretty freakin’ cool, if you ask me! BeyondRAID is a storage virtualization layer. Imagine, VMWare for Storage. It affords you great flexibility and easy of use. It gives you self managing and auto healing capabilities. Basically, it gives you RAID 6 (protection for up to 2 failed drives) and improves performance (data striping). I found that creating volumes was a snap, I even added two hard drives later and didn’t have to touch one bit of configuration.

The best features for me? I could start off with just one drive, add more later, from any vendor, any size, any speed. Now that’s magic!

COST: $2700 (ok, I indulged)

Now, I’m Iron Man

Just like Iron Man, now, I have a killer infrastructure at my disposal. With this setup, I can defeat any enemy, large or small. Wait… that should say, I can build any SharePoint Farm, large or small. Including hard drives (2TB drives for $89? Wow!), this cost me about $5500 over 6 months. I’ve been able to build scenarios based on best practices (like using SQL connection aliases) and demo what happens if you don’t follow best practices.

For people who just can’t spend that much, consider a more used server with less RAM and perhaps a Drobo FS ($629). You can get great open box deals and deals on craigslist and eBay. If all you want to do it demo or play around, consider Amazon’s cloud-computing offering is pretty cheap and they charge by the hour. Turn off the machines when not in use and you’re not charged. You can even bid for other peoples unused hours for a cheaper price.

P.S: I used Microsoft Office Word 2010 to create and publish this post to my WordPress Blog. If you haven’t used Word as a blog editor, try it out (works in 2007 also).

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