Homelab: Hypervisors – Part 2 – VMware

What I want to say is, after deciding it was time to move to VMware and attempt to use vSAN instead of Storage Spaces Direct (S2D) I wanted to research the hardware I had and see if it would work on ESXi 7.0. But of course I did not thoroughly read all of the changes vSphere 7.0 has brought. The holiday was approaching and I was going to use this time to do my migration. I had read up on vSAN and knew I needed cache drives. I bought a few small (250GB) NVME drives to put into each system. Getting those drives installed took a day because I needed to create a custom 3D printed mount. That would give me a good speed boost for my storage no matter what. Having recently upgraded to 10GB networking, I already had HP and SolarFlare 10gb networking cards. The time came and I copied all of the VMs I had in Microsoft VHDX format to my NAS (which wasn’t getting changed), then unplugged the first Hypervisor, and attempted a ESXi 7.0 Install.

One hardware change I should note, I am using USB 3.0 128GB thumb drives for the ESXi OS. This also allowed me to leave the original Windows drive untouched, allowing for easy rollback if this was a nightmare. I put the ESXi 7.0 disk into the first system AND! Error, no networking card found… I started searching online and quickly found a lot of people pointing to this article. ESXi 7.0 had cut a ton of network driver support, everything from the Realtek motherboard NIC to the 10GB SolarFlare card would not be supported, with no way around it (I tried). It comes down to 6.x had a compatibility layer in it where Linux drivers could be used if there were not native drivers, 7.0 removes this. I then got a ESXi 6.7 installer (VMware doesn’t allow you to just download older versions on a random account, but Dell still hosts their version) and installed that. Everything came online and started working. Now that I knew the one thing blocking me was that, I installed all my systems with 6.7 while I waited for the 3 new Supermicro AOC-STGN-i2S Rev 2.0 Intel 82599 2-Port 10GbE SFP+ cards I ordered. Using the Intel 82599 chipset, they have wide support. 2 Ports is nice; and, the 2.0 revision of the card is compact allowing them to fit into my cases. So far I recommend them, they also are around $50 on eBay, which is not bad.

I played with a few of the systems, but decided to wait till the new network cards were in a few days later to initialize vSAN and copy all of the data back over. I used this guide, from the same author of the other post about ESXi 7.0 changes to configure the disks in the system how I wanted them. At one point I thought I was stuck, but I just had to have VMware rescan the drives. I setup a vSphere appliance on one of the hosts. This gives me all the cluster functionality, and single webpage to manage all the hosts. Here I an also create a “Distributed Switch” which is a virtual switch template which can be applied to each of the hosts. I can set the vlans I have, and how I want them to work in one place, then deploy it to all the systems easily. This works as long as all your hosts have identical network configurations. After watching a YouTube video or two on vSAN setup I went ahead setting that up. The setup was straight forward, the drives reported healthy, and now I was ready to put some data on it.

A small flag about vSAN, it uses a lot of RAM to manage itself and track which system has what. I was seeing about 10-12 gb of ram used on each of my hosts, that has 32gb to begin with. There are guides online for this, and I believe it can be tweaked. It has to do with how large a cache drive you have, and your total storage. Not a big deal, but if you are running a full cluster, something to be aware of.

Migrating the old VMs from their Hyper-V disk images to VMware was not too difficult. I used qemu-img to convert from VHDX to VMDK. The VMDK images that qemu creates are the desktop version of the VMDK format. VMwares desktop products create slightly different disk images than the server versions. I then unloaded these VMDKs onto the vSAN and used the internal vmkfstools on ESXi Shell to convert those images to the server versions. The Windows systems realized the changes, and did a hardware reset, they worked right away. The Linux systems (mostly CentOS 8) would not boot under any of the SCSI controllers VMware had. After reading online, and a bit of guessing, I booted them with the IDE controller which appeared to be the only one dracut had modules for. Once the systems were online I could do updates, and with the new kernel version they had available they made new initrd images. These images being created on the platform with the new virtual hardware, installed the SCSI controller modules and could then be changed from IDE to SCSI mode.

So far other than the hardware changes that needed to happen, moving to VMware has worked out well. I am using a VMware Users Group license, https://www.vmug.com/, which is perfect for homelabs, and doesn’t break the bank. I am starting to experiment with some of the newer or just more advanced VMware features that I have not used before. We spoke of vSAN, I also have setup DRS (Distributed Resource Scheduler, allowing for VMs to move between hosts as resources are needed), and want to setup a key manager server to play with VM encryption and virtual TPMs.

Now that I am off of that… unsupported… Storage Spaces Direct configuration updates are much easier. I can put a host into maintenance mode, which moves any running VMs, then reboot it and once its back online, things re shuffle. This does mean I need enough space on the cluster for 1/3 of it to be off at a time, but that is ok. I am running 32gb of ram, with 2 empty DIMMS in each system, when the time comes I can inexpensively add more RAM.

If you/your work has a NetApp subscription, there is a NetApp Simulator which is a cool OVA you can deploy on VMware to learn NetApp related things. I was using that at work to learn how to do day to day management of NetApps. Another neat VM image that comes in the form of OVA I found recently is Nextcloud’s appliance. They have a single OVA that has a great flow for taking you through configuring their product.

Overall the VMware setup as been as easy as I thought it could be. Coming from a workplace who runs their management systems without a lot of access, it has been nice having vSphere 7.0. It automatically checks in online, and lets me know when there are updates for different parts of the system.

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