I think VMware home labs are an excellent way to improve your professional growth and career, because they give sys admins, engineers, consultants, and architects a sandbox to test new software, automation, upgrades. It also gives us a place to study and prepare for industry-recognized certifications. I often tell people that home labs are a judgment-free zone where you can test, break, upgrade and rebuild the lab environment through repetition. It’s a safe place to answer those “what if” questions that could potentially break the lab and learn through mistakes that could otherwise cause outages in production environments. Having a discussion with your team about deploying a new platform in your company’s production environment is a lot easier when you are coming from a position of knowledge that is strengthened by experience gained in your homelab.
Installation-wise there are two different types of home lab architectures. Type 1 hypervisor architectures more closely resemble production environments, and these homelabs are deployed using physical hardware with much better performance. A popular hardware of choice in the vCommunity have been Intel NUCs, which have an initial investment starting around $300. Another popular hardware choice in this category is the use of Supermicro systems that start with an initial investment around $680. Of course, other hardware can be used, and there are quite a few folks in the vCommunity who have found great deals purchasing retired server and network hardware for their homelabs.
The main advantage to using a type 1 hypervisor architecture for a lab is that physical hardware is scalable. With this configuration, you also have additional resources to run nested labs in your physical lab. The main disadvantage here is that just like a production environment, hardware will eventually need to be recycled as it becomes old.
The other type of homelab that can be deployed is a nested lab that uses the type 2 hypervisor arcitecture. This type of configuration runs on top of a host operating system, using VMware Workstation or Fusion and Oracle VM VirtualBox. Prices can vary depending on which system you choose, but this solution is considerably cheaper than buying physical hardware for a lab and can run on an existing hardware. The main disadvantage here is that this type of architecture is not scalable and is limited/bottlenecked by the available resources of the hardware.
Choosing the right homelab architecture depends on the use case. If you want to mimic a production environment, and run multiple workloads, then purchasing physical hardware is better. If your goal is standing up a small lab for testing and deploying a few virtual machines, then a nested lab would suffice. Both options can make use of the VMUG Advantage program (https://www.vmug.com/membership/vmug-advantage-membership), which gives temporary licenses to many VMware solutions.
A VMware homelab can be a great tool to advance your professional growth and career because it grants exposure to new and existing VMware solutions, gives you a sandbox to work with new technologies (not just VMware), and enables you to gain the experience necessary to achieve new certifications and possible promotions.