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Last updated: Jun 24, 2024

How to Create a VMware ESXi Homelab – A Complete Guide

vSphere Virtual Machine Administration is a “hub” that contains your ESXi and vCenter Server deployments. VMware’s vSphere is one of the most-used virtualization platforms, thanks to its multiple features and swift learning curve for new users. One of the ways to learn deeply about VMware products is by setting up a homelab.

This article aims to provide a detailed guide on how VMware Admins can create a perfect homelab for experimenting with various VMware virtualization products before taking them live. In addition, this article includes a guide on how to recover files from server drives, regardless of the file system format.

Getting Started

The truth is, setting up a homelab requires you to know a little, or more, about home servers, virtualization, and VMs. You also need a budget, as you can’t set up a homelab without splashing money on some hardware that will make the processing “smooth.” More so, you need a reasonable space in the room where you’re setting this up – nothing needs to be clustered.

Hardware Requirements

Building a “perfect” home lab starts with getting a computer system that meets certain specifications. This is to ensure smooth and efficient performance of the setup – for all kinds of testing. Here are the minimum specs expected of a computer (desktop or laptop) you wish to use in setting up a homelab.

  • Multicore x64 CPU with at least 1.3 GHz core speed and produced in 2011 or later
  • The CPU should be compatible with AMD-V or Intel VT-x virtualization hardware extensions
  • At least 18GB of RAM (32GB is best recommended)
  • A hard disk drive (HDD) with at least 200 GB of free space (SSD is best recommended)
  • Ethernet network adapter
  • Windows or Linux OS, x64 version installed on the system.
  • VMware Workstation or ESXi

Note: These are minimum specs, if you have a computer with much better specs, that’d be much better. Whether you will use Workstation or ESXi for your homelab will be determined by your system’s CPU.

Software Requirements

Since you’re setting up the lab on a VMware environment, you can either use vSphere ESXi or Workstation. If you decide to use ESXi, you will need vCenter for management access to the virtual machines and to carry out admin-level actions, including running CLI commands.

VMware products are not free, however, they offer a “free trial,” so you can take advantage of this free trial to set up your homelab free, literally – ESXi and vCenter have a 60-day free trial period, which is quite lengthy. On the other hand, VMware Workstation only offers a 30-day free trial, so, ESXi is usually the preferred choice for users on a budget.

Typically, VMware homelab is run on Linux OS, but if you have a Windows system to use, you can run homelab using Workstation and VMware Player – VMware Player is available for free, but with limited features.

Finally, you need to get a server configuration tool like FreeNAS. This will allow you to configure the file server easily on any machine you’re using to run your homelab.


Kindly read back upwards to confirm you have gotten all the requirements mentioned above. If you have, then it’s time to start building your homelab, which first starts with installing your chosen VMware software: VMware EXSI or VMware Workstation. Let’s start with ESXi installation on a physical server.

Installing VMware ESXi via USB

You have to download the ESXi installation media, which is a form of an ISO file to a new USB drive. The USB device will then become your ESXi installation USB drive. So, connect the USB drive to your physical server (system) and boot from it. When the server boots from your USB, you will be able to see the ESXi installation screen.

Follow the ESXi installation wizard, it’s pretty straightforward and makes the steps easier. Ensure to install ESXi on the exact disk you want to use in running your virtual environments (this is an important note, especially if you have more than one disk connected to the computer). The drive you install the ESXi application will contain your VM datastores.

Choose your keyboard, set your root password, and make other necessary configurations through the installation wizard prompt. Remove the USB drive and reboot the ESXi server after you’re done with the installation.

Configuring ESXi for the First Time Using the DCUI

After installing ESXi, of course, you need to configure its settings and probably enable SSH and ESXi shell for CLI commands and remote connections (not recommended in production environments, for security purposes).

When you reboot the ESXi instance you just installed, it will boot up a Direct Control User Interface (DCUI) of the server showing the hardware information, ESXi build number, IP address, and other relevant details regarding your setup.

The DCUI is a menu-based interface for first-time configuration of ESXi servers. It lets you connect the new host to the vSphere Client or the host web UI to perform the initial configurations.

  • To log in to the DCUI interface, press F2 on your keyboard and log in using the root account specified during the ESXi installation. After you’re logged in, you will be redirected to the System Customization menu.
  • Go to Configure Management Network to select set your Network Adapters, VLAN, DNS, IPv4/IPv6 addresses, and custom suffixes. When you’re done with configuring these parameters, press the “Esc” key on your keyboard to return to the system customization menu.

If you wish to enable SSH connections, from the customization page, go to “Troubleshooting Options” and set the SSH option to “Enabled.” You can also enable ESXi Shell from this page; when you’re done again, press the escape key on your keyboard. With this feature enabled, you can connect to your host UI using a web browser and the IP address of your host.

Since the Direct Console isn’t really a GUI platform, here are some of the common commands to use in navigating the interface.

Keyboard Press



View and change ESXi configuration


Change UI to high-contrast mode


Confirm sensitive commands, e.g. resetting configuration defaults


Shut down or restart the host


Open VMkernel log


Switch to the shell console


Switch to the DCUI

Arrow keys

Used for selection


Get into a menu option


Toggle a value


Exit a menu


Exit system logs

Networking Configuration

For the homelab setup, you need to make a plain vSwitch that has no uplinks or physical adapters connected to it – a 100% internal vSwitch. This switch will support the nested homelab, hence, you can the switch “Nested-ESXi.”

From the web UI, launch the virtual switch creation wizard and start entering the details for your new standard switch. It is important to set the MTU size to 9000 bytes to allow jumbo frames for vSAN, vMotion, and the Geneve overlay protocol. Also, in order to support nested virtualization, you need to set the security settings to accept “MAC address changes,” “Promiscuous mode,” and “Forged transmits.”

After the vSwitch setup, you need to create port groups using VLAN for the virtual machines you’ll be adding to the homelab. You could name them: Nested-ESXi-Trunk and Nested-ESXi-Management.

For the Nested-ESXi-Trunk port group, it will be best to use VLAN 4095 in setting it up, so that the port group will transport all VLANs, as well as tag to other VLANs on your guest OSes and VMs.

Setting Up Network Configuration for ESXi Nested Homelab

After you have set the vSwitches and VLANs, your homelab is getting ready to accept a nested ESXi installation. One of the vSwitch (with one uplink) should connect to the physical ESXi server on your home network.

In order to allow you to manage your VM effectively, you may want to consider getting a vSphere vCenter appliance. But you can get going with the web UI explained above, it allows access to a handful of VM management tools.

Deploying the ESXi Servers

You can only deploy the servers after you have done the network configuration perfectly. Also, you can use an OVF template to deploy new VMs and ESXi servers to expand your homelab; you can get a nested virtualization OVF template from here.  Now, with a template at hand, you can proceed.

Deploying ESXi Servers in a Nested Environment

  • Click on Create/Register VM to launch the wizard, and then deploy the OVF template you downloaded. Select “Deploy a virtual machine from an OVF or OVA file” and upload the downloaded template.
  • Edit the configuration settings to match that of your network and server; this includes the IP address, VLAN, gateway, DNS, and the rest of them. Also, you will need to allocate resources (memory and CPU) for each Nested ESXi server.
  • Finally, make sure your Network Adapters are connected to the Nested-ESX-Trunk port group.
  • Boot the Nested ESXi server and configure it like you did to the Physical ESXi server – using Web UI or DCUI. Enable SSH if need be.

You can follow this guide to deploy as many nested ESXi servers as you wish for your homelab, and then create a cluster for all of them.

Managing Infrastructure Services

If you have active infrastructural services like Active Directory, DHCP, or DNS, you can manage them in vCenter. But if you deployed from a Windows Domain Controller on your physical ESXi server, there will be no infrastructure services to manage.

VMware Workstation Setup

What we explained above is setting up a homelab with ESXi, which happens to be the preferable choice for quite many people. If you’d prefer using VMware Workstation, here’s how to go about the procedure. This guide will show how to install and run Workstation VM for a homelab setup.

Setting Up a Virtual Machine Running ESXi on VMware Workstation

VMware Workstation lets you create virtual machines for experimenting with various apps and services in your homelab.

  • Download the ESXi 8.0 installer (or the ESXi version you wish to install) from the VMware website. Downloading the ISO file of an ESXi installer is free for VMware account users.
  • Create a path to store the virtual machines you’re using for the homelab setup. For example, you can create D:\Home Lab VMs\
  • Further, create a sub-path for storing your first ESXi VM files. For example, D:\Home Lab VMs\ESXi8e
  • After these prerequisites, click on the “New Virtual Machine” option on the Workstation home screen to launch the VM creation wizard.
  • Choose the Custom (advanced) installation method and select your Workstation version for compatibility.
  • On the next screen where you have to install your Guest OS, click on Installer disk image file (ISO), and import the ESXi installer you downloaded earlier. Select VMware ESX as the Guest OS, and click on the dropdown menu to choose VMware ESXi 7 as the version.
  • Choose a name for  your new VM and select the directory you created for it: D:\Home Lab VMs\
  • Assign processor values to the VM, click Next, and set the memory (RAM) value too.
  • For the Network Type, select Use Network Address Translation (NAT).
  • Set Paravirtualized SCSI (Recommended) as the I/O Controller type and SCSI as the disk type.
  • Now it’s time to create a virtual disk; set the disk capacity you want to allocate and select Store virtual disk as a single file.
  • Now, save the virtual disk in the same directory you selected for your VM – earlier in this guide: D:\Home Lab VMs\xxxxxxxxx
  • Review your settings and click Finish.

Establishing Connection to Shared iSCSI Storage on an ESXi Host

After you’re done setting the homelab, there’s one more step to take, and that is connecting your shared iSCSI storage. The iSCSI protocol allows block-level access to shared storage over TCP/IP networks.

Installing TrueNAS

You need TrueNAS on a VM to create an iSCSI target to connect to the shared datastore. To install TrueNAS, you need to create a new VM and install it inside the VM. After the installation, launch VMware Host Client and log in with your credentials to one of the ESXi hosts.

Configuring the Shared Storage

In VMware Host Client, go to Storage 🡺 Adapters 🡺 Software iSCSI 🡺 configure the available settings and save them.

Now, back to the Adapters menu, click Rescan and Refresh so you can see the new iSCSI software adapter you just created.

To add the shared iSCSI storage, go to the Datastores tab click New Datastore and follow the wizard prompts. Select Create a new VMFS datastore 🡺 select the drive for the VMFS partition 🡺 name the partition 🡺 choose your NAS iSCSI Disk from the list of unclaimed devices 🡺 choose Full Disk as the partitioning option 🡺 use VMFS6 filesystem 🡺 review your selections and click Finish.

Repeat the steps above to add the shared iSCSI datastore to all your homelab ESXi hosts.

Recovery and Troubleshooting

Things can go wrong when you’re dealing with data; it doesn’t matter how careful you are dealing with data, there are unavoidable scenarios that could lead to the loss of important files from your systems and drives. That said, it is always advisable to keep a data recovery solution handy at all times, and of course, make regular backups of your data and save it to external storage.

If you run into a data loss situation while setting up VMware Admin homelab, don’t panic, there are quite a number of VMware data recovery solutions – these are data recovery software programs that support the VMFS file system.

How to Recover VMware Data if Something is Broken

DiskInternals VMFS Recovery supports VMware’s VFMS partition file system and can recover virtually any kind of data from virtual drives. The software supports mounting virtual disks as physical disks and lets you preview the recovered files. If you lost your VMware VM files, you can use VMFS Recovery to get them back.

Note: If you made a prior backup, you can simply restore the backup and regain access to your files without any stress.

  • Download and install DiskInternals VMFS Recovery on your system
  • Launch the program and select your VMFS drive
  • Select a scan mode (Full Recovery) and start the scanning process
  • Wait for the files to be recovered, you can preview them in read-only access
  • Upgrade to DiskInternals VMFS Recovery Pro to save the recovered VM files.


Creating a perfect homelab using VMware products isn’t that complex, but you need to know a little about virtualization and VMware products’ guides. This article explains how to use Workstation and ESXi to set up VMware homelab in your studio or home.

Homelabs are set up for experimental purposes and you can have multiple VMs running in the lab. If you run into an error and end up losing some important data, DiskInternals VMFS Recovery can help to retrieve them, and then you can start afresh – again.


  • How do I create a VMware lab?

    To create a VMware lab, you need a computer with enough power to run multiple VMs, VMware software like ESXi or Workstation, and possibly additional networking equipment. Install the VMware software, set up your virtual machines with the desired operating systems and applications, configure networking within VMware or with your hardware, and adjust performance settings as needed. Ensure your system is secure, and keep detailed documentation of your setup. This lab will allow you to test, learn, and experiment with virtualization in a controlled environment.

  • What is a Homelab server?

    A homelab server is a personal setup at home used for learning, experimenting with software, and testing configurations. It's essentially a mini data center, often consisting of one or more computers or servers, networking equipment, and storage, where individuals can simulate real-world IT environments and work on projects outside of a professional setting.

  • What is VMware hypervisor architecture?

    VMware hypervisor architecture refers to the underlying technology of VMware's virtualization products, which allows multiple operating systems to run on a single physical machine by abstracting the hardware resources. This architecture comes in two forms: Type 1 (bare-metal) hypervisors like ESXi, which run directly on the hardware, and Type 2 (hosted) hypervisors like VMware Workstation, which run on top of an existing operating system. The architecture enables efficient resource management, isolation, and encapsulation of virtual machines.

  • Can I install ESXi on a desktop?

    Yes, you can install ESXi on a desktop, provided the desktop's hardware is compatible with ESXi requirements. However, it's typically used for a homelab or testing environment rather than production, due to potential hardware limitations and support considerations.

  • How to build a VMware lab?

    To build a VMware lab, start by ensuring you have compatible hardware (a powerful PC or server). Install VMware ESXi or VMware Workstation on your machine. Create virtual machines (VMs) for various purposes like networking, storage, and different operating systems. Configure networking within VMware for inter-VM communication and external access. Optionally, set up shared storage for advanced features. This setup allows you to experiment with VMware technologies and simulate different IT environments.

  • What are the requirements for VMware home lab?

    Hardware Setup for a VMware Home Lab:

    • A multicore x64 CPU, 1.3 GHz or quicker (manufactured in 2011 or after), supporting Intel VT-x or AMD-V virtualization enhancements.
    • Minimum of 32 GB RAM.
    • An HDD with at least 200 GB available storage.
    • An Ethernet network interface.
  • How can I practice VMware at home?

    • Determine Your Goals: Decide what you want to learn or practice, such as ESXi, vSphere, or other VMware products.
    • Check Hardware Compatibility: Ensure your home computer or server meets the minimum requirements for the VMware product you're interested in. For basic learning, a modern computer with a multi-core processor, 16-32 GB of RAM, and substantial disk space should suffice.
    • Download VMware Software: VMware offers free or trial versions of most products, such as VMware Workstation Player for individuals or ESXi for a more server-focused experience.
    • Install and Configure: Install the VMware product on your hardware. For ESXi, this means installing it on a server or a compatible desktop. For VMware Workstation Player, install it on your Windows or Linux OS.
    • Create Virtual Machines: Start creating VMs within your VMware environment. Install different operating systems to understand VM management, networking, and storage options.
    • Explore VMware Features: Experiment with features like VM snapshots, cloning, virtual networking, and, if possible, advanced functions like vMotion or HA (High Availability) based on your VMware product and setup.
    • Follow Online Resources: Utilize VMware’s documentation, free online tutorials, courses, and community forums to guide your learning and experimentation.
    • Set Projects for Yourself: Apply what you learn by setting up small projects, like building a virtual network or setting up a multi-tier application environment.
    • Keep Practicing: Consistency is key. Regularly spend time in your lab experimenting with new features or trying to replicate real-world scenarios.

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