Meat and potatoes – finding affordable hardware for your ConfigMgr lab

I’ve been thinking a lot on how to help make labs more accessible to people just starting out. The market is already cornered on hydration kits – Johan has a shiny one he has been keeping updated for the community over the years. What I’d like to offer is some help finding equipment for folks who want to get started.

Niall Brady has fantastic detailed guides for setting up a ConfigMgr lab environment on less hardware. You can also follow the deployment books Johan and Mikael have written, just know they are written for environments that assume you have hardware specs that are a bit beefier than what you’d find on a shoestring budget. To be honest, if you’re purchasing everything you need, I don’t think it’s possible to buy a full lab setup for under $500 UNLESS you’re willing to use eval versions of all the software including the lab host. eBay and Amazon are your friends. With eBay you can earn “eBay bucks” to help with future purchases, and with Amazon you can shop with credit card points to help reduce costs. If you have any spare hardware laying around, check to see if you can use it in your lab because it will help reduce costs for you. There’s no shame in starting with just a RAM upgrade on a laptop, and then slowly building a new host machine to use one day.

What you need:

Hardware:
My first lab host had an i5 processor. It’s not ideal by any means but you can start there. At minimum you need an i7 in an ideal scenario.
32GB RAM. Most modern PCs that support 16GB RAM (as long as its 2 slots) can *probably* boot on 32GB RAM.
Storage. This one is important, especially if you’re running Windows 10 on the host OS. If you’re running Server, you could get away with less storage because you can run data deduplication (dedup). You need at least 500GB for your infrastructure, your site server, and a handful of clients

OS:
Preferably the host is running Windows Server 2016/2019. If not, then Windows 10 supports Hyper-V, just not data deduplication. If you’re fine with re-hydrating a few times a year then run the host (as well as your lab environment) using the eval version.

Software:
ConfigMgr: you can use the eval version of current branch. If you’re keeping the environment small, why not go the technical preview route? You can still test core functionality, you’ll see features as they come available and be able to provide direct feedback to the product team before it hits current branch, and you’re only limited to 10 clients.
SQL: you can get by on the eval version
Windows Server: see above 🙂
Windows 10: you get the idea…. 🙂

My strongest recommendation is you ask your employer if you can use a Server activation key for your host because starting over on the host every few months can be painful. If you can’t get them to agree to give you a key and you really want to avoid the activation problem there is a solution. You can buy a Server Standard license. I’m not going to link to a reseller/CSP because I don’t want to promote any – just do a google search :). Again – you can run your host OS on Windows 10 – just don’t skimp on storage.

I’ve run a lab on quite a few different company provided devices. I’m mentioning them in case you have something similar but weren’t sure what to buy to make it lab ready:

HP Zbook 13 G3 – it came with a shiny processor. It only supported 16GB RAM, but I found it booted with 32GB (2x16GB sticks) just fine, back then I had to get the RAM from Germany. That isn’t really a problem finding locally anymore. I wasn’t able to install Server on it so I bought a 1TB SSD and happily ran a small lab.

Latitude E7270 – ran a core i7. Its saving grace was that it had two memory slots and I could get it to boot with 32GB RAM I found on Amazon. I bought a 1TB mSATA and an external hard drive. I partitioned the internal mSATA so that the OS had about 200GB and left the rest to run the really important lab infrastructure. I put clients and non-essential infrastructure on the external drive (read: not detrimental if it wasn’t powered up, and not hard to setup again if I lost the external hard drive).

Intel NUC – I’ve had both the i5 and i7 flavors (I prefer i7). FWIW, the skull edition runs really hot and shuts off :(. This was my first foray into running Server on the host and I had to do an unsupported hack to install an essential driver. I have a blog post about it. NUCs can also be convinced to boot with 32GB RAM. The really cool thing is that they support multiple drives (SSD, mSATA, M.2).

I am kind of a pro at finding deals online and I’ve had really good luck with a few resellers on eBay. If you’re comfortable buying used/refurbished it is a really good route to go. Nothing wrong with buying from Amazon, or the various vendor outlets. The bottom line is that outside of eBay, you’re likely to pay more. The goal of the post is to show you how to get a lab rig for under $1,000. I am in no way minimizing the financial weight of setting up a lab without backing from your employer. I completely understand that is a huge sacrifice for anybody forced to acquire the hardware out of pocket.

The following links are prices and availability as of December 21, 2019.

Intel NUC:

$370 – there is a seller on eBay who is selling the following model NUC7i7BNH.
It is a barebones machine so you’ll need a Windows 10 license. They are accepting offers and will ship world wide.

Some sellers have NUCs with an OS pre-loaded but you might be looking at paying slightly more for that convenience. Last time I checked, you could get a Windows 10 Pro license for ~$130 on Amazon.

RAM:
DDR4 SO-DIMM RAM:
~$125 (for a kit of 2 16GB sticks) There are several sellers in this price range who are accepting offers on the item. Make sure to check the shipping charge and where they ship to before purchasing.

Storage:
You want something decently snappy for your infrastructure but you can put your archives, client VMs, non-essential stuff on an SSD and be done with it.
500GB SSD – good for the OS/non-essentials
I like the Samsung EVO. The price you pay depends on new vs used so you’re looking at a starting price of ~$65. The price increases when stepping up to 1TB+
500GB mSATA – again, I prefer the Samsung EVO, and you’re looking at a very similar entry price to its SSD cousin.

Nice to have:
1TB SSD
1TB mSATA
1TB nVME