Save Money On Your Training Server

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Save MoneyYou can spend less money. Some of us are lucky. We work for very large corporations who can easily set aside a spare desktop or even space on a rack for a server on which we can train. Others of us are not as lucky. We work for smaller organizations that have to be more careful with their money. Not only do we not get the extra machine to train on, but our laptops could be weak things that can’t run two or more VMs. In this case, how can you go about learning stuff? Spend your own money? Sure, it’s an option.

There are some very cheap servers available out there that won’t cost you even $1000 dollars to set up. And for pretty cheap you can buy some network attached storage to have your own little SAN-style setup. That’s very doable. Let’s break it down a little:

HP Proliant MicroServer G8: $549
Added Memory to 16GB: $209
24oGB SSD: $129
Lenovo/Iomega 1TB of storage NAS: $878

We’ve just spent $1765 for a decent little set up. So now you could run 3-5 VMs on this machine and you’re good to go. Of course, now you’ve got to maintain that system, patching, upgrades. What happens when it gets old? You’ve got to replace it. What if you’re not using it? That was a lot of money spent then.

Ah, but wait. Software. We need to get Windows server licensed and SQL Server. Let’s see:

Windows Server 2012 R2 Fundamentals: $501
SQL Server Developer Edition: $44

We’re now up to $2310. But… oh, yeah, the licenses for the servers, that doesn’t include VM licensing, so let’s buy… 4. That’s enough for one server and 3 VMs. That’s an additional $1500, so now we’re up to $3810. Cool though, right. That’s not much money and we’re off and running.

Here’s a suggestion, even if you have to spend your own money, how about Azure? Currently, I’ve left three servers running on my account (not something I recommend, but I’ve been doing this as an experiment), plus the storage they use, plus the SQL Databases I have, I’m racking up a bill of about $80/month. That’s $960 in a year. Which means in about 3.9 years, I’ll have spent as much as you just did on that server that’s sitting under your desk.

Yeah, I know. It runs somewhat faster, except when I burn a little cash and bump my servers up to 8 core and 56gb of ram for a test, then turn it back down, or even, turn it off or deallocate it. Because, you’re only going to pay for what you use. So if you just throw the VMs away between tests, you’re saving tons of money, way above and beyond what that hunk of iron under your desk cost. You can even estimate exactly what things are going to cost using the engine Microsoft provides.

But did I say pay? Not quite. You see, I have an MSDN account. That includes Azure credit. Anywhere from $50 to $150 per month. So, for $1199/yr, I can get $50 a month of Azure credit. That means, just buying an MSDN account, it’ll take me three years to equal what I spent on that box under the desk.

Oh, and that’s before we get to the electricity you paid.

Look, there’s a reason to buy iron. I believe in it. But, there are also reasons not to buy iron. Testing, training, personal use… maybe iron. Or, maybe it’s time to step into the 21st Century.


  • Not saying I endorse setting up a rack in the garage (unless it’s racks of synthesizers), but if it was for training/testing…wouldn’t anyone buy a msdn to handle all the licensing? I’m not understanding why someone would buy the hardware you listed instead of spending that same amount on a beefed up desktop that can handle a heavy vm load, and fulfill their computering needs 🙂

    I’m also curious about the training scenarios you are running that can’t be done with a couple of vms on the system that we already own?

    I’m not knocking azure at all, I have an msdn and I use up my 50$ credit every month (25$ a month gets used just leaving an extra small linux vm on 24/7). But once I hit the limit, I usually end up turning to my local vms.

    (put the Shillelagh down) 🙂

  • Licensing costs buying the software are a little cheaper than going with MSDN. But, I’d go with MSDN anyway because you get more than just the two licenses I referenced, so it’s worth it.

    As to hardware, I tried to go with the concept of a dedicated machine that you can set up multi-day tests on for some real learning time. I run VMs on my laptop for the basic stuff all the time (licensed through MSDN again, gotta love that). But it’s all small stuff. When you really want to do more for longer, you spend a bit to set up an environment where you can do that.

    But, fair enough. You can get the Dell Inspiron for $369. It has a 500gb hard drive. That cuts $1400 off the cost, which is a fair chunk of change. But, you’ve only got a small amount of storage there and you’ll probably need more memory since the Inspiron only comes with 4gb. The money starts adding up again pretty quickly.

    As I said, I’m not against hardware, but depending on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, you really can save money using Azure.

    Didn’t even reach for a stick because you’re not wrong in any way.

  • ugh not an inspiron 🙁 I was really hoping you would agree that a beefed up desktop for 1700 was a good idea…then I could have shown this post to my wife and tried to get a gaming rig. “See even other people think it’s a good idea…it’s for VMS and testing and stuff!”

    Can you elaborate on the “multi-day tests?” (I like setting up labs for testing, so I’m always looking for new stuff to try)

  • Did I say Inspiron? I meant to say one of these awesome AlienWare desktop machines: They are perfect for all SQL Server testing and training. In fact, they’re the goto machine of all the very best,and most highly paid, consultants.

    Does that help?

    Multi-day tests, run production loads for 48 hours from multiple playback machines, monitor the monitoring software, stuff like that. Heck, just setting up failover clustering takes me a couple of days (I’m slow), so I need to have the machines in a known state for most of that time. VMs on my lap just wouldn’t cut it.

  • Glad you wrote this up, I inferred this was your setup from stuff you’ve written on twitter. I’ve been debating the same thing with myself and had even contemplated sending you an email to ask how the costs were stacking up.

    SQL4GNT: $25 a month is a lot to host an extra small Linux instance, you could get that hosted for pennies elsewhere and save your Azure credit for where it counts.

  • Strikes me as a good solution for presentation demos too – even if you don’t have the nerve to demo direct from Azure, you can get everything ready then download the VHD to your local box whenever you feel the need to tempt the demo gods in public.

  • Absolutely true. I’ve been doing live demos with it for a while now. But, for SQL Cruise, for example, I recorded videos of what I was doing so I could show people in an environment completely without connectivity (may the gods bless Camtasia).

  • It just makes so much sense doing it this way. It is so easy and simple to build VMs and so many different flavours available too.

    In sleepy rural England my internet connection is ssssllllloooowww and our user group had no connection to the net (although we have moved premises and fixed that) so I upgraded my laptop and now enjoy both Azure and the ability to play on the train as well 🙂 and can demo knowing that internet connection won’t affect the demo gods at least

    Note to Tim (and his wife) – I got a fabulous Clevo machine and am very happy with it.

  • Kevin Boles

    Nice post Grant. I agree, the various Azure benefits are definitely starting to add up to provide a nice value, especially in cases like you mention here. Another is for “spikey” usage, like spinning up 100(s) compute “somethings” in Azure to chew through a specific problem for 3 days and then bringing results back on-premise for analytics.

    As a side note, I was very happy with Microsoft when they recently added in MSDN usage, including Azure credits, to those of us that are Certified Trainers!


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