We present the preliminary design of the calibration unit of the future E-ELT instrument METIS. This independent subunit is mounted externally to the main cryostat of METIS and will function both as calibration reference for science observations, as well as verification and alignment tool during the AIT phase. In this paper, we focus on describing its preliminary layout and foreseen functionalities, based on the performance requirements defined at system level and the constraints imposed by warm IR background. We discuss the advantage of employing an integrating sphere as common radiation emitter, leading to a novel and versatile design, where the source's spatio-spectral properties can be varied with high fidelity and repeatability. By combining only few tuneable sources and mechanisms we show how a large instrument such as METIS can be calibrated and tested, without the need of a complex cold calibration unit.