Until recently, and for well over the past decade, my wife and I have been nomads. Moving from the Caribbean to Miami, New York, Las Vegas, Vancouver, and now back home. This has meant that for many of those years, my home office basically comprised of a few laptops and screens.
Last week, after a short trip to Antigua, I had a brief meeting with a tech friend of mine, Yves Ephraim. He was an Engineer with Cable & Wireless for 20 years (until 2003). Yves left C&W shortly before I started there in 2004. He’s a champion of the internet and technological developments in Antigua & Barbuda.
We sat in his home office where he told me a bit about his current projects; as well as his dabbling’s with IPv6, web hosting, mail, BGP4, among other things. Most of which he does via his very capable home lab.
What is a Home Lab?
My current Home lab in a 12u rack as of May 2020
Think of a home lab as a place where you can fail in the privacy of your own home. As Thomas A. Edison said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I consider myself an expert at failure. But seriously, I would like to fail a lot more and a home lab will create endless opportunities for me to fail. Of course, all the while seeking success, but you got that already.
In general, a lab is a place where you can safely perform experiments. Most of you reading this article are techies and sysadmins. As you know, trying out new things on production equipment never ends well. Shush… it’s OK, I know, I know, you didn’t think that one command would take everything offline. This risk is the reason why we build ourselves a sandbox environment to dabble, test and fail in, all from the comfort of our own homes.
To date I host my test labs on servers in North America and Europe. I’m creating a customized network and server home lab; to fill those areas where I would like to become more familiar. I will also be using my home lab for remote backups, network monitoring and alerting of remote servers, and to setup wired UAP APs, among other things.
May we inspire each other to great home labs
As I told Yves, our chat had me revisiting the idea. In fact, I think my exact words were, “Yves, I see your home lab and I’ll raise you mine”. As always, I’m certain there’s a lot more to learn through discussion. In light of this fact, I wanted to share this journey with you, starting with the selection process of the hardware for my home lab.
Of course, over the years, I’ve had equipment lying around, but that stops today. Well sort of. So, if you have ever been interested in building a home lab or if you already have one, then let’s mingle, share and dabble together.
Where do we begin? Not to sound cliché, but let’s start from the ground up, or wall forward. What I’m trying to say is, we need storage space, physical storage space; for our new home lab.
Home lab location, it’s all about location
Location, Location, Location. It’s all about location! Please excuse the lack of originality – i’m a sysadmin, not a writer. I’ll try my best to get you to the end of this article.
Location is critical for a number of reasons. The choice between the home office, living room, closet, attic, basement or garage all depends on a range of important variables. These include room temperature and ventilation, workable space around your equipment, ease and distance of network cable runs, foot traffic, 24-hour ease of access, power, noise levels from your home lab, and more.
Here’s a quick list of Pros vs Cons I’ve compiled, to get us thinking about all the possible home lab locations. Choose wisely:
- Pros: Proximity to work area/desk/devices, fewer cable runs, and you can watch lights flash all day.
- Cons: no home office or you already spend too much time in your home office.
- Pros: Usually cool, lots of space/setup options, blinky-blinky sci-fi movie nights, and counts as family time.
- Cons: divorce, foot traffic, could get damaged, or damaged during the divorce.
- Pros: Easily accessible, stealthy, and you get to say: “Look at what I have hiding in my closet”
- Cons: Poor ventilation (excess heat), lack of space, and one less closet = unhappy wife.
- Pros: Usually cooler temps, and volunteering to do laundry (maybe con?).
- Cons: don’t have a basement, flooding, spiders, or no access when injured.
- Pros: Less noise, easier cable runs.
- Cons: can get hot depending on where you live, roof leaks, humidity/condensation, and creepy at night.
- Pros: Less noise in the house, completely out of sight, wife won’t even notice.
- Cons: A Bug’s Life in your lab, excess heat (if no AC), dust, could require longer cables, or gets wrecked when parking the car.
For my lab, I’m going to build it out in my home office. In my office I have laptops, a desktop, a server and other devices so this location will require shorter cable runs. When selecting your location, also consider the coolest area of the room/space, avoid direct sunlight and consider reserving space for future expansion.
It’s wise if you draw/sketch out a home network diagram or use network design software. Keep in mind your floor plan and how you will accomplish the cable runs. For example, most of the homes on this island have 6″ concrete interior walls. Think about these things before, not after. In other words, map everything out, make notes and create lists.
Network vs. Server Racks vs. Cabinets?
Next, we need to decide how we will store the equipment (modems, routers, switches, servers, patch panels, UPS systems, power strips, cooling fans, etc.).
Network cabinets and racks, are often confused with Server cabinets and racks. Routers, switches, patch panels, and the like, are usually much shallower than servers. As such, Network Cabinets and Racks are usually not as deep as Server Cabinets and Racks. Also, networking devices often produces less heat than servers. You will find some network cabinets will have glass doors that may not leave enough ventilation for servers.
After deciding the depth and ventilation requirements for your home lab, there are a couple of other things to consider. A cabinet is an enclosed space with door(s) and/or removable sides, whereas a rack is a semi or fully open (4 sides open) frame. To help you decide whether to use a cabinet or rack, consider the following:
- If you are installing large, heavy servers, then the extra stability of cabinets or four sided racks should be considered.
- If you need frequent access to the sides or rear of equipment, then an open rack or cabinet with removable sides would work well.
- If your equipment requires extra cooling, an enclosed cabinet will need more attention when it comes to cooling and ventilation.
- If the room is prone to dust, the extra protection of a cabinet will go a long way in keeping it out of your equipment.
- If you are installing in a general living area frequented by house guests, consider an enclosed cabinet that can often look neater in appearance when locked. However, a well-maintained open rack with tidy power and network cable runs can look just as neat!
- If restricted access/security is required, many enclosed cabinets often offer lock and key access control for better security.
Recommended Home Lab Hardware
Now that you have already measured the maximum depth of your equipment and considered all the above advice, it’s time to buy your first piece of hardware. Or not. You could have probably skipped to this section if you prefer more em’, creative methods for hosting your home lab. However, most of the above advice applies even if you plan to setup your home lab in your existing living room cabinet, on a bookshelf, under your desk, or in a cardboard box. No, seriously…
Image: Fancy cardboard box cabinet.
As a reminder, in some countries you can get most of the equipment listed below via Craigslist, Universities and other local second-hand options. Prices on this page reflect Amazon’s current pricing, which is subject to change. If links to manufacturer pages become broken over time, please let me know, as it seems to always happen. Let’s move on to the recommended home lab hardware.
To replace or not to replace: ISP Cable Modem
Before we delve a bit deeper into my home lab recommendations, if you are a beginner to switching and routing, then a lot of the hardware below may seem to be a bit of an overkill. You can get your feet wet by merely replacing your ISP’s cable modem (ISP or Internet Service Provider), you know, that thing with all the flashing lights that you constantly have to unplug to reset