A home lab is an invaluable learning tool for any IT professional looking to branch out on their skills. There are countless technologies and services in IT today, and my home lab has been an invaluable asset during my COVID imposed self-study, allowing me to get hands-on experience with the tech I’ve been learning.
For such a useful resource, getting started with a lab is simple. So today I’d like to tell you about my lab, how I got started and what I use it for – and hopefully, get you thinking about starting a lab of your own.
What is a home lab? Why are they useful?
As the name suggests, a home lab is a private (typically at-home) computing environment built for the sake of experimentation, learning, or just having fun. You can set up a lab to mimic a production environment, to learn new software, to run a home project or do whatever you can imagine with the resources at your disposal. Your lab might be elaborate, with enterprise hardware and software, or it could be as simple as an old laptop you’re not using – the barrier for entry is low and the possibilities go as far as your creativity and resources.
A Tour Of My Lab
I put my own lab together to learn about technologies I want to improve with: namely, Windows Server and Red Hat, and Ubiquiti networking hardware – so I built it to suit this purpose. I’ve achieved my lab goals with two main pieces of hardware: a strong desktop PC and a Ubiquiti Edgemax Router.
At my previous role, we used Ubiquiti’s cloud management platform to great success to remotely manage networking hardware at client sites. I’ve since taken an interest in their product and took it upon myself to pick up a Ubiquiti EdgeRouter X to play with. It’s a powerful unit which supports many advanced networking functions, and for a modest price point too. It’s also very small and makes no noise, which makes it perfect for a bedroom lab like mine.
Next is my PC. The most efficient way to install and experiment with operating systems like Windows and Red Hat is via virtual machines, so my PC is built for that purpose with an 6th generation i5 processor, 16 gigabytes of RAM, a 500gb SSD, two NICs and VMWare Esxi 6.7 installed. Esxi is a popular type 1 hypervisor which I’ve always been interested in, and this was a great reason to try it out. Here’s a quick overview of my hardware:
- I focused on RAM to run more VMs simultaneously, upgrading my RAM when parts were available.
- Upgrading to an SSD improved performance remarkably, and I recommend this for anyone else who has an aging processor like mine.
- I’ve installed an extra NIC in this machine for a total of two – one port is connected to my home network, for management and internet access. The other is dedicated to connecting to my Ubiquiti EdgeRouter – this allows me to configure and experiment with the router, and also allows my virtual machines to network to any other hardware that I might choose to connect to that router in the future.
It’s important to go over licensing. The good news is that there are plenty of evaluation/trial options that are more than suitable for a home lab environment, provided you are not using them in a production environment. I’ll go over the software I’m using and the licensing options quickly:
- Windows Server has a 180 day free evaluation period which can be re-armed 6 times per instance – this comes out to about 3 years.
- VMWare ESXi is available with a free license from VMWare. The free license is valid indefinitely and has limitations in terms of features available, though these locked features are more for powerful enterprise environments and are not necessary for a home lab. You can read this breakdown of the free vs paid licensing here.
- Red Hat is available at no cost (with no support) via a Red Hat Enterprise Linux developer subscription, for the purposes of writing software and testing. That said, CentOS and Fedora are both free distributions based on Red Hat – click here to learn more about them.
I’ve yet to start learning with Red Hat, but I will definitely check out CentOS when I finish my Microsoft Tech Associate exam.
This was all slowly put together, taken apart/upgraded over the course of a few months. There were plenty of bumps and hiccups along the way, but breaking and fixing is the best way to learn. Today, it’s happily chugging along, running a handful of VMs to aid me in my Microsoft cert studies.