Home Labs and Why You Need One

If you are currently working in or are looking to break into the job market in an IT role, having a home lab is extremely valuable. Whether you’re a developer, systems administrator, or network engineer – a home lab is an amazing tool to have handy. In this post, I am going to cover what a home lab is, and why having one is beneficial for you.

What the heck is a home lab?

If you are not already familiar with the term, a home lab is a collection of equipment ranging from old Dell OptiPlex’s and Raspberry Pi’s all the way to high-end enterprise gear where tech enthusiasts and professionals can experiment, build, and play with many different technologies. Want to create a game server? You got it. Want to put together a banger home network? Sure thing. Looking to experiment with self-hosted solutions? How about all three? A home lab is perfect for you and the possibilities are endless.

Photo: Stefan Thierolf / thierolf.org, License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Ok, but why should I build a home lab?

Learn new things

One of the best things about home labs is that they enable you to learn things you wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to learn. Want to learn Linux? No problem, Raspberry Pis are cheap and are great little devices to start a home lab with. Want to learn Windows server administration? You can create an entire, virtual Windows domain right on your PC.

Experiment with different technologies

Another great benefit of home labs is that they can act as a sandbox to experiment and play with different technologies. If something doesn’t work or breaks, no big deal – it’s your home lab, not a production environment. Breaking things and fixing them is a great way to learn, and home labs are the perfect place to do that. In fact, many homelabbers go so far as to build a “production” and test environment within their homes.

Show it off to recruiters

In my opinion, putting in the hours needed to research and build a home lab is something I believe is resume-worthy. Recruiters and hiring managers love to see candidates who have used their free time to put together a home lab. It shows that you are passionate enough about what you do to spend your own time and money on building a home lab. If anything you’ve done in your home lab is relevant to the jobs you are applying for, make sure to bring it up in the interview!

Host your own services

Being able to host your own services is a HUGE benefit that homelabbers love. What I mean by hosting, is having a service such as Plex, which is a home media server solution, running within your own home. Many of these services don’t require outside connections and are under your complete control. Awesome-selfhosted is a Github repository that lists many different services you can host at home.

A few self-hosting ideas:

  • Plex – Media Server, sort of like your own personal Netflix
  • Nextcloud – Filehosting. Super cool, especially when you set it up to be used away from home. It is sort of like a self-hosted Google Drive.
  • Pi-hole – DNS level ad/tracker blocker
  • Home Assistant – Used for home automation
  • Websites
  • Game servers

What do I need to start a home lab?

I know what you’re thinking – all of this sounds expensive. You’d be right, it can get expensive.. but it doesn’t have to be. Most people already have a modem and router, which are usually good enough to support basic features for beginners. I started my home lab with a consumer router/switch/access point appliance, a 30 dollar Raspberry Pi and an old Dell Optiplex I got for free. In truth, you really don’t need ANY extra hardware to start a home lab as long as you have a laptop or desktop PC that supports virtualization. You can get started today, completely for free, by using hypervisors such as Virtualbox or VMware Player. This is a great way to start learning things. You can spin up Linux VMs on the fly, and even create an entire Windows domain, as mentioned earlier, all on a single PC.

If you want to look into getting dedicated hardware to start a lab, a good place to look is within your company. Ask your colleagues if they know if the company has any old gear you can re-home. You never know what you’ll be able to find. If you don’t work for an employer that may have that option, calling local businesses who you suspect might doesn’t hurt either.

Buying cheap gear is always an option too:

  • eBay – cheap gear can be found readily available on eBay. Whether it’s old consumer PCs or retired enterprise gear.
  • Raspberry Pi – Pis are great, cheap tiny devices that many homelabbers love to use.
    • Ready-to-go Raspberry Pi kits are available from places like CanaKit and Vilros.

Be careful though, building a home lab is addicting to techies and you will always find something you want to upgrade to!

The Main Parts of a Home Lab

Once you get more into homelabbing, you may want to look into upgrading to better gear. Many homelabbers like to use enterprise or small business gear. Most people new to home labs won’t have all of the following, but I wanted to include these pieces as inspiration:

Networking (Routers, Switches, Firewalls, & Wireless)

When starting out, most people will use the average router/switch/firewall/access point combo appliance you buy at your local big-box store. These work fine for basic needs but experienced homelabbers eventually upgrade to dedicated Routers, Switches, Firewalls, and Access points. Switching (no pun intended) to dedicated devices offers more advanced features, control, and better overall network and wireless performance. Ubiquiti offers a host of good products from their Unifi line that are popular in home labs and includes devices for routing, switching, and Wifi.

Servers

Servers are the coolest part of a home lab. There’s truly nothing like having your own cluster of servers at home acting as your personal data center. Your power bill will take notice, though. Not everyone may choose to fully commit to servers such as the Dell r730, and you don’t have to. You can easily use old laptops or desktops as servers too. Smaller devices like the Raspberry Pis, Intel NUCs, and micro PCs are great server options as well. Just make sure you research what you are wanting to run and make sure the hardware you have can support it.

Storage

Storage is another important part of a home lab. Network-attached storage, or NAS, is the go-to way to set up storage in a homelab. Some homelabbers are data hoarders and have terabytes upon terabytes, however, I’m willing to bet the average person doesn’t need a ton. Devices offered by Synology are affordable (not including drives), reliable, and easy to use. If you have a server, you can also take a look at solutions such as TrueNAS, which is a NAS operating system you can load onto pretty much anything.

Racks

Imagine you have all the gear you could ever want (until something fancy comes out) – where are you going to put it all? I admit.. I am guilty when it comes to racks. I don’t even have one myself (at the time of writing.. my Dell r730 needs a home soon), and my homelab lives completely on a dresser. Blasphemy. Racks are important and help keep your gear neat, which is why every homelabber should get one eventually. It’s important to know that racks use rack units as measurements, such as 15u, 20u, 25u, etc. Whenever you go to buy a rack, make sure you’ll be able to fit all your needs, especially if you have servers. Startech makes some quality racks that are very popular. The one below is their 25u 4-post rack.

Useful Resources

  • homelab subreddit (/r/homelab) – A great place on reddit to check out other peoples’ home labs for inspiration and get help with putting together your own. I would HIGHLY recommend reading through homelab wiki.
  • homelabsales subreddit (/r/homelabsales) – A sister subreddit to /r/homelab. You can buy and sell things such as computers, servers, network devices, and other miscellaneous items. If you like Unifi gear, it pops up often there.
  • selfhosted subreddit (/r/selfhosted) – All things self-hosted services.
  • LabGopher – A cool website that compiles eBay listings to help find used servers for techies of all budgets.
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