Outfitting Your Home Lab On the Cheap

Practical advice for finding gear -- and what gear to find.

Virtualization is a broad field. As a fundamental infrastructure layer in the modern datacenter, it is intertwined with many other IT segments, most notably storage. Learning requires a lab, and we must learn continuously if we are to keep our skills relevant.

In these days of decreasing IT budgets and increasing pressures on vendors to drive up margins, employers are increasingly pushing the cost burden of the lab back on employees. As with certifications and training, the lucky few will have this covered by their employer. The majority of us are likely to have to pay the toll ourselves: a necessary evil of career advancement.

Marital, Sanity Considerations
Home labs are expensive, but the IT equipment is only part of the cost. Unless one is very careful in selection, all IT gear is noisy. This noise can have marital implications. Depending on how close your sleeping location is to the lab, it can have sanity implications, too.

Home labs may need to be baby or pet-proofed. For example, I have a bearded dragon who has proclaimed the server rack her personal territory, and woe betide anyone who tries to remove her! Ensuring that she not fry herself while climbing up to her preferred perch required building a dragon-compatible climbing wall. I long ago gave up trying to keep her in a cage; she'd invariably escape and end up in the server rack, no matter what I did.

Labs also generate heat. That heat has to be dealt with. It might be useful in the winter, but it can be deadly in the summer. One of my cats wandered into the server room one summer's day just before a thunderstorm and an air pressure change slammed the door shut. We found him two hours later in none-to-good condition as the temperatures in the server room had climbed to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

The good news is that there are ways to deal with these problems relatively inexpensively.

First Stop: Get a Rack

The first step to doing a lab is getting a rack. Craigslist, Kijiji and the local user groups can usually get you one for next to nothing. Racks are important because they can be secured against most pets, allow for cable management and can make creative thermal control easier.

You'll need servers and storage. For this, never underestimate what you can find on eBay. Also look to professional use vendors like Server Monkey, refurbished vendors like xByte (who can provide a full manufacturer warranty), and the virtualization community. VMUGs, the #vExpert tag on Twitter and other community fora such as Spiceworks or Mango Lassi are excellent resources that can usually be mined for cut-price gear.

Also consider SMB-targeted NASes. A Synology device can be everything from a cloud storage gateway to VMware-integrated storage, to a domain controller, DHCP and DNS server on to an application server. You can even containerize and virtualize your Synology instance, backing it and its configuration up in case of device failure. One device can handle a lot of the basic infrastructure of a lab, and they come in "quiet."

There are some vendors to be aware of for the "small stuff". Buy cables from; you are unlikely to find a cheaper source. For light equipment, consider Rack Studs. They may preserve your sanity.
Three words: Velcro cable ties. Do not forget.

Get a network-managed power distribution unit that allows you to turn individual outlets on and off. This may be the most expensive thing in your whole lab. It's also a critical safety item. Most will be 20A or 30A devices with a plug that won't work in your standard 15A home power socket. Adapters are available online for cheap.

IoT Help
Internet of Things thermometers are available. There are even API addressable. If you can't find one for cheap, look for baby monitors with an API. These will have audio, video, thermometer and a hygrometer; again, they can be found inexpensively.

With a little bit of scripting you can sense extremes of temperature and power off non-critical lab equipment in an automated fashion, or power on air conditioners or fans. This can save your equipment, pets, children or -- if you fall asleep in the lab for whatever reason -- you.

Labs can be done on the cheap, but don't do them too cheap.

About the Author

Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He splits his time between systems administration, technology writing, and consulting. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley startups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.


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