Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Home Labs: Getting the most out of one

Building a home lab for more hands on experience
There is some debate about home labs, some say that they are not relevant to the real world and others believe that they are an invaluable learning tool. I believe that it is a great tool that allows you to not only learn with hands on experience but also allows you to build business class networks.
In building a home lab you have the ability to create a complete network from scratch, both design and implementation. This also gives you the ability to make the wiring nice and clean as well as functional. Creating a home lab also give you the ability to create a small business style environment that would make any small business jealous.

Sophos is one of several companies that allow you, for home use only, the ability to use their very powerful firewall software for free. You do have to install it on your own hardware but the software is free and is a true business grade Unified Threat Management (UTM) Firewall. Not all UTM’s are set up the same, in reality though they are all based on the same general principles and for the most part design structure.

With the Sophos UTM you also have access to their antivirus software as well as the remote management console. This gives you the ability to remotely install and control the antivirus software from a single console. This gives you the ability to make custom controlled and deployed solutions.

In today’s business environments most systems are virtualized. There are several different solutions that are available, some are free and others are not. Hyper-V is a free solution that is a true hypervisor, it is available free from Microsoft the only catch is that it is does not have a GUI. It is all command based, but a great example of how to put your PowerShell knowledge to use.

Backup solutions
As is the running theme here there are several different solutions available for you to choose from. Altaro has a free solution for VMs, this is another feature rich solution that is the same as their commercial solution but is limited to only two VMs. This is very similar to many other backup solutions that are used in that you can make incremental backups as well as automatic schedules.
Veeam also has a very powerful and free solution. VeeamZip is a backup software that is incredibly fast and incredible easy to use, it also condenses the backups down by as much as 60%. It also allows you to restore a VM in almost no time at all.

             Help desk and asset management
Spiceworks has a free solution for help desk software as well as asset management, amongst other free things. They also run a very large tech community that is an invaluable asset when you are both learning as well as in the field. They also have a network monitoring solution that gives you a great view and understanding of your network. Most companies use a ticketing system and most use a form of asset management
A PBX unit is a staple in almost every business in the world. The phones and the POE switch may not be free but having a fully functioning PBX gives you the ability to have separate extension for phones as well as a fully integrated voicemail system. FreePBX is great feature rich software that is free for use; this has all of the features of any big name PBX software.
When you create your network you need to document your network. In the real world documentation is a critical aspect of any IT job.  Documentation should be at the for front of any design and change in the network, especially with a home lab. You may walk away from your lab for a few months and go back and not remember what the IP address is of some of your equipment, this should be in your documentation just like any other business. It may sound like I am harping on this a little and I will tell you, yes I am, this is because of the important of proper documentation.

The nice thing about a home lab is that you do not have to have the most expensive equipment in it. Some people will build an elaborate desktop computer to work as a virtual host for their lab, for me used servers are the greatest value. Through secondary sellers, not manufactures, you are able to get very nice used equipment at a very reasonable price. Hard drives are generally the most expensive part of a home lab and this is something you should buy new.
Wireless networking is a staple in most modern small business environments. Wireless access points and repeaters are common place, especially many access points to cover a very dense area. Once again this is where buying used business equipment can come in handy, it may not be the newest units but they have great throughput.
A network switch is part of the core of the network, many have web based management consoles that make it easier to manage and administer. Once again used business grade equipment is a cost effective and safe solution. Remember when you are designing and implementing your network to be sure and run your cables like a professional. There are many examples of what not to do when running cable and some just make the person who ran the cables look like they are inept at their jobs.
Your home lab network is just that, your design and your implementation. A home lab can be a great learning tool when you are just getting your feet wet in the field, but it is also a great tool when it comes to certifications. Hands on experience with the software and hardware you will be using or testing on allow for a better understanding of how it works and interacts with other programs. Build design and enjoy.

Scott Gamet
MCTS Windows 7
A+, Net+