Your Guide to Buying the Best Home Lab Gear
Finding the right gear for building a home lab, from reputable sources, for the right price can be tricky. We may not have rotating stages filled with items priced to sell, but we do offer some guidance on where you can buy the gear you want and need to build a home lab all your buddies in IT will drool over.
Server: Order Today!
There are lots of options when it comes to server hardware for your home lab. So many, in fact, that it's easy to get overwhelmed. You have to factor in capacity, cost, noise, size, power consumption, and heat. A 10-year-old beast server can be had for a song but will be loud as a jet, jack up your power bill, and double as a bedside table and space heater. A brand new, fully loaded server will sip power, run super quiet and cool, and tuck away anywhere, but the cost could rival the down payment for your house.
Let's land somewhere in the middle and look at a favorite home lab and enterprise IT workhorse: the Dell R710.
A 2U server with two Intel Xeon CPU sockets and plenty of room for disks and RAM, the Dell R710 is a great server to start with and grow into as you increase your knowledge and skills. It's not the latest and greatest from Dell, but it's still very respectable. Because they are so popular in the enterprise, you can find some amazing deals as companies pull them out during hardware refreshes. R710s with dual CPUs, 32 or more GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage are plentiful for under $500 on eBay.
Virtualization: These Deals Won't Last!
A server is but a massive gray blinkenlight door stop without an OS, right? And of course, you want virtualization in your home lab. Your two big choices are VMware and Hyper-V, and both have free versions to play with, giving you the hands-on practice you need. Which one you choose will come down to what your learning goals are. Can't commit? Nested virtualization will let you install one within the other and run both!
Network: We'll Throw in a Pack of Ginsu Knives!
You have lots of choices here as well, so let's start with one simple question: Cisco or something else? Again, what do you want to learn? Do you want to work on your CCNA? Look for Cisco routers and Catalyst switches. CCNA Security? Pick up an ASA firewall. Once again, eBay is your friend; super high supply makes for low prices on used gear.
Maybe your office doesn't standardize on Cisco, or maybe you just want something a bit easier to config and learn on, but still enterprise level. HP switches are for you, and the 1810 is a ubiquitous workhorse with an easy to manage GUI. Again, take advantage of eBay.
Feeling really adventurous? pfSense is a popular Linux-based firewall that you can run as a virtual machine on your awesome new server. There's a lot to learn to set this up, configuring your NICs and VLANs on both the hypervisor and the switch will be a great exercise, but give yourself a full afternoon to learn if this is new to you.
Rack and Power: Operators are Standing By!
Got some great deals on hardware and rocking some sweet VMs? Awesome! It's all sitting on your kitchen table or in a pile on the floor and plugged into a power strip of questionable age? Facepalm! All that rack-mount hardware? Yeah, it goes IN A RACK! They don't call it floor-pile hardware so clean up that mess! And that power strip is almost glowing it's so overloaded!
Go get a rack, or maybe even build one if you're handy in the shop. Give yourself some room to grow, you don't need a full-sized six-and-a-half-foot monster, but you might want to add more boxes down the line, so maybe get twice the number of rack units your gear takes up now. Clean up the cabling while you're in there, velcro strips are your friend.
For power, you need a UPS. It'll provide power conditioning, surge protection, and battery backup, all in one. Just spec it out appropriately; add up the watts that each of your devices uses at full load, factor in gear you might add in the future and round up a couple hundred to give yourself a buffer. Like everything, used gear is cheaper but the components and batteries in these don't age well and can be expensive to replace. For this piece of hardware, it might make sense to spring for new gear.
The Other Bits: But Wait, There's More!
We've built out the core of your lab, but the list can go on and on. Wiring your entire house for Ethernet, NASes for storage, wireless, and MOAR SERVERS! With so many options for hardware, active online communities will be invaluable for research as you continue to grow. Hopefully, we've given you enough to get started though and build a lab worth bragging about!