Why You Should Have a Homelab
In 1998 my friend Meredith gave me a RedHat Linux CD. I spent hours each day experimenting with Linux–I loved it. 2 years later I’m in a room with 30 other students at a University applying for the same computer lab assistant job–I’m thinking my chances are grim. Part-way through the mass interview a man walks to the front of the room and asks if anyone has ever used Linux. I raise my hand–I’m the only one. He takes me out of the interview for the lab assistant job, introduces me to the department director. They took me out to lunch. By the end of the day I had my first job as a Systems Administrator.
Learn things on your own and it will broaden your opportunities.
One of the best ways to learn about systems, applications, and technology is starting a homelab. A Homelab can give you an enjoyable, low stress, practical way to learn technology. A homelab will also help you find out the technical areas in which you are interested. It’s also practical in that you can use it to service your own home.
What is a Homelab?
A homelab is an environment located at your home where you can experiment safely.
It is a place outside of the corporate environment for your personal projects, growth, and a fun hobby. While not all homelab projects lead to professional development, many of them do.
The homelab environment for most technologists consists of one or more servers running a virtualization environment and a storage solution to support various virtual servers providing services. Specialty home labs can also be built (e.g. an aspiring network engineer may build a homelab out of Cisco networking equipment).
Here are 7 Ideas for Your Homelab
1. Router / Firewall
The most essential piece of equipment will be your router. I started out with consumer routers that I’d flash to DD-WRT / Tomato but now I use a virtual pfSense router. Routers are great to learn about DHCP, DNS, VPN, Firewalls, etc. I discourage using the router provided by your ISP, they’re usually not very capable and often not secure. In most cases you can buy a DSL or Cable modem instead of the ISP provided modem combined with the router. One inexpensive physical router I’d recommend is the Ubiquiti EdgeRouter X. Ubiquiti provides free software updates (their model is you buy the hardware and the software is free), and you’ll get a handful of advanced features—it’s a very capable router and much better than a typical consumer router—to step up from Ubiquiti you’d be going to pfSense, Juniper or Cisco.
The main reason I started my homelab was storage. I was taking a lot of family pictures and videos and wanted to save them. I know there are cloud services, but at the time they were expensive, and then you’re sort of trusting that provider to not delete all your photos or get bought out by a larger company and shutdown.
Then I started using the free version of VMware ESXi. I needed faster storage with more IOPS. One of the best Homelab storage solutions is ZFS. ZFS takes the best of filesystems, and the best of RAID, and combines them into a software-defined storage solution that I’ve not seen any hardware technology able to match. Two popular free ZFS appliances I like are Napp-It (based on OmniOS) and FreeNAS.
I’m currently using FreeNAS which is the free open source version of iX System’s TrueNAS which is used by organizations of all sizes–from small businesses with a few TB of storage to large government agencies with PBs of storage. FreeNAS has done a great job at technology convergence. It is both a NAS and a SAN allowing you to try both approaches to storage (I prefer NAS because it takes better advantage of ZFS, but many prefer using SAN and there are benefits and drawbacks to both), it also has many built-in storage protocols: FTP, iSCSI, NFS, Rsync server, S3 emulator, SMB (Windows file server), TFTP, WebDav, it can join AD, it can even be an AD DC (if you like living on the edge) it has a built-in hypervisor (bhyve) to run VMs for whatever you want. This is now marketed as hyper-converged storage. All of it is completely free. You can build your own FreeNAS server as I did, or get started with a FreeNAS Mini from iX Systems.
A few years after I learned ZFS for home, my employer was looking for a new storage solution so having this knowledge and experience was helpful. I was able to determine one vendor with a traditional RAID solution didn’t handle the RAID-5 write-hole problem properly.
Virtualization allows you to run multiple virtual servers on the same piece of hardware. There are two popular options for homelabs. Proxmox VE or VMware ESXi. I wrote about Proxmox vs ESXi where I go into more detail. VMware ESXi is king in the small to mid-size business hypervisor market, and VMware offers its hypervisor for free. The free version of ESXi is just like the paid versions, except you won’t be able to use some features (most involving high availability and fail-over with multiple servers). But you can learn most of the concepts and features of VMware. I consider a hypervisor basic infrastructure. From there you can learn about other things like networking, storage, and play with any OS or Linux distribution you want to.
Knowing VMware ESXi is beneficial, I’ve implemented it for several businesses, and one of my previous employers. And knowing how it works means I can discuss the VMware stack intelligently with the ops team.
See my FreeNAS on VMware Guide if you’re interested in running a virtual FreeNAS server inside VMware.
Proxmox VE is another popular hypervisor—I run it in my homelab. For a free virtualization solution, you can’t beat Proxmox. It gives you free High-Availability, Ceph Storage Clustering, and Live Migration which are paid features for VMware ESXi. I prefer Proxmox. But if you’re on the fence and trying to learn for your career, you will want to stick with VMware. You won’t find too many businesses running Proxmox compared to VMware.
A Homelab without decent networking won’t get you far. Fortunately if you use VMware you can leverage it to use virtual network switches. For physical switches I like the Unifi product line. They are simple enough for non-network engineers like me. Everything can be configured using the GUI. Unifi exposes you to managed switches, central management (with the Unifi controller), VLANs, and PoE (Power over Ethernet), port trunking, port mirroring, redundant paths with spanning tree, etc.
I started with this little UniFi 8-port switch (4 are PoE ports). I also added a UniFi 24-port switch so I could learn how to do setup a LAG and configuring VLANs across multiple switches (which was simple using the Unifi interface). I also like Unifi’s philosophy—they sell you the hardware but the software is free—which means you don’t pay for maintenance or support but continue to get free updates. In a homelab you may not need to go crazy on VLANs, but separating your main network from your IoT devices may be prudent.
Learning how to setup VLAN tagging, and link aggregation and understanding how networking works helps me communicate better with the network engineers when discussing design and deployment options—they may work on Juniper or Cisco equipment but I know the concepts of what they’re doing.
5. Wireless APs
Having a robust wireless setup is also a necessity for a homelab. If you have a large house you get to set up multiple APs and make sure they can handoff connections. If I was buying today I’d get a UniFi nanoHD AP. I use an older model, the Unifi UAP AC Pro (I just have one because that’s all I need to cover my house, but if you can find an excuse to have 2 or more I’d recommend it since you can practice rolling updates without downtime, wireless handoff, etc.). These are managed by the same Unifi controller as the switches. I first tried them because I read Linus Torvalds uses Unifi APs, and they seem to be highly rated by tech professionals—and now I don’t think I’d go back to anything else.
I have written more about Unifi Equipment here.
6. Network Monitoring
It is hard to maintain a reliable network and application stack without monitoring for failures. There are hundreds of network monitoring solutions and it really depends on your needs. The most widely deployed solution is Nagios. I have had that on my Homelab. Nowadays I use Zabbix because it’s simple, and it integrates into Ansible. It can be a lot of work to set up centralized network monitoring. One of the easiest to set up and most beneficial alternatives to central monitoring is Netdata.
7. Infrastructure Automation
Automating your infrastructure may not make as much sense in a small Homelab, but it makes sense to automate any task you do repetitively or a manual task that could be automated. For me, this was installing updates, deploying servers and renewing SSL certificates with Let’s Encrypt. To manage this I use Ansible which is one of the most well thought out infrastructure automation tools I’ve seen. Ansible can manage Linux and Windows servers. Learning infrastructure automation, especially if you do it using version control and CI/CD tools like Azure DevOps (you can get a free account for up to 5 users with unlimited private repositories) is a great thing to learn for your career if you’re interested in the DevOps world. The book, Ansible for DevOps by Jeff Geerling helped me get started. I suggest getting the eBook since he has been known to provide updates to the book (not sure if he will continue to provide updates, but just in case).
At work we completely automated the deployment of Linux servers using Ansible—infrastructure as code. It took a month of investment but it paid off big time with developers now being able to deploy VMware VMs at will with Ansible by making a Git Pull Request, our entire fleet of servers is updated automatically, and our server and configurations are all consistent. This replaced an old process of waiting several weeks for a VM to be provisioned and configured by hand.
Home Lab Servers
Depending on your budget and what you want in your homelab, you can use a repurposed desktop, or get something as small as a Raspberry Pi to a rack server. You could get a rack of servers. I like the small Microserver form factor. They’re quiet, can be equipped with powerful CPU, tons of memory, and lots of storage. But they’re compact enough you can hide them under your desk.
Here are a few options:
- DIY Supermicro Mini Tower. They’re small and powerful. Essentially a Datacenter in a Box. I have guides to build these based on the Intel Xeon D, and the AMD EPYC. These can be built with a lot of CPU and memory, and with 4 storage bays making them suitable for VMware ESXi, Proxmox VE, or TrueNAS/FreeNAS. One feature I like about these is they have IPMI/KVM over IP so you never need to hook up a monitor or mouse. My homelab is equipped with 3 of these servers.
- HP Microserver. If you’d rather not build it yourself, the HP MicroServer (Amazon) series has a good lineup of servers to choose from. I’ve seen people name their HP Microservers “Tardis” because of how small they are for what they can do.
Or the shorter tower server for small businesses:
- Raspberry Pi. The CanaKit Raspberry Pi 4 4GB Start Kit (Amazon) would be a good start if you are on a budget and don’t need a lot of compute power or need it in a small or remote location.
- Rack Server. If you’re after rack servers (just to warn you the fans are loud) you will find good deals on used or off-lease servers on eBay or mate your employer is getting rid of one.
- Domain. Buy a domain for your homelab, even if you’ll only be using it internally. With a domain you can get SSL certificates, and you aren’t accessing devices by IP. I use Namecheap and Cloudflare as a domain registrar and external DNS hosting.
- VPN. Setup a VPN so you can access your homelab remotely. OpenVPN, Wireguard, or ZeroTier.
- DNS Filtering. Essential as the first line of defense to keep you and your family safe from malicious and inappropriate sites. See my post on DNS Filtering.
- Dynamic DNS Service – Chances are your ISP gives you a dynamic IP. You can keep DNS updated with your current IP so that you can access your VPN and servers remotely by hostname. DNS-O-Matic can keep multiple DNS providers updated.
- Password Manager – You will want to keep track of your passwords using something like KeePass or LastPass.
- Backups – You want to make sure anything important gets backed up offsite with some cadence.
- Version Control – If you’re going to be using some sort of infrastructure management tool like Ansible, or even if you need a place to keep scripts, I suggest using a service like GitHub, GitLab, or Azure DevOps to keep it all.
Bonus homelab application (VM or Container) server ideas…
- Minecraft Server – popular Java game—it’s like playing with Legos and a great way to get your friends together for some casual games.
- Mumble Server – one of the best voice protocols for in-game communication.
- Emby Media Server – Anyone that has kids realizes those flimsy blu-ray drives aren’t going to last long. It’s great to store and host movies, home videos, pictures, and audio.
- Asterix PBX Server – VoIP Phone server (use Twilio or Flowroute for SIP trunking). Polycom makes great VoIP phones. With Twilio SIP Trunking you can have a real landline phone number with E911 capability for a few dollars a month—and if you get multiple phones, you can use it as an intercom system.
- Web Server (maybe start a blog) – I hosted this blog from a server in my house for years—until my ISP couldn’t handle the bandwidth. Nowadays you can also use a service like Cloudflare to act as a CDN which really reduces your bandwidth usage. Hosting your own blog is a great learning experience and gives you a place to log your homelab experiments and share solutions to problems.
- Automatic Ripping Machine – Get all your Blu-Rays, DVDs, and CDs loaded onto your Emby server
- Backup server – I use FreeNAS/TrueNAS cloud sync tasks to backup my data from remote sites to home, and from home to the cloud.
- Pi-hole. DNS server that can block ads for your entire network.
- Storj Node – Earn cryptocurrency renting out your spare storage.
There are many more areas than I listed, but I think the above is a good baseline to get started. Pick one area at a time—my homelab was built over many years—often the case is I will improve an area after a piece of equipment fails or I need to replace it for some other reason—that’s a great time to research. If you aren’t sure where to start, pick the area that you enjoy the most. For areas you have no interest in, the best thing to do is something else—you’re probably not going to be great at something you don’t enjoy. Certainly a homelab isn’t going to be a substitute for real-work experience. But it provides an environment to learn, experiment and enhance your abilities—and the great thing is since it’s your own lab you can learn things that interest you.
I think that’s the largest benefit of a homelab. To me it’s a playground. It’s a place to put the love of learning into practice. It’s a place of freedom. Nobody else is dictating what you do here. It’s a place to have fun while enhancing your skills.
Do you see a man skillful in his work?
He will stand before kings;
he will not stand before obscure men. – Proverbs 22:29 ESV