As certifications begin to require more hands-on experience, IT-professionals-in-training are being forced to find ways to practice their skills before they even land jobs in the field. Many TechRepublic members have come up with an ideal solution to the dilemma: building and experimenting on a home network.

The experiences of TechRepublic members show that this can be accomplished relatively easily, that it offers practical experience relevant to a net admin’s daily work, and that it can be accomplished without breaking the bank. TechRepublic member Dan Muzrall explains how he built his own network and used it as a training ground to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to become a more effective net admin.

Obtaining the equipment
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to building a home network is the cost of the necessary hardware. Most people—especially those who are new to the profession—don’t have loads of cash to throw around on hardware. For most, it seems that used equipment is the only way to go. Creating a serviceable network on which to experiment doesn’t require the latest components. One drawback to this approach is that it takes time to acquire everything you need, so patience and persistence are necessary.

Muzrall, a LAN Administrator for an environmental engineering company that provides site remediation, redevelopment, and other solutions, said he acquired his equipment by buying parts second hand, taking hand-me-downs from friends who upgraded their computers, and buying hardware at online auctions such as eBay. He purchased a Lexmark printer and an Acer 8-port, 10BaseT hub new, but most of his equipment was used.

In 1995, when he started building his home network, Muzrall bought a used Packard Bell 486SX/66 for $100, which he later upgraded. That same year, he purchased a Lexmark ColorFine 1100 for $100 retail. The following year, he bought the Acer hub retail for $60 and then built a Pentium 133 system for $150, using parts he got from friends.

In 1999, he purchased a K6/2 450 for $300 from eBay, and in 2001, he bought a Linksys 4-port cable/DSL router for $100 and received a Hewlett-Packard 1600CM with JetDirect Card as a hand-me-down. In 2002, Muzrall added a K7 1.4 GHz system, which he purchased for $400.

Building and experimenting
After building his network, Muzrall began to experiment.

“The first thing I tried was simple file sharing between my computer and my roommate’s computer,” he said. “When we got that working, we shared out printers and toyed with MS Chat.”

Muzrall later decided to build a WinNT 4.0 server, which proved to be a challenge, thanks to hardware conflicts and other issues. His biggest difficulties were related to installing hardware—due to driver conflicts—and setting file permissions—due to the learning curve involved in mastering a new skill. Despite these problems, he learned quite a bit.

“I got the server up and running and experimented with IIS, file sharing, security, file permissions, user management, printer sharing, and getting an overall feel for NT.”

Muzrall did not originally pursue a career in IT, but classifies himself as a computer geek and technology enthusiast. His formal education is in environmental policy and management. He was thrust into his net admin position when his project leader, who also administered the LAN, left the company. Because of his experience with his home network, Muzrall was able to step into that role. Muzrall said that being able to experiment with a “practice server” was an invaluable experience.

A convenient testing site
Muzrall’s home network has also been key in helping him manage issues with his company network.

“When we transitioned from Win95 to Win2K on our desktops, one of our client-required applications, Word Perfect 8, wouldn’t open when a user was logged in as anything less than an administrator.…[I] decided to take it home and test it out,” he said. “Turns out what I needed to [do was] make all my users local administrators for the application to work.”

Muzrall said that being able to experiment on his home network to resolve problems with the company network has saved him a lot of time because he is always busy at work tending to the needs of the users. Muzrall has also been able to test aspects of Active Directory to become more familiar with it, thus better preparing himself to deal with issues on his company’s network.

“Being able to [experiment] at home on my own time has made me more effective in my role as Computer Office (LAN admin) despite having no professional certifications in computers or networking.”

He added that he has developed confidence in his problem-solving skills through his experiments on his home network.

The benefits of home networking
Muzrall’s experience provides a good example of how you can turn a home networking hobby into a tool that provides valuable hands-on experience. Building and experimenting on his home network has given him:

  • Experience with NOSs, including WinNT and Win2K.
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills.
  • Experience with network hardware, including hubs, routers, and NICs.
  • Experience with ADS.

All of this practical experience has enabled Muzrall to more effectively perform his duties as net admin for his company. He plans to continue testing new technologies on his home LAN before implementing them on the company network.