If you’re like most technology leaders, the closest you get to the actual technology you select and manage is creating PowerPoint decks that tell others about the performance, maintenance and updating of that technology. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this of course; you can be a fantastic leader of a construction firm without having swung a hammer, or a cunning military strategist who has never rucked over a hill or fired a weapon. However, hands-on time with the fundamental building blocks of your domain can make you a better leader, just as the architect who spends time in the field and understands the materials and building process makes him or her more effective at creating better structures.

SEE: Tech projects for IT leaders: How to build a home lab, automate your home, install Node-RED and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a six-part series of tech projects for IT leaders. Check out the next installments: Software for your home lab, How and why to add Node-RED to your home lab, How to use RESTful APIs with Node-RED and How to build a home automation project with RESTful APIs in Node-RED. Stay tuned for more tech projects for IT leaders.

What’s a home lab?

Think of a home lab as the technology equivalent of the scientist’s laboratory. It’s a place where you can experiment with new technologies, attempt to interconnect various services in novel ways and quickly clean things up when you’re done. While you might be picturing a huge rack of howling servers, fortunately for us you can now create the equivalent of a small data center on a single piece of physical equipment.

SEE: Want to build a home lab for containers and virtualization? Consider mini PCs (TechRepublic)

What can I do with a home lab?

The other trend that’s worked to the home lab’s advantage is that most compelling technologies either originated in the open-source domain or have an open-source equivalent. Technologies like virtualization and Docker allow you to spin up virtual servers in a matter of seconds to experiment with these technologies for zero financial cost and minimal time cost.

SEE: Hiring Kit: Computer Hardware Engineer (TechRepublic Premium)

For example, if your company is investigating the Internet of Things, and you’re becoming lost in a sea of technobabble about MQTT, edge computing and nodes, you can set up a free MQTT broker in your home lab and follow one of the dozens of YouTube or text-based tutorials, and see how MQTT works. Confused about how web proxies work to secure and increase performance? Spin up an Apache docker and a Squid server. From a more practical perspective, your home lab can also store those thousands of digital photographs that no longer fit in your iCloud account, or even create a 24/7 VPN connection to your workplace and reduce the need for ad-hoc connections.

I use my personal unRAID-based home lab to:

  • Run several home automation and IoT applications that control our house and impress the family (when they work correctly)
  • Serve home videos to any screen in our house
  • Provide a Node.js server for learning server-side JavaScript programming
  • Centrally record live TV from an antenna, eliminating our cable bill and allowing DVR functionality from any screen in the house
  • Experiment with different operating systems like Linux
  • Store and share very large files that are impractical to store in the cloud, like home videos, digital images from my large cameras, and images of software DVDs

What are my choices, and how much does it cost?

In terms of home lab hardware, there are essentially two options. You can buy a pre-built NAS (Network Attached Storage) server, a shoebox-sized device that’s essentially a computer and enclosure for quickly adding and removing hard disk drives. The obvious benefit is that the device is assembled and ready to go, and the software is already loaded and maintained by a vendor that provides updates and enhancements. You trade this ease for higher cost, and being limited to the capabilities the vendor provides. You’re also locked into the vendor’s proprietary hardware. This is great in that most of these boxes are small and quiet, however, if there’s a problem after a few years, the likely outcome is buying an entirely new unit, a challenge I experienced when my QNAP NAS unceremoniously died due to what appeared to be a faulty motherboard, a part that was no longer available.

SEE: 5 all-in-one computers to up your remote work game (TechRepublic)

QNAP and Synology are the big names in this space, and their products range from $200 to more than $2,000, depending on the processing power of the device, and the number of disk drives that it supports. These units generally don’t come with storage, so you’ll need to buy one or more hard disk drives. If possible, purchase drives labeled for NAS use. Theoretically, they’re designed to be more robust, and if nothing else, they generally have longer warranty periods.

The other alternative is to build or repurpose a standard desktop computer. This could be free if you have a spare machine lying around or score a bargain at a garage sale or on eBay, and allows you to build your own uniquely configured home lab server. For some, that might be a giant tower that holds a dozen disk drives to store a massive media collection, while for others that might be a tiny, silent machine that runs a few applications. For those unsure if a home lab will be useful, it could be a spare desktop that’s doing temporary lab duty before returning to its previous role. The upside of the DIY option is that you can select and configure your hardware exactly as fits your needs and budget, and you can use standard computer components, so if something fails or requires an upgrade it’s a relatively simple matter of swapping a part. The negative is the time investment required, and the fact that you’ll generally end up with something a bit less streamlined than a pre-built NAS. Costs range from free (assuming you have an old desktop lying around) to thousands of dollars for a high-end configuration.

SEE: Hardware inventory policy (TechRepublic Premium)

I’ll cover building your own desktop in a future article, however, a home lab server is little more than a standard desktop, perhaps with some specialized component selections. So, if you’re comfortable building your own desktop, a home lab server should be no problem. If you’re unsure of the benefits of a home lab, I strongly recommend finding an older but still-functioning desktop computer. All you need is something built in the last dozen years that powers on, has a working hard drive, network interface, and a USB port to get started, and you’ll not only be testing the waters for zero financial outlay, you’ll also avoid adding another machine to the world’s e-waste.

Next, I’ll cover some of the software options for your home lab, and how to get your server up and running.

My home lab server (coffee mug for scale) is a custom-built machine designed to balance performance with low noise and power consumption. It provides 26TB of network storage, and runs a variety of virtual machines and docker containers that let me experiment with new technologies and provide the tools for my home automation hobby.
Image: Patrick Gray

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