How to Start Your Home Lab

In this post, I cover the perks of running a home lab, scouting for equipment, and home lab design.

a year ago   •   6 min read

By 0xBEN
Table of contents

Why You Should Have a Home Lab

Home labs are – in my opinion – one of the single greatest ways to develop core skill sets in IT; be it networking, administration, automation, and much more. If you have worked a job in an IT environment, you are usually limited with the amount of tinkering and exploring you can do. With a home lab, it's all yours; you break it, you fix it.

Home labs can be incredibly enriching and rewarding. You have to depend on Google, forums, and your peers for nearly everything. Because you're setting the environment up from scratch and practicing continuous maintenance, the amount you learn is unparalleled. It's my opinion that you can learn much more in a short time in your home lab than on the job.

If you search online for images of home labs, you are going to find mixed results. There are a lot of home-labbers with some very elaborate setups. The good news is that home labs come in all varieties. You may not start with much, but in the future, you too may have a very elaborate setup.

The Home Lab Experience

Home Labs Are...

  • A monetary commitment
  • A time commitment
  • Marketable resume enhancements
  • Job interview subject matter
  • A wealth of knowledge

Skills One Can Learn in a Home Lab

  • Virtualization
  • Server Administration
  • Network Engineering and Administration
  • Systems Engineering and Administration
  • Cybersecurity (Red and Blue)
  • Software Development
  • DevOps (CI/CD)
  • Database Administration

Lab Equipment Scouting

Minimum System Recommendations

These are strictly recommendations. Work within your constraints and graduate up as your circumstances permit.

  • At least two network interfaces for redundancy and NIC bonding
  • At least two disk bays
    • 128 GB to 256 GB SSD for the operating system
    • 1TB+ SSD or 10,000 RPM HDD for storage
  • At least a single quad-core, hyperthreaded CPU
    • Enterprise-grade preferred (eg. Intel Xeon)
  • Motherboard capable of utilizing 64GB+ RAM (preferrably server RAM)
  • A system that will grow with you

Small Form Factor Computers

If space is an issue – or you are not planning on using a server rack – there are some small computers that have decently powerful specifications with a small footprint.

  • Intel NUC
  • Lenovo ThinkCentre Tiny Desktops
  • Dell OptiPlex
  • Laptops

Some form factors to consider

  • Stick PC
  • Mini PC
  • Laptop
  • Tower
  • Rackmount

Equipment Scouting Process

You should have a good idea of what kind of system you want before you start looking. What form factor are you looking for? What are the minimum specifications you prefer?

Some questions to ask your self

  • Does it come with any components pre-installed and will you need to upgrade any of those components?
    • CPU
    • GPU
    • RAM
    • Disks
    • Power Supply
  • If you need to upgrade components
    • Which CPUs are compatible? How many sockets?
    • Which GPUs are compatible?
    • What is the maximum amount of RAM?
      • Number of pins?
      • Double data rate (DDR)?
      • Frequency?
    • How many disk bays?
      • 3.5" or 2.5" disks?
      • If 3.5", do you want a 2.5" adapter?
    • How many network ports? Speed?

Examples of Good Buys*

*All prices as of May 2021

Lenovo ThinkCentre M92p Desktop Computer on Mercari
Lenovo ThinkCentre M92p Desktop Computer - Intel Core i7 Up to 3.9GHz, 16GB RAM, 960GB (1TB) Specifications: Processor: Intel 3rd Gen. Quad Core i7-3770 3.4GHz(Up to 3.9GHz Turbo Boost)Memory: 16GB DDR3 Ram MemoryHard Drive: 960GB SSD (Solid State Drive)Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4000Audio:…
  • $255 (shipping included)
  • Excellent entry-level box!
  • Quad Core i7-3770 3.4GHz
  • 16GB DDR3 RAM (32GB compatible)
  • 1TB SSD
  • Single 1Gbps NIC

Dell Optiplex 7040 SFF i7-6700 16GB on Mercari
Dell Optiplex 7040 SFF Intel Core i7-6700 @3.40GHz 16GB RAM 750GB DVD-RW #77 Computer has been restored to factory settings with Windows 10 Pro. Intel i7-6700 16GB RAM 750GB HDD Power Cord included
  • $323.25 (shipping included)
  • Excellent entry-level box!
  • Quad Core i7-6700 3.40GHz
  • 16GB RAM (64GB compatible)
  • 750 GB HDD (could easily swap to SSD)
  • Single 1Gbps NIC

HPE ProLiant EC200a Mini Server, Xeon D1518 2.2GHz CPU | eBay
Support DDR4 up to 64 GB (32 GB X2). Alternatively, you can use 2.5″ SSD.

Total Price for all parts: $658.48

PC Desktops & All-In-One Computers for sale | eBay
Get the best deals on PC Desktops & All-In-One Computers and find everything you’ll need to improve your home office setup at Fast & Free shipping on many items!
  • $565.88  (shipping included)
  • (2x) Intel Xeon X5670 6 Core 2.93GHz
  • 64GB Server RAM
  • (1x) 240GB SSD Solid State Drive
  • (2x) 2TB SAS Hard Drive Disk
  • Two 1Gbps network interfaces

Home Lab Design

Everyone's home lab will look different, mainly due to the fact that everyone's homes are different. Perhaps your house is wired with network cabling, perhaps not.

Perhaps you have a room down in the basement far enough away to insulate the noise of a server rack. And maybe, you have patch paneling installed with multiple network drops throughout the house.

Maybe, you live in an apartment with a single network drop where the internet service provider's (ISP) equipment is installed. In this case, maybe you only have single modem and wireless router.

The point is: work within your constraints. You may be happy with a simple setup or you may want to make changes later as time, money, and circumstances permit.

Where Do I Start Building My Lab?

I made the network flat here, as I want to imagine that people with wired homes are not in the majority.

Step 1

  • Modem: $
    Depends on your ISP and Internet service type. You may want to upgrade your modem to a more high performance model. Make sure it’s compatible with your ISPs requirements.
  • Router: $ – $$$
    Depends on the quality router you get and the feature set (can also build your own pfSense router). You should aim for a router with 802.1q VLAN support
  • 8 Port Managed Switch: $
    Gigabit managed switches with 802.1q are surprisingly affordable. Brands like Netgear will do just fine for the home network. Just make sure it’s managed.
  • Virtualization Server: $$ – $$$
    Probably the most expensive item on this list, with good reason. Just make sure you use SSDs where possible.

Step 2

  • 802.1q Compatible Wireless AP: $ – $$$
    Not as important, but will enhance your home security by creating VLANs and firewall rules for different wireless networks.

Step 3

  • Raspberry Pi Cluster: $ – $$$
    Have some fun with some IOT projects. Not required, just a suggestion as a next step.

Step 4

  • Use your imagination. Think of some projects you're interested in. Check out YouTube videos online from other home lab creators.

Supplemental Links

LabGopher (eBay aggreator)
Newegg (RAM upgrades)
Server Monkey
The Server Store

Got Equipment?

Start deploying your home lab environment!

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Why You Should Have a Home LabHome labs are – in my opinion – one of the single, greatest ways to develop core skill sets in IT; be it networking, administration, automation, and much more. If you have worked a job in an IT environment, you are usually limited with the amount

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