Maintaining a Home Lab for On-Going Career Success

By Owen Reynolds posted 04-29-2020 02:58 PM

  
An actual lab



Hi! I'm Owen, this is my first MyCUGC blog post.

I work as a virtualization expert for an IT solutions provider in Quebec, Canada.

I've been working professionally in the IT industry since 2000, and from 2005 onwards, I have have seen a huge benefit to maintaining a home lab. 

The thing about working in the IT industry is, once you've completed the first part of education via a 1, 2, or 4 year college or uni course, the learning doesn't stop (or shouldn't !). However, you probably won't be going back to a traditional classroom setup for an extended period of time. It's on you to pick-up distance edu courses, follow online tutorials, read blogs, and try to implement as best you can via virtual labs. 

For me, though, the best way to learn something new is to implement it on my home lab, and create a dependency on it, so that when it stops working I'm motivated to fix it. And by fixing it, I learn new things.

A recent example: I'd been interested in formally learning VMware for quite some time. In 2018, I finally took the plunge and enrolled in a distance education course from Stanly college on VMware VCP.  I completed the course over about two months using my nights and weekends.

I've had some form of home lab for years, but in 2019 I decided to get serious and purchase "like" items to create a homogeneous environment for use as esxi hosts: 

3x HP Elitedesk 800 G3 SFF w Intel Core i5 6500 CPUs (all purchased used from various eBay sellers)

And 
to each, I added the following:

  • 2x 16 GB RAM for 32 GB RAM total
  • Samsung SSD 860 EVO 1TB SSD (vSAN capacity)
  • Samsung 970 EVO 1 TB NVM type SSD (vSAN caching)
  • Intel NIC quad card I350T4V2BLK
  • Intel X520 dual head 10 GB nic

Connecting the three computers is a MikrotikCRS309-1G-8S+IN 8 port 10 GB switch

Note: If you want more info about my hardware purchases, read about it on my personal blog.

With the hardware purchases/installs done, I installed esxi 6.7 U3 on each of them, and added them to my existing vCenter setup

Next, it was time to setup vSan. I will tell you, I didn't get this right the first time! But this is how we learn. I had originally tried a 2 node with external witness appliance setup, but found esxi host maintenance unsuitable, so switched instead to a 3 node N + 1 setup soon after. 

I finished my distance education course last July, but I've kept my vSan setup with no major changes, and it works great. 

It should be noted, that a full 3-node vSan cluster is not required for a home lab. In fact, you could do it for free via Hyper-V on your physical Win 10 laptop/desktop as long as you've got enough RAM/processing power. Else, VMware workstation is another alternative.

Now! Why is the above my intro for this blog post? The investment of time/money has paid off, and I've started a new project as of April 2020 that's related to VMware vSan for a new client with my current employer. 

Here are some other examples going back about 15 years. By luck or foresight, I've been able to identify something I didn't know, implemented it in my home lab, put some services on it that I wanted to keep using, and ended up learning something new that I've been able to use in a production environment for a client/employer:

  1. 2005 - Windows active directory
    I was enrolled in a college course that taught us MS Active directory, but the content was delivered at warp-speed, as it was mixed in with other courses. I was not retaining what was being taught, so setup my own AD at home. The domain has gone through a few upgrades, but remains to this day! Knowing how to create a new AD setup from scratch is invaluable, and you never know when it will be required. 
  2. 2012 - Hyper-V
    For years, I was running Plex Media server on a physical host, but one day my partner at the time wanted to watch "I Love Lucy" and Plex stopped working due to a recent config change. I decided to install / learn Hyper-V to virtualize my Plex servers to enable easier snapshot/recovery, as well as setup TWO Plex servers, so one could take over when the other was down for maintenance. I've still got this setup today, though the Plex servers have been moved to VMware instead of Hyper-V.
  3. 2015 - Microsoft RDS
    I setup Microsoft RDS for remote app usage to enable me to access published apps that I didn't want to install locally on my various PCs. As part of setting this up, I learned about VHD based profile management, which served me well in 2019 when I needed to do an implementation with FSLogix!
  4. 2015 - Powershell
    I was previously familiar with regular windows .bat / .vbs scripting , but not Powershell. Towards the end of 2015, I learned Powershell to enable me to automate disk clean-up on my file server. I'm still using these scripts today. I used what I learned at home to author 100's of scripts for various contracts/projects over the past 5 years.
  5. 2016 - Citrix XenDesktop 7.12 + StoreFront 3.8
    I was working for a client who was on the 7.6 LTSR track, but taking a course that was focused on features in the "current release" track. As such, I installed 7.12 at home, setup StoreFront and starting to learn the the differences between 7.6 and 7.12.
  6. 2017 - Citrix Cloud
    After reading a bunch about Citrix Cloud on the social networks, I requested a trial to experiment with a hybrid setup. I moved my Citrix DDC/SQL instances to a new Citrix Cloud instance, and re-registered my existing VDAs to the cloud. I was impressed, the setup was short/simple. The trial ended, but learning the basics of Citrix Cloud helped me a lot in 2019 where I went into a client that was in the early POC for Citrix cloud.
  7. 2017 - VMware vCenter
    A lot of my career has been spent working for big financial companies, where they've got large VMware teams who had implemented vCenter before I'd started working there. I needed to do it for myself, so I signed up for the VMUG advantage program and setup my own vCenter via VCSA.
  8. 2018 - Citrix ADC
    This is a common scenario: you're working somewhere where all the initial build-outs are done. What do you do? Wait for one to break and require a re-build? No thanks. I downloaded a trial of Citrix ADC VPX and went through a basic config to start using ADC at home.
  9. 2018 - MDT
    Each place I'd worked previously, someone else was in charge of the creation / maintenance on the MDT task sequences, and they never seemed to work "quite right." Can I do it better? Yes, I can. I took about a week to learn windows deployment service and MDT and still use it for new VM builds. Great for automation of builds, but I wouldn't recommend it for app deployment, see point #10!
  10. 2018 - Microsoft DFS
    I set this up to cover fail-over events between my primary/secondary file servers. DFS can be great when setup correctly, but it's often not. It's good to know the ins/outs of this service, as it's super common in the enterprise. Knowing it helped me a lot on a contract I was working on from July 2019-April 2020.
  11. 2018 - Microsoft windows fail-over clustering
    I set this up as part of increasing my knowledge of SQL / SQL clustering. This knowledge came in super handy for SQL database migration work I was doing in 2018, soon after I finished the work on my home lab.
  12. 2019 - VMware vSan
    As i'm reasonably active on Twitter and receive a lot of newsletters, I've been reading about VMware vSan for years. In 2019, I decided to take the plunge and set it up at home, the details are in the first part of this blog post :-)
  13. 2020 - PDQ Deploy
    My most recent implementation is to change the way I deploy software to my various virtual / physical assets at home. Previously, I was using chocolatey . It works ok for home use, but doesn't really have that "enterprise" ready feel to it. PDQ Deploy offers a full GUI, so it's an excellent choice for those environments where the local staff doesn't have Powershell knowledge to maintain Chocolatey. I've not yet been able to use what I learned of PDQ Deploy with a client, but hope to soon! See my blog post on this topic, here.

I hope you found this blog post useful. The various examples of implementations on my home lab have served me very well over the years. I don't have a crystal ball to know what's coming next, but I do enjoy learning new things, and using my home lab means I can safely prepare for what might be next :-)

Thanks for reading,

Owen Reynolds


#Lab_Environments
#Professional_Development

Comments

06-01-2020 10:00 AM

Hi James. Thanks for your comment, I've always had access to some kind of dev environment wherever I've worked as well, however, the nice thing about a home lab, you don't have to share with anyone else if you want to make a drastic change. Or as you said, if you make a mistake , the only one impacted is you :p

06-01-2020 08:50 AM

Thanks Owen.  This is great. I've debated maintaining a home lab an the value added.  Sometime colleagues tell me to sae my money since I have a dev environment at work. My reply has always been, well I want to play by no rules or rules I place.  Its more fun to blow #%@! up and fixing it.   ​​