Building a Home Lab For IT
When I first started out in IT way back in 1986 (I’m not that old my hobby is time travelling), having your own home lab would have been inconceivable. Now with virtualisation AND cheap powerful kit it’s a doddle (that’s means easy by the way).
There are a number of hardware suppliers in the second hand server market, but the real question is do you need server tin?
More than a few years ago now, I built out quite a nice home lab with some second hand servers, a couple of switches, a UPS etc., all installed in the garage. They’re still in the garage – but piled up in a corner long retired. Now I have a single semi powerful laptop running all my servers under Hyper-V and whilst it might not suit everyone’s needs, it does everything I want.
Why A Laptop?
Using a laptop for your home lab for has a number of advantages over using yesteryear’s cheap second hand servers.
- Much quieter than a server
- Doesn’t take up much room
- Costs less to run
- Produces a lot less heat
- All in one solution
- Built in UPS (Battery)
I’ve heard a few arguments against using a laptop – none of the following stand up to my experience.
- Not enough expansion options
- Not designed for 24/7 operation
- Fan not designed for 24/7
- 24/7 operation will kill the battery
Indeed most people may not run their lab 24/7 as they use it for training / working things out.
Of course you will want some form of Hyper Visor to allow you to run multiple operating systems
Most reasonably modern laptops will run ESXi free, Hyper-V core, Windows 2012/2016 HyperV, Windows 10 HyperV, Linux KVM etc without much trouble.
Which operating system you actually settle on depends on your use case and your familiarity with the software.
Windows 10 is fine if you’re using your lab as a true lab – i.e. for training and don’t require 24/7 uninterrupted operation (windows updates).
Other than that your favourite OS should do the trick. If you don’t have a license for any Hyper Visor softwre I’d probably go with Linux and KVM. Free and stable and lots of help online if needed.
You don’t need the most powerful laptop in the world, but you need to make sure it supports virtualisation.
Whilst most modern CPUs will do the trick, I would stay away from the Intel I3 and go for an Intel I5 or I7 (and Ryzen equivalents if buying new).
Make sure the CPU (and Bios) supports virtualisation – most do unless you go for a really old laptop. Obviously the faster the CPU the more concurrent operating systems it can handle well.
Whilst like everything else it depends on what you’re planning to do with your home lab, 8GB is bare minimum, 16GB is good for reasonable size labs, 32GB is perfect. Of course you can work out how much memory you need by figuring out how many concurrent operating systems you intend to run. And don’t forget dynamic memory will let you get more out of your RAM.
For most home labs you’re not going to need much in the way of graphics power. Unless you have specific requirements pretty much any on-board adapter should do the trick.
Network Adapter (NIC)
Most laptops come with a single network adapter. You can extend this with a USB adapter but to be honest unless you REALLY need this I wouldn’t bother. As your NIC is virtualised along with the rest of the machine, one adapter can support multiple concurrent operating systems. If your virtual machines are talking to each other this will all be handled by the Hyper Visor virtual switch technology and packets will only traverse the NIC when the need to reach an external device.
Whilst CPU and memory are important, the hard drive is critical if you’re running your virtual machines concurrently. Multiple VMs attempting to access a slow hard drive at the same time will kill the VM performance. If you’re going to be running more than two VMs at once with anything but the lightest disk usage then you’re going to need an SSD.
A cheap laptop sourced from eBay probably won’t have one of these but on most laptops they’re easy to fit.
Note on some laptops you have to dismantle the case so before you hit that Buy button hop online, search for “How to replacing drive on [laptop model]” and check out how easy it is.
As for size – I have a 512GB SSD but previously used a 256GB. Again you needs may vary.
When A Laptop Just Wont Do
So having evangelised laptops for home labs, there are of course cases where they just won’t fit the bill.
- Need multiple large drives
- Need multiple NICS
- Need more memory
I’m sure there are a number of use cases where laptops just won’t do the job, but hopefully after reading this article you can make that informed choice – and as I mentioned previously – a laptop home lab (which also works 24/7) works great for me.