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A Vision to Mock Up Your Network Test Lab

By Brian Gleason, Blog Contributor
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Have you ever had a work project where having a lab to test your ideas wouldn’t just be a nice-to-have, but also crucial for a successful deployment? Have you ever considered building your own personal lab to continue your education? These are great needs, but think about how differently those labs may turn out!

The differences aren’t just limited to cable plant, equipment variation and use-case scenario but can be constrained by budget, space and power. If you plan to run a couple of server-class systems, wireless access points, switches and routers in your home lab you may need to take a second job to pay for the increased electricity bill.

In this blog series, I’ll discuss things to think about as you plan your lab environment.

I have succumbed to the gadget trap on more than one occasion. There is always new technology I’m dying to play with. I acquire the gear and start cabling away. However, I missed the forest for the trees! If this is your style of lab development, you tend to do things in the lab that the test equipment was never meant to do. It gives you a bad taste of the vendor’s platform. It would be like using a Raspberry Pi Retro  kit to do package management and vulnerability scanning across your physical, virtual and IoT hosts. It may be able to do it with a lot of bailing wire and duct tape, but really, why? That’s not the intended purpose or design.

Visualize the Home
Let’s think about what you want to do for a home lab. Do you want a controller and a couple wireless APs to advise your business unit, or just learn new tech.?You’ll need hardware, a VM for the controller, cabling in your house and your family must buy into the grand experiment! After all, at home, they want to see Netflix, Amazon and Twitter, but they may be less forgiving than your coworkers if services go down!

While the home lab may not correspond to a work project, you can leverage it for that purpose if you correctly plan. Ask yourself:

  • What are you testing? New -security features? Provisioning? SD WAN?
  • What is the lab’s purpose? Are you studying for a vendor certification?
  • Have you reviewed vendor best practice documentation?
  • Do you have tools to collect technical data and user experience? Do you need a packet sniffer? If so, where can you collect the traffic?
  • Would your neighbors be willing to test features with you?

Visualize the Enterprise
The big difference between building a lab in your home and one in your IT department is resource availability. Companies have larger budgets and greater influence with vendor salespeople. Many times, if a sales executive hears that their client is building out a lab, it could turn into commission for them and they will help. The difficult part is convincing management a lab is worth the investment.

Whether home or business, you still need to plan the lab prior to making any purchases. Normally you want to survey your production environment and try to figure out which vendor platforms give you the closest approximation for your lab. For example, if you have redundant, 10-slot, chassis-based, core switches in your data center you likely don’t need that same capacity in your corporate lab.

  • Are you trying to model a new production architecture?
  • Is the lab to prove out production changes?
  • Can the smaller version of lab hardware run the same feature set as larger production devices? What is the feature parity?
  • Some production locations will use redundancy. Are there places in your lab architecture where you don’t need to mimic that level of high availability?
  • Can your lab be virtualized? There are options, paid and free, that can run qcow (et al) versions of vendor code. There are limitations, but this speaks to your lab goals.
  • Can other IT departments leverage the lab and share the equipment cost?

Visualize the End State
As a techie I think it’s strange we put so much effort in planning production deployments yet put little thought into labs that help us learn how to do the deployment. In grammar school science classes, we’re taught the scientific method. Much of that method is thinking through a problem and writing down observations to make proper conclusions.

Our labs should be no different if we do them properly. We should approach lab building with the same methodology: Visualize, build, learn and document. Whether a home or corporate lab, planning and journaling pays dividends in the end.

Read My Other Blogs
Should You Build a Home Lab or Work Lab?