Should You Build a Home Lab or Work Lab?

By Brian Gleason, Blog Contributor
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In my last blog, I wrote about answering some critical questions as you plan out your lab build. In this entry, I’ll address some ideas to build a good lab for either home or corporate use. Many of my recommendations are from the scars and Band-Aids I gained along the way. Let’s dig in.

Spinning Fans at Home
My first jump into the home lab was largely to study for vendor exams. I was new to the IT field and had just started a job at a now-defunct IT training organization. I was able to collect a bunch of old classroom PCs and started my Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and Networking Essentials studies. As a newlywed, I’d wake up at 5:00 am, bang away on my lab, then go to work. After, my wife and I would chat for a couple hours, have some dinner, and I’d go back to the lab and bang away some more.

When you are looking to spin up a home lab, you really need a goal in mind. For me, I wanted to be a provider for my family and I liked technology. For you, it may be different. The home lab needs to have the equipment to help you meet your goal.

In my lab, I follow this model:

I included the numbers for a reason. Almost everything is redundant so I can test First Hop Redundancy Protocol (FHRP) and wireless access point (WAP) meshes. What’s odd about this setup is I use my virtual systems more than I do my physical systems. Why? With the physical hardware I tend to see how different code impacts CLI command syntax, traffic flow and things like upgrade procedures. But I’m locked into a vendor.

Using a virtual system like Eve-NG, I can deploy different topologies quickly without complete teardown of a physical lab. I’ll discuss the acquisition of hardware in a later article, but suffice it to say, if you’re at home, shoot for virtualization as often as you can. Many of these emulators will even let you test APIs, REST calls, and your homegrown Python scripts.

Spinning Fans at the Office
Don’t have time or resources for a home lab? Don’t sweat it. Is the company you work for willing to assemble the equipment? If not, you have big hurdles beyond the scope of this article. For the sake of argument, let’s say your business unit is agreeable to provide lab space.

For corporate labs, I’m a bigger fan of physical hardware rather than heavy virtualization. Normally business units want to minimize downtime. That means you are proving code upgrades, major configuration changes, or other system integrations to educate them (and yourself) of the impact within this lab.

A virtual environment like Eve-NG or Tesuto prevents familiarity with upgrading code, for example, like you would on physical hardware. On the physical side you end up TFTP’ing the new image to the device, point the boot record in the CLI, and reloading. You can generate traffic and measure the total packet loss. On the virtual side, you SCP the image to your virtual environment and convert it from an ISO to a QCOW. Not exactly the same, and let’s face it, the big-self-induced outages on the network side are for upgrades. Now, I have more to say on this thought, but, for the sake of brevity, I won’t.

An enterprise will benefit tremendously from a lab filled with equipment relating to the production environment. Not just little bits of equipment here and there; the enterprise lab should resemble closely the production architecture because the expectation is to cause zero-downtime during network maintenance. How can businesses make a network engineer responsible for architecture changes, with zero impact, but not give a way to test?! In high school chemistry class we were able to test a hypothesis, so why can’t we do that in a commercial environment when stakes are higher?

The lab requirements between home and enterprise aren’t drastically different. I still like having virtual emulation in a corporate lab environment, but you can’t test the latest and greatest features without real hardware. That’s a big deal when, for example, you’re moving from 6.x code to 7.x code. Map it. Argue it. Build it. Then prove that it was a benefit after the next maintenance window.

What’s Left?
Most engineers want a home lab that would mimic their work environment. That’s short-sighted. I suffered that astigmatism too! Enterprise labs are so you can minimize downtime. Period. Home labs are so you can maximize your career. Both of these have barriers but both give you insight into problems you are trying to solve. Build the lab that gives you the biggest bang for the buck...but that’s not a shocker!

Read My Other Blogs

A Vision to Mock Up Your Network Test Lab

Network Test Lab: How to Get That Hardware

Your Network Lab, Certified