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Network Test Lab: How to Get That Hardware

By Brian Gleason, Blog Contributor
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Two men collaborating to build a network lab.

If you’ve spent some time thinking about how to model your goals in a home, or even corporate, lab you’ve no doubt hit the financial barrier. Do you remember talking to network engineers back in the 90s, 00s, or now, who have racks of equipment in their basement? They used it for not only study but for the actual job. Are you ready for the work and investment?

In this article I want to talk about how to actually acquire the equipment to build your lab environment. Some of my suggestions may seem odd, but hang in there.

The Home Lab
Let’s start with an amusing anecdote. I once worked with a gentleman who would never take a sales call. In fact, it wasn’t enough for him to say, “I’m not interested.” He would berate the salesperson on the other end of the line. I once heard him ask for the email address of their accounting department so he could send the bill for his wasted time answering that call.

I always take a sales call. It translates into future options from career opportunities to technical community building. I didn’t take a call for personal gain. I just knew it was awful to do cold calls, so I’d try to be kind. Next thing I know, I have hardware being tossed my way! Awesome perk, but again, not my goal.

Since SEs would send me their stuff, I’d use that equipment to get familiar with the technology, ask questions, and offer an opinion to the vendor. That kind of sales marketing is a great way to build a vendor-agnostic home lab!

If you find yourself in that situation you can test things like interoperability, APIs, CLI and GUI issues which may enhance your career. Does that matter? For me, yes. I love being able to help customers and the IT community at large. Having some experience with a product not only benefits you professionally and personally, but it also vendors make a better product if you provide input.

I love learning and sign up for webinars all the time. If the vendor offers a "free" device and all I have to do is talk to a sales dude, I'm okay with that. I tell the salesperson I’m happy to give them further input as I get comfortable on their product, and that’s no lie. It just means follow-up with them and be honest.

The Work Lab
Acquiring hardware in the same way for your corporate lab as you did for your home lab raises a myriad of other issues, primarily legal and ethical. Federal codes relating to Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPPA, or SEC may prevent you from accepting gifts as a corporate representative. Your company may even prohibit gifts above a dollar amount.

Budget, facilities and business approval are just some of the hurdles you’ll face. This long-term strategy may be a help:

  • Quarter 1
    • What visionary goals did the CEO present at the quarterly meeting where a lab would be beneficial?
    • Develop an equipment and software list to help meet the corporate goal.
  • Quarter 2
    • Reach out to vendors. Do they have returned POC gear to buy at reduced cost?
    • Request special bundle pricing for hardware and put together a budget.
    • Develop a formal presentation outlining pros, cons and expenses for your management.
  • Quarter 3
    • Keep management apprised of your progress. Keep reminding them of the pros and cons.
    • Talk to other peers and cross-functional IT departments. Maybe they can contribute budget money?
  • Quarter 4
    • Talk to management about reallocating EOY unspent funds.
    • At the end of a fiscal year, vendors may be incentivized to give hardware discounts. Ask.

I’ve successfully acquired lab equipment using this method, but in a compressed timeline. Businesses like having a reason to spend money on anything that helps meet clear objectives…make their decision easy.

What’s Left?
Let’s assume you get your lab funds. Either by corporate budget or spending personal time in WebEx presentations. Don't let that hard work go to waste. You invested personal time, corporate time, the vendor's time, and monetary resources. That means you owe it to yourself, at a minimum, to leverage that lab environment to its fullest. Make the most of the resources for your company and yourself.

Read My Other Blogs

A Vision to Mock Up Your Network Test Lab

Should You Build a Home Lab or Work Lab?