The Home Lab blues

I just moved to a new house that offers me about +500 sq. ft. more than my old condo, has an attached two car garage, four bedrooms, an attic in which to run cable, and a top TWC circuit speed of 50 down/5 up.

I know what you’re thinking. What a great place for a home lab! Glad we’re on the same page because I need your help.

What I want in a home lab

A home IT lab ought to enable you to, at a minimum, 1) recreate a smaller scale of your work environment so that you can catch that bug during an Exchange 2013 upgrade, for instance, or prove a colleague wrong, 2) experiment with competing technologies, 3) and enable you to get familiar enough with processes, issues, and technologies that you can at least say you are familiar with other techs in a lab environment, if not in production.

Also, your home lab ought to be considered production inasmuch as you need to serve data reliably to your family and loved ones.

If you look at a home lab that way (production & dev & qa & simulation) you rapidly want an IT lab version of this:


but have less money than it takes to build something sub-standard like this:


You, my friend, have the home lab blues.

What I have:

A motley crue of misfit tech that I want to build into a home IT lab

All that, plus I have this:


a wife who won’t tolerate adventures in IT spending at home and wants her husband to get work to pay for it.

Pretty sad isn’t it? I’ve got to simulate some old but truly enterprise-class hardware with this bunch of hardware, much of it resulting from ill-advised ebay purchases, over-valuation of my own ability, and drunken experimenting?

Virtualization to the Rescue? 

Perhaps. It depends on what you want to simulate. If you work in a place that use vSphere and your whole workload is Windows based, you’re at an advantage over other solutions because vSphere, to my knowledge, supports nested hypervisors. So you can build an entire active directory domain on top of two virtual machines that themselves are running Hyper-V (or vmWare or Xen server right?) And then you can build a virtual iSCSI or FC cluster, exchange, anything you like, right within your single PC, no switching necessary. The only thing I’m having trouble figuring out is the storage piece (just not that up to date on VMWare these days I’m afraid), but just about every cheap NAS out there (or FreeNAS) can do iSCSI or NFS shares, so you should be set.

Of course that’s great for the VMWare crowd. What if you’re one of the poor slobs whose entire enterprise runs on Hyper-V (last I checked we’re at 14% of the market)?

As best I can tell, to do Hyper-V + the Microsoft stack in your home lab, you need to scale up your hardware for your lab into something in between the super meth lab at top and its basement-dwelling/mobile-homed smelly meth lab at bottom.

That’s because Hyper-V does not allow for nested hypervisors, or at least not the ones you’re interested in as a Hyper-V engineer (that would be, Hyper-V).

All this and your access to Technet expires by the end of the year! Damnit!

Reusing what I Have

Because the Agnostic Computer Lab is allergic to spending (except in the cases noted above), I’ve got to re-use or re-purpose my so-called stack for a Hyper-V lab.

And this is where the Home Labs Blues come in. You’re a creative guy, willing to break things, to experiment, but after several days of mulling it over in your head, you realize you can’t build a real Hyper-V lab at home with your crap that sufficiently simulates your work.

  • Compute:The Lenovo ThinkCentre is fine, in fact you’re running client Hyper-V on it now. It’s adequate enough to run several VMs + your home workload
  • Network: Netgear R7000 is so new it doesn’t have DD-WRT (aka Real Router software) yet, or at least not a version you would trust
  • Network, Compute, or Storage: Raspberry Pi: Shoe-in for one of two roles: 1) Gateway device to replace the R7000 which can’t do much, with DNS, DHCP, DNS Cache, and routing all built in to one of those boutique RPi packages or 2) FreeNAS + USB 3.0 drive = iSCSI or NFS target. Sadly FreeNAS doesn’t do SMB 3.0 yet (Indeed, they still call it CIFS, a violation  of the rules!), so experimenting with that kickass storage spec (EMC says it’s the future of storage protocols, naturally) in your home lab is probably out of the picture unless you attach it to your Lenovo. Plus RPi only has USB 2 ports
  • Compute: I’d love to re-purpose the Google Chromebox from Google I/O into a compute engine. A core i5 Hyper-V box mated to my Lenovo would be more than enough for my purposes, all I’d have to do is buy a little bit of RAM and use the USB drive as storage. Sadly the Chromebox had its virtualization bits turned off mistakenly when it was built, and to get the standard Intel virtual-enabling switch turned back on, you have to hack the damned BIOS. There are instructions, but I’m not feeling confident after reading over them for a week, and can’t find many online who have successfully re-purposed the Google I/O “Stumpy” Chromebox into anything else except for a kvm hyper-visor on RHEL.
  • Compute or Storage:The ARM-powered ChromeBook is just not suited for x86 virtualization in any way that I can think of save, for potentially, a storage host. Of course I’ve installed Chrubuntu and Chronos and even ARM and some other linux flavors, but aside from NFS shares, which I can’t really use in Hyper-V, what good would this device be?
  • Network: At least my 8 port GigE switch from Netgear is somewhat suitable for my home lab exercise. It can do LACP port channels (useful for Hyper-V hosts spefically), 802.11q VLANs (very useful) and a couple other great features for a small, < $100 switch.
  • Other laptops: The Frankenstein Windows 7 Thin Client laptop has no use in a virtualization lab, nor do the other junk laptops I have lying around: A Gateway LT303U with an AMD CPU that my mother in law is using, a Dell Lattitude D610 with an ancient Intel Pentium, and a 2012 Asus laptop with an Intel Pentium M, which I was excited about but it turns out Intel turns off virtualization on their cheap ass processors

So yeah, I’m out of luck. Primarily on the compute side. I have one computer capable of running Hyper-V. I could throw vSphere on it, I guess, losing my only capable desktop PC but gaining the ability to emulate a real datacenter. But what’s the wife going to say when she sits down at the Lenovo and vSphere comes up?

I got me some storage I can use, but nothing approaching the compute power required to test out 2012 R2’s nifty new Scaled Out File Server role (can’t co-locate SOFS + Hyper-V) and to use SOFS, you need expensive SAS storage. I got me loads of compute in my Chromebox, but I can’t re-purpose it without learning microcontroller programming, a truly dark art even I’m not interested in. I got me a nice switch that does, via web gui, everything the work one does, but only one thing to plug into that would take advantage of it (the Lenovo).


Sucks to admit it, but I think I’ve got to spend. But what? I want a small footprint but capable PC running at least a Core i3 or i5 and that can support up to 32GB of RAM to make sure I can continue to use it in a few years (Lenovo tops out at 16GB in my current box).

I’m thinking Mac Mini (an appropos choice for the Agnostic Computing lab), a Gigabyte BRIX, or a custom PC inside a shuttle case (offers 2GigE built in) and have a total budget of about $700.

Any thoughts?


Author: Jeff Wilson

20 yr Enterprise IT Pro | Master of Public Admin | BA in History | GSEC #42816 | Blogging on technology & trust topics at our workplaces, at our homes, and the spaces in between.

3 thoughts on “The Home Lab blues”

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