Home Lab Update

It’s been awhile since I blogged about my home IT lab, the purpose of which is to 1) ensure near HA-levels of service for my most important and critical users -the wife and fam- and 2) build something with which I can approximate and simulate conditions at work while hopefully learning a thing or two.

In November I blogged:

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.


Boy how a couple of months, a birthday & holiday season changed that picture. I went from thinking I’d build a humble little lab -mostly virtual- to building this:

I’ve tagged each element of the stack to ease comprehension and foster the reader’s amusement.

  1. TrendNet 16 port Cat 5e patch panel: $20, Fry’s
  2. Cisco SG-200 no PoE: A gift from a vendor. Yes, I’m not above that kind of thing. 10 GbE ports, love this switch
  3. 1U Cable Management: $17 from a local business IT systems retailer. Great for hiding the shame
  4. 24 Port TP-Link GbE switch, unmanaged: Where I plug the the stuff that shan’t be messed with. It’s a stupid switch but it’s rack-mountable and if something broke while I was away, I could, in the worst case scenario, have my wife plug in the blue “internet” cable into the TP-Link and all would be right again Borrowing
  5. Frankencuda: Behold the depths I’ll go to. I’ve re-purposed and re-built a dead Barracuda Load Balancer 340. Not only that, but I bolted 3.5″ HDD trays & 2TB drives onto the top of the ‘Cuda’s modified 1U SuperMicro case. Frankencuda parts: Motherboard $50, 8GB RAM, $69, 2x128GB SanDisk SSD ($180, Amazon), re-used/borrowed all other parts including the dapper little AMD Sempron which can be unlocked into an Athlon II dual core
  6. TV Convergence, almost: With the over-weight ‘cuda threatening to collapse on it, this stack represents my home internet connection (Surfboard docsis 3.0 modem on right) and telvision (Time Warner, via HD HomeRun Prime and shitty TWC tuning adapter). Cable Modem: $110 in 2012, HDHomeRun Prime: $99 on Woot.com11
  7. Lenovo PC: My old standby, a 2011 M91p with a core i-7 2600, 16GB RAM, and a half-height 4x1GbE Broadcome NIC I’m borrowing from work. 2TB drive inside. $950 in 2011
  8. NetGear ReadyNAS 102 w/ Buffalo 3TB “Caching” External USB 3.0: I got the ReadyNAS in October when I was convinced I could do this cheaply and with a simple iSCSI box and adequate LUN management. Alas, I quickly overwhelmed the ReadyNAS; the poor thing falls over just booting three VMs simultaneously, but it’s freaking amazing as a DLNA media server and a general purpose storage device. The Buffalo is on-loan from work; decent performer, good for backups. $250
  9. StarTech USA two post 12U rack: Normally $60, I got mine used on eBay for $25. Great little piece of kit. It’s bolted down to my wooden workbench.
  10. Latest Fisher Price cable tester: It makes a smiley face and plays a happy sound when the four pairs are aligned. $10

Not pictured is my new desktop PC at home, a Core i-5 4670K, Asus Z87 Premiere or Dope or Awesome line motherboard, 32GB RAM, 1x256GB Samsung EVO SSD and some cheap $50 mini-tower case.

So yeah, I blew past he $700 limit, but only if you consider purchases made in 2012 and earlier, which really shouldn’t be counted. And much of this was funded via the generosity of friends and family vis a vis Christmas and birthday gift certificates.

Thank you everyone. You’ve only made it worse.

What have I learned from this experience? Building a home IT lab is not like the procurement processes you’re used to at pretty much any organized job you’ve ever been employed at. It basically involves you pestering vendors (or sucking up to them), nagging others for old parts, debasing yourself by dumpster diving for old, inferior gear, and generally just doing unsavory things.

But it’s all in pursuit of IT Excellence so it is justified.

So what have I got with this crazy stack? Well material is only one piece; sweat equity costs are very high as well. I’ve run about 17 Cat 5e cables of varying lengths through an attic that hasn’t seen this much human attention since the Nixon administration:

The mess on the left isn’t mine….entirely. I only claim the ones on the right

I spent three solid Saturdays (in between other chores)  navigating this awful, dusty attic and its counterpart in the garage above my server stack, all in pursuit of this:


And though the cable management out of frame is obscene and not suitable for a family-friendly blog like AC, I will say I’ve accomplished something important here.

Who else can say they’ve unified TV & Compute resources in such a singular stack in their home? All those goddamned ugly black power bricks are located in one corner of the garage, the only area suitable for such things. The only non-endpoint device in the living quarters of the house is the Netgear Nighthawk AC wifi router (DD-WRT, currently my gateway).

Everything else in the living quarters -save for my computer which now has a nice 3x1GbE drop in the wall- is a simple endpoint device. Ethernet is my medium: data & Television are the payload, all from this one spot. Yes, even my wife can appreciate that.

And from an IT Lab perspective, I’ve got this:

  • Three compute nodes with a total of 10 cores
  • 50GB DDR3 minimum 1333mhz RAM
  • 2TB in the NetGear which runs some light iSCSI LUNs
  • 6TB in RAID 0 on the Frankencuda with 256GB SSD
  • 3Gb/s fabric-oriented networking to each node, LACP on the Cisco switch

So now the fun begins. Benchmarks are underway, followed by real workload simulation. I’ll update  you diligently as I try to break what I just built.

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.

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