3 Easy Home Lab Tips to Improve Your Setup

I am excited to share three of my home lab tips to improve your home Lab setup. If this isn’t your first time here, then you probably know that I am a Windows Admin and focus on a Windows Home Lab. I believe in learning in general, and I don’t believe Microsoft is going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s safe to stay up to date in a Windows environment. These aren’t going to be groundbreaking ideas, and they aren’t going to change your home lab life. However, I’ve found these three simple steps will go a long way to removing some small nuisances from your home lab setup.

I often find that there are simple things that can be done in a lab setup, to help minimize configuration issues and setup problems. Things like having the wrong time on a server, or incorrect DNS settings can be SUPER annoying if you aren’t thinking about them. Or if you are like me, you might spin up a server to test something, then shut it down later and not use it for a few months. When you fire it back up, you might not know exactly where it was when you set it up configuration wise, and it might not have whatever the latest settings are for your environment. This may lead to extra time fixing your lab.

I don’t know about you, but I like to break stuff in the lab, and fix what I break. I don’t like to fix things I forgot about, that is what my day-to-day job is for 🙂

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Table Of Contents

Free Automation?!?!
Time Configuration Policy
Server License Reset Policy
Shared File Storage Policy
Conclusion


Free Automation?!?!

Ok so this is a small confession, but chances are if you are a Windows Administrator, you already know where I am going with this blog post… Group Policy Management. YES! It seems so obvious, but if you are a Windows Administrator, you probably have a Domain controller in your lab. If you do, you might as well be using Group Policy Management. It is included with the OS, and it is probably the simplest way to automate the configuration of your servers and workstations in your environment.

Plus, the real-world ramifications of becoming familiar with Group Policy mean that not only can you simplify your home lab, but you can gain real experience with Enterprise level tools. Which is kind of the point right?

PRO TIP: Whenever you are creating Group Policy Objects and applying them to OU’s, make sure that you only enable what you need. If there are only User configurations in a GPO, then disable the Computer Configurations. This will help the GPO process faster on the client machines, resulting in a lower impact on boot and login times from multiple GPO’s.

home lab tip number 1 - speed up your gpo processing

So yes, Group Policy MIGHT BE obvious and boring, but it is also simple and effective. Let’s look at my top three policies to configure in the lab.


Time Configuration Policy

So many issues can be resolved and prevented by having consistent time across the network. Its a fundamental part of any network, yet easily overlooked by new home labbers… Set your time settings people!

Considerations…

  1. Time (in a Windows lab) often will come from the Domain Controller. Now it doesn’t HAVE to; you may have a specific server, or a network device that is acting as the keeper of the time for your network. This isn’t a recommendation on HOW to configure time in your lab. Thats for you to decide, based on what you are trying to learn. This is just a recommendation to make sure wherever time comes from, you have a policy that tells everything else in the lab where to get it.
  2. It becomes one less thing to configure on new devices in the environment. I know that starting out, it seemed cool to configure a lot of settings because it felt like I was doing something. However, I’ve since realized that if I’m doing something more than once, I should be trying to automate it. Setting things like time settings are small, tedious, and easy to forget when I’m on the 15th server in the lab.

Find something simple that will definitely break things when it is wrong and try to automate the configuration. Normally I would do the write up on the settings, but honestly, The IT Bros covered it so well, that whenever I’m starting from scratch, I just use this guide here: Configuring DC for Sync Time with External NTP Server – TheITBros.

Follow that guide and set up NTP in your home lab. Keep in mind, is that if you have more than 1 DC in your lap, you will need another GPO telling the other DC’s to look to the PDC to get time. Same steps, except that the time server is the IP address of the PDC. Domain clients are going to get time from the DCs, unless you configure it otherwise.


Server License Reset GPO

This was actually the first blog post I wrote on this blog! The concept is the same, and the process still works. However, I want to remind folks that it can be an easy way to keep your domain active, without having to remember to reset the evaluation license. The original write up is located here. Forgive me if the quality was terrible, but it really was my first post :).

Here I’m taking it a step further, but having the Scheduled task be deployed via Group policy, so that the clock will start ticking immediately when a new device is joined to the domain.

Scheduled Task via Group Policy

  1. First, we need to put the script some place where every device on the domain can get to it. I recommend deploying out of Netlogon from the Domain, as this will be protected and easier to prevent malicious access changing the script, but as long as every device can get to the shared location, this scheduled task will work.
    • The location to save the finished script is here: %SystemRoot%\SYSVOL\domain\scripts
  2. Open up Group Policy Managment console and create a new Group Policy Object. Give it a name like “Rearm License Task” and hit OK.
new GPO dialog box
  1. In your new GPO, Navigate to Computer Configuration -> Control Panel Settings -> Scheduled Tasks. Then Right click, and choose “Scheduled Task (At least Windows 7)“.
new scheduled task GPO for home lab tips number 2
  1. Give your new scheduled task a name, change the action to Create, and set the task to run as SYSTEM. Make sure you run whether or not the user is logged on and with the highest privileges. (Yes, I know this is unadvised from a security perspective, but this is a lab. You shouldn’t be running Server Eval in a production environment!)
basic details and settings for new scheduled task GPO
  1. Click the Trigger tab and add a new Trigger. Change “Begin the task” to “On an Event”. Set the Log to Application, source to WLMS, and Event ID to 100. You can activate it immediately, and make sure it is Enabled. Hit OK to continue.
trigger for the rearm bat file to run
  1. Click on the Actions tab and create a new action. Navigate to your batch file with the rearm script and choose that as the Program/script sections. Hit OK to continue.
  1. From there, you can either leave the remining settings as default, or look through the options and configure any that you wish to configure. Hit OK to save the task, and it should be in the list of Scheduled Tasks now. Close the GPO window and go back to the Group Policy Management Console.
  2. Right click the OUs where you will be running Eval version of a Windows OS and choose “Link an Existing GPO” and choose the Rearm task you just created.
scheduled task to reset the evaluation license

There you have it! Now any time a license expiration throws an error, your scheduled task will run to rearm that Eval license, and your server should be good for 3 years. After that, rebuild it. It’s a lab, and its good practice. 🙂


Shared File Storage Policy

This is one of my more recent epiphanies, and I wonder why I never thought of this before. I don’t know about you, but I constantly find myself moving files around the lab or needing to copy things to a remote server to install one thing or another. Historically, for me it always involved either a remote copy via PowerShell or creating an ad-hoc share from wherever I was, and then using that to make files available.

Don’t be like me (well the old me…) be smart about it! Create a share and then use Group policy to Map a Network drive to all the devices in your lab! Ok, so it’s not THAT EXCITING, but to be fair, I still don’t know why I never thought about this before. I was creating a DFS Namespace for testing with the Cloudflare WARP Client (curious? here’s the primer for that one…), and it occurred to me that it would be much easier to just have a GPO to map this, so I don’t have to do it manually as I am testing settings.

Then I realized it would just be easier for everything. Period. So here we are, with a shared folder mapped to all my lab devices. If you too want to make your life easier for moving files around, then check this out.

Map Network Drive Policy

Follow these steps to map any share to a drive letter with Group Policy. You’ll need a shared folder from somewhere (A windows server or network storage, whichever you prefer) to add to the GPO.

  1. Open up Group Policy Managment console and create a new Group Policy Object. Give it a name like “Map Network Drive” and hit OK.
  2. Right click your new GPO and hit Edit. Navigate to: User Configuration –> Preferences –> Windows Settings –> Drive Maps. Now, Right click Drive Maps and hit New –> Mapped Drive.
home lab tips number 3 - drive map GPO to make sharing files easier
  1. In the dialog box that opens, first change the Action to Create.
    • The insert the UNC path of the shared network folder in the Location box.
    • Check the Box to Reconnect if you want it to stay mapped after the first time (recommended for this particular tip).
    • Pick a label (whatever you want it to show up as in File Explorer) for your drive.
    • I recommend picking a letter, as this will make it easier if your scripts will be using data from this drive.
  1. On the Common Tab, the only one I think you should always check is the “Run in Logged on User’s security context” as this will ensure that it is connecting as the user and will respect any NTFS permissions you have configured. Otherwise, check any other boxes you want, and then hit OK.
  2. Now close the GPO Edit window and refresh the GPO back in the Group Policy Management Console (GPMC). You Should see your drive mapping listed now.
successfully added the drive mapping to the group policy object
  1. Now in the GPMC, expand ‘Group Policy Objects’. Right-Click the Drive Map policy and choose GPO Status –> Computer Configuration Settings Disabled. (We have this configured for User Configuration).
  2. Next, right click the OU where the users you want this to be available for are located and choose “Link an Existing GPO”. Choose your Drive Map policy, then click OK.
  3. From here you can either wait until Group Policy updates or you can just log out and back into a machine and POOF! You should now have a mapped drive.
home lab tips number 3 is a success

BONUS Tip: The other advantage to having a shared network location like this is that it is also accessible from a Linux server as well, even if you can’t have it mount automatically. So even if you don’t go the GPO route, having a shared drive like this is very helpful.


Conclusion

Well, there you have it, my 3 Home Lab tips for a better lab setup. These are small things that will solve simple problems and give you a better experience when working in the lab. You don’t have always have the lab be a chaotic mess. Sometimes its good to have a few things that just work.

I’m also a firm believer in improving processes whenever possible. Maybe these three things don’t work for you in your lab, but hopefully it’ll inspire some other improvements to make your life easier. Part of the purpose of a lab is to have an environment where you can fail safely. That means you SHOULD be experimenting with new ideas and new ways of improving your life.

If by chance you have other tips, or you were inspired by this let me know! Hit me up on Twitter @SeeSmittyIT to let me know what you thought of this post. Or if you are avoiding the bird site, I’m also posted up on Mastodon @[email protected]. Thanks for reading!

Smitty

Curtis Smith works in IT with a primary focus on Mobile Device Management, M365 Apps, and Azure AD. He has certifications from CompTIA and Microsoft, and writes as a hobby.

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