How to Start a Home Lab from Scratch

Starting a Home Lab From Scratch

When you want to start a home lab, it can be an intimidating thing. This might stop many people from trying to start a home lab. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Anytime you want to achieve a goal, it helps to have specific objectives and milestones for accomplishing that goal. Its so much harder to work towards a home lab if you don’t have a specific goal in mind. So I figure, why not pretend I am starting a business.

If I were starting a small business today, how would I get started? Now when I say this, I really mean this more in terms of the IT side of things. And since I am not actually starting a business, its really more of a home lab from scratch type concept. So we can call it that instead. However, I am planning on using tools that would work for a business, and have the scalability to grow with a business. I’m also planning on trying to take a security first approach, as this is an important part of modern IT.

Now I will admit, I don’t have experience with everything the IT industry has available. There are likely tools that are better for what I am trying to do than the ones I am implementing. There are also probably better ways of doing the things I am doing. But since this is my home lab, the tools I mention are the ones I am using. As I do more, I will learn more, and I will come back and update this article with my latest opinions as I go. So feel free to message me with suggestions or recommendations as we go along. Otherwise, lets gets started!

DISCLAIMER

Please understand that the content herein is for informational purposes only. This existence and contents shall not create an obligation, liability or suggest a consultancy relationship. In further, such shall be considered as is without any express or implied warranties including, but not limited to express and implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose and non-infringement. There is no commitment about the content within the services that the specific functions of the services or its reliability, applicability or ability to meet your needs, whether unique or standard. Please be sure to test this process fully before deploying in ANY production capacity, and ensure you understand that you are doing so at your own risk. This article may contain affiliate links for which I may make a small amount of money should you use them.

Table of Contents

Objectives for Home Lab
Software Tools of Choice
Equipment Requirements
Plan of Attack
Conclusion

Objectives for the Home Lab

Before you start any project, you can save yourself a ton of time by planning things out. The first part of this plan should include the objectives. I’m trying to build out an environment that could mimic a small business if it were being started or upgraded today. I think this is a great approach because it is easier to build something from scratch when you have an objective. Having some clearly defined parameters helps with decision making, and planning and should be included when you want to start a new home lab. So here are the parameters I’m working with:

Small Business Example Requirements:

  • Less than 10 employees.
  • Security must be a primary consideration.
  • No existing Identity Provider solution.
  • Primarily On-premises environment (very little budget for cloud based tools).
  • Email is already hosted by a third party, so no on-premise resources needed at this time.
  • Must be scalable and able to migrate to the cloud later if needed.
  • Must be compatible with Microsoft Windows environment because of business software needs.
  • Remote Access must be available.

Now it may seem strange to make a list like this, but this is often what it is like performing an IT function for a business that is not your employer. Whether you are a consultant, or a Managed Services Provider, the customer will always have a list of requirements. Sometimes you have to pull those requirements out like stubborn teeth, but EVERY customer has their requirements. Making the list ahead of time helps ensure you understand the objectives for the business. It also helps you attempt to keep the project from getting too far out of hand.

Software Tools of Choice

So this is the area where you might have a seemingly endless selection of choices. This is 100% not the guaranteed best possible list of software to solve these problems. Everyone has their preferences, and this list is my preference for the tools I would use to meet the needs of the challenge.

So this list is a living thing, and may be updated as time goes by. So you will definitely want to check back regularly, as I update this. However, this is a great place to start, and should be the needs of the home lab plan so far. The “company computers” that will be used by this “customer” are all Windows PCs, and will be joined to the domain once Active Directory is up and running. Otherwise, this is where we are starting. If you are planning on following along, feel free to swap anything out for your own choice; I just may not have a guide that goes along with it.

Equipment Requirements

So when it comes to equipment, you have more flexibility in terms of what you can use. You will of course need at least 1 Computer of some kind to be able to create a home lab of any kind. Something has to run the hypervisor to allow virtual machines to run. You can make this super simple and have it all run in something like Virtual Box or VMware Workstation, but that is not what I am planning here. If that is you, skip this section. Keep in mind though, this is the start of a new home lab; its ok if you aren’t using enterprise hard. Unless you are trying to learn the hardware itself, the software usually doesn’t change much from the home lab to the production business environment. Otherwise, lets take a look at what I am planning on using.

Primary Host Device – HP Z420 Tower Workstation

This is a decent starting home lab device. OBVIOUSLY a small business would not to begin this setup on a decade old tower, but in this case it is really just a stand-in for a more modern version. It would be easy for a small business to get a modern version of this for a decent price and be able to run the same setup more reliably and likely more efficiently. However, like I said earlier, I already had one, so I’m going to use it.

  • This device is relatively inexpensive and I already have one ready to use.
    • 7 TB HDD (2TB + 5TB)
    • 256GB SSD (For vSphere and small VM’s)
    • Intel Xeon E5-1260 (4 core + hyperthreading = 8 vCores)
    • 32GB DDR3 non-ECC Memory

Firewall Micro Appliance – 4 Port Firewall Fan-less PC

So I am using this device as a dedicated firewall device, for a few reasons. First, having a dedicated device is likely to be more capable and less prone to getting bogged down due to excess traffic. When it isn’t using shared resources, it can ensure that it isn’t competing for performance. Second, I want to implement this in front of my personal home network as well, so I will be able to more easily segregate my network with a multi-port firewall and ensure there is less chance of spill over. Finally, this is much more accurate in a business setting. Having a dedicated firewall device is typical, and is easier to scale out.

Now of course, with any dedicated hardware, you need to confirm compatibility with any software you are using to ensure it will work. Please do this before making any purchases! There are entire forums dedicated to home labs (r/Homelab being my favorite)

Network Storage Device – TBD

So I’m not 100% sure on what I am using for this just yet. I will either create a FreeNAS device out of another tower I have lying around, or I will see if I can get an older Synology Device for cheap. The set up for either device isn’t too difficult (tougher for FreeNAS, but not by much). Either way, I will come back and update this once I make a decision. Either way, then intent is to have something separate from my host for network storage, and backups.


So that is all the hardware I NEED for this set up. I will virtualize everything else in vSphere. If that changes, I will come back and update this, but in general, I’m trying to minimize my own spending. To be fair, this is also in line with a small business getting started in a more business-like IT environment. IT spending can be a massive capital sink, and it is better to start with what you need and add more later. Virtualization helps make sure you get the most bang for your buck, and I intend to maximize this idea.

Plan of Attack

So here is my plan of attack. It is of course subject to change, but this is what I initially see as my order of operations. I may change this as I go, but I will do my best to develop a realistic list in the beginning. As I complete each of these options, I will update this list with the links to each blog post. Also you will notice that I am not giving myself a timeline, and this is intentional. If I we doing this full time as my job, it would make more sense, but since I am not, it doesn’t make much sense at this time. However, when I write my lessons learned post, I will include the time it took for each step, so that we can assess the total time spent.

Here is How I Expect to Start this New Home Lab

  1. Download and Install vSphere (ESXi)
  2. Install and Configure OPNsense Firewall
  3. Download and Install Windows Server 2022 (evaluation in this case)
  4. Download and Install FreeNAS or Configure Synology (TBD)
  5. Install Windows Server and Configure Veeam Backup Server
  6. Install Windows Server and Configure ManageEngine Patch Manager
  7. Download and Configure MFA solution (Duo or KeyCloak)
  8. Evaluate Home Lab against initial requirements list
  9. Write Lessons Learned Blog post
  10. Plan Next Steps for Home Lab including Expansion

Conclusion

This is going to be an adventure. I think this is an interesting approach to start a new home lab. I’m a firm believer that having a specific goal is the key to achieving that goal. The more specific it is, the easier it is to accomplish. Starting out saying that you want to have a home lab is fine, but will likely leave you unsatisfied in the end. Technically, you can have a “home lab” with a single virtual machine. So finishing the home lab isn’t the goal. The goal is to set specific conditions for achieving a home lab, and learning everything possible to complete the project. I hope you enjoy this journey as I travel down this road.

Please, check back to this post often. You can follow my progress and keep me accountable on whether or not I am doing the things I said I would do. Also share this with anyone else interested in starting a home lab. It is a great way to help someone who has never done this before to get started on something that can be intimidating.

Hit me up on Twitter @SeeSmittyIT to let me know what you thought of this post. 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.

View all posts by Smitty →