Home Labs for the IT pro

Every IT pro needs a lab. It’s not just the fact that we all have a little mad scientist in us, it’s a playground for experimentation and learning. By “lab” I do not mean a formal test or dev environment, but a much more informal setting that typically goes before the “dev” part gets started. This lab need not be expensive. A little creative repurposing and virtualization will go a long way towards getting started with a home lab.

  1. Hardware- Obviously you have to have a computer.
    • The least expensive is the system you already have. When you bought it did you buy a high end Core i7 with lots of ram for gaming or just future proofing? If so then you’re done! Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 preview do a great job of Hyper-V hosting. Of course you may need more hard drive space, but then again drives are relatively cheap these days. The system I use is a 3 year old Dell XPS with a Core i7 and 6GB of Ram and an added 1TB SATA drive. Hardware cost = zero. Of course, I want to add more ram and disk but for now it gets along. I run 3-4 windows core servers at a time, but more than 4 causes the system to go into disk thrash mode pretty seriously due to RAM overuse.
    • The next best option takes up more space but can potentially be even cheaper in a strictly monetary sense. How does your company dispose of old outdated equipment? Can you score 5-10 laptops or a server or two? What about old Ethernet switches? That plus $50 at Walmart for some shelving and you have your own network in the basement to play with.
    • Finally if you have an extra $600 -800 you can get a dedicated PC bare-bones kit with a Core i7, 16+ GB of ram and a 2-3 TB hard drive.
  1. Software- If you are learning Linux then you’re in luck here as the cost is pretty much free. However in the Windows PowerShell lab, we need Windows! The approach to this is pretty much dependent on the cash you want to spend and the approach you took to solve the hardware problem. If you are using option a) then you don’t need a ‘host’ OS as you already have an OS. Microsoft offers free demo versions for download, and although they are time locked, these VMs aren’t going to usually live long enough to expire. If you already have a MSDN subscription from work, then you already have access to server OS downloads.
  1. Networking- Obviously you have an internet connection. Beyond that, if your home is like mine, there are a dozen or so devices connected to the home LAN. Gaming consoles, televisions, DVRs, etc. that anyone else in the house may want to use while you are using your lab equipment. I strongly recommend that you keep the “lab” separate from your home network. If you are going the basement shelves of equipment route, you’ll certainly need some Ethernet switches and perhaps a router or firewall to keep the “lab” network separate. If you are going the more virtual route, you can do as I did and install a Linux router on a VM to act as firewall/gateway from the “virtual” subnet to the “real” LAN. I used VyOS (http://www.vyos.net), which is nice since you can simply follow the directions on their site to do a basic setup. This keeps lab services in the virtual space where they belong.
  1. Time- I know we are all busy, but seriously make the time. Getting this set up takes literally a couple of hours depending on your internet connection. Once it’s set, then you can squeeze in a little here and there and make surprising strides in your learning. Get up an hour earlier and play in the lab a bit while drinking coffee. Stay up an hour later and work on the lab after the family is in bed. Dedicate two or three lunch hours a week. You’ll be amazed how much faster you can learn things when you can just “try it and see what happens” with no fear of breaking something important. After all you built it- you can rebuild it!

So now that we have all the parts together, what specifically do we need to build?  Since in most instances, we’ll be building this in a virtual space, let’s focus on that one. Those of you building a lab physically may have to fill in some blanks to match up with your physical setup but the concepts are the same.

I start off with the most basic: the network. Servers are much more interesting when they can talk to each other some right? In Hyper-V Manager make two virtual switches, one is linked to your host machine’s NIC and therefore to the rest of your LAN and presumably the internet. The second one is an Internal Only type. These should be on separate subnets to keep the routing simple. I like to use a 10.x.x.x/24 network so that I have lots of room to play around with subnets and software based networking.

Once we have those two networks, we need a router. As I mentioned before, I use VyOS installed on a VM with two NICS, one on the internal LabNet switch and on the external “HomeLan” switch.

Next it’s time to start standing up servers. This can be done one of two ways; manually or via Desired State Configuration.   If you are like me, and just getting started with DSC, I recommend a mixed approach. Get your Domain Controller going and a Windows 8.1 or later client installed on your LabNet.  Now you have a stable network and can start playing around with DSC. I have a standard build of a configured router, DC, Windows 10 client, and a DSC server saved to a 1 TB USB drive as a backup. That way no matter how badly I hose up the lab, I can get back to a minimum stable configuration quickly and easily.  On the DSC server I keep a couple of copies of configurations for web servers, video servers, Windows 10 desktops, whatever it is that I’m playing with that week.

The only thing I haven’t been able to really introduce test wise is Apple products since I’m running in a PC environment and there is no legal way to virtualize a Mac on hardware that isn’t Apple. Of course with a little twiddling of the router configuration and by introducing a VLAN on my wireless router I’m sure I could incorporate external wireless devices like a MacBook. However, that violates the premise of keeping the “Mad Scientist Stuff” in an isolated virtual space.

Obviously there wasn’t much PowerShell in this discussion, and equally obviously, much of this you can do from a PowerShell prompt or with DSC. Unfortunately in order to get your skills to that level, the lab has to come first.

About the Author

Greg Altman

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Greg Altman is a 20+ year IT Pro with a passion for PowerShell, technology and good whiskey.

17 Comments

  1. PowerShell on Linux exists to help Windows admins to help them transition away from Windows Server. But In a decade, when > 75% of workloads running on Azure are Linux, the tools used to manage those workloads will be designed for and meet the needs of the Linux administrator mindset. Linux administrators have a great set of mature tools and it isn't entirely clear why they'd want to transition to using PowerShell. Linux has won. The growth of Linux on Azure shows that. It's time for Azure to be a Linux First environment - and PowerShell on Linux doesn't really fit because it's primarily trying to graft a new and unproven Microsoft way of doing things onto successful practices and culture. Sure they can do it - but they'd be better off retraining everyone to "Think Linux".

    If Microsoft has (apparently) given up on Windows Server and understand that only a few legacy holdouts will want to run it in Azure in 10 years time (with the majority of workloads being Linux), they are wasting resources trying to reinvent how Linux administrators do things as a way of placating legacy Windows administrators. Legacy Windows administrators should bite the bullet and go "all-in" and adopt existing successful open source administration paradigms. The clock is ticking on their relevance and if they spend precious time investing in a nascent administration technology instead of fully transitioning to an open source mindset, they'll be less employable in future.

    PowerShell on Linux would be a neat idea if Windows Server had a future. It'll remain around in the same way that mainframes are still with us - but Microsoft has no interest in making a compelling case for organizations to choose their product over the free alternative. The future of Windows Server is the current reality of Windows Phone.

    • Thank you SO much for contributing your perspective! I do think - and I'm not a Microsoft fanboy per se - that you're misinformed, or at least under-informed. Time will tell, of course, but I suspect you've brought some personal bias to your viewpoint.

    • Interesting perspective. But I think you missed the point why Microsoft is actually open sourcing PowerShell. If you followed the talks that Jeffrey Snover did the last few years, it became clear that they want to be able to support heterogeneous environments. And for what I've seen now from Microsoft, and especially the PowerShell team, is that they don't have a hidden agenda. Microsoft is not the Microsoft anymore from let's say, 5-10 years ago.

      I agree with you, that there's a lot of Linux on Azure. But many, many companies I come are mainly Windows based infrastructures. Also guys that I know that work for other companies almost only see Windows based infra's.

      Yes, Linux has it's place in this world, but according for Microsoft there's no battle between Windows or Linux. They're citizens in IT which Microsoft wants to support best. And PowerShell is not a tool per se, it's meant to be a management framework. A framework that operates with built-in tools or in the case of Windows, the .NET framework.

      Windows Server has a big future, just look at the developments Microsoft is doing on Nano server.

    • Do you really think in 20 years well be dealing with "OS war" ?

      Do you think well see linux or windows in 20-30 years ? I dont.

      Do you think there is a loosing side or a winning side ? There are never winners in any war.

      From my POV, the shift towards lean kernels to accommodate the cloud, will get us eventually to a unified kernel of some sort getting the best of breed of all OSes, giving developers and IT the option to focus on the tools and the frameworks and less about the underlying layers.

      Running a business that creates OS is becoming very expensive. No one wants to be limited in the tools they want to use, thus the SQL on Linux is a huge huge thing in that sense and it will only get bigger with more such products going the same way. I have yet to see any major party offer anything similar things, coming from the Linux side because it takes money and effort very little companies have, so MS in that sense is helping transform the ecosystem again and its in a very good direction.

      Powershell on Linux exists so I, as a windows admin will have a lower barrier of entrance, if my boss decides one day to invest some our company assets on linux. If I can help my company get the right decisions that will save it money and achieve more and if that means going with a non MS way, guess what, I can still use my skills from the windows side without the hassle of the learning curve.

      For a long time I've been an advocate of learning both windows and Linux, no matter what I do mostly in my work time, as they are just tools to make the job, means to achieve a goal..they are not the goals themselves, and the movement to the cloud just emphasize it even more.

      I think your notion of what open source and free means is what's leading you in the line of thought and that's where I think you were wrong, imho.
      Not saying that my notion of what open source and free means is better, but its somewhat less biased. Nothing is free. Open source doesn't mean security (look at the horrible OpenSSL hole that's been there for two years and only recently been closed, or support-when-you-NEED it, that will always cost money, either by support contracts or having devs that know that specific language to deal with the bugs internaly (which by itself is even more limiting with the amount of languages and frameworks popping every second day).

      As for hidden agendas, you need to remember this is still a business. There's always money involved and business opportunities to be made. MS along they years was always good in creating those opportunities for itself and its partners and it continues to do so, the bottom line will be the tools. If you have ones that do the job for you, keep using them. If MS puts money and effort to create better tools with the community, who's the winner ? Everyone.

      I've seen this in the heated arguments on the PS repo the second it went public. The lack of broader vision some of the Linux base audience showed, the arrogance, the "Its mine, dont touch it" is somewhat alarming. I'm just happy to know that the sysadmins in 20 years, the ones born today well have a different starting point where they will choose the tools and be told what to use by old retiring sysadmins that are trying to hold to their precious seats instead of embracing change and supporting it in the evolving it world.

  2. If I have to copy files from installation folder to destination and I have to do exception handling because everything is automated, then how to do that? What all errors may arise and how to recognize and handle them? Please help.

  3. powershell ought to get the credit it deserves for enabling a developer to rapidly create rich output handling complex decisions based upon datasets gathered from various means and implementing a nearly infinite number of actions based on these. Simply put, it can be, and it is, much more than an admin tool, in the right hands.

  4. To start this is a thing of beauty in it's simplicity.
    Does anyone have experience with how much memory the results occupy and doing Get-job | Receive-Job at the end? If I run say a 1000 or 10,000 will this cause memory problems? I am thinking doing Get-Job -State Complete | Receive-Job & then |remove-job inside the loop (and logging it) would reduce the chance of running the host out of memory, or am I just over complicating it?

  5. a) Remoting
    The primary purpose of PS on *nix will be remoting to Win-Hosts, such as Bash on Windows vice versa.

    Due to the nature of *nix as document driven OS, an object based shell does not make that much sense. We're missing the API level. Jeffrey told us so, long ago.

    b) Religious affairs
    It's not about publishing the code (which is nevertheless great!).
    The GPL especially is the denial of the biz model that drives the revenue of Microsoft. So, indeed, haters will hate. Agree.

    But, in for a penny, in for a pound, PoSh is part of Windows which is an expensive, closed down product, increasingly incapacitating the user.

    c) The role of Community
    Sorry to say that, but the PS community is so much more than the few "Get-Expert -wellknown | Get-Random" MVPs. I know it's hard to see that inside the bubble.

    PoSh itself is gorgeous but - at the end - just a shell, such as Korn, C, Z and all the others.

    Far more important: the promise of a datacenter abstraction layer beyond the borders of specific vendors, automation and the refusal of a click UI.

    In this sense, publishing the underlying code is a statement which can't be exaggerated!

    Great Post, Don!

  6. Thanks, Don. This article saved me tons of frustration. I was writing a fairly simple script that would iterate through a list of servers and grab some WMI information. However, using Get-Content, I found that once the file went beyond some threshold, my script would no longer work properly. Implementing your method fixed my problem, and the script works perfectly.

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