Having a Lab & Using It

It’s nice to have a lab, really nice. Trust me. I hear a lot of people complain they don’t have a lab and the time to test out all the possibilities and new features in recent or coming releases of operating systems & server applications. Why don’t they have a lab? Is it the money, lack of space, a shortage of time, the difficulty in setting one up?

Whatever the reason, can you afford not to have one? I think that depends on your area(s) of expertise. But no matter how you look at it we’re making our living in a live long learning business people. Learning isn’t that bad or hard. It is fun and you build on past experience and existing knowledge. It’s not like your starting from scratch every time you start exploring new technologies.

It’s your knowledge that makes you valuable to employers & customers. Even if you are an “architect” and you don’t have to deal with the lowly hands on implementations of your designs you need to know how to do it and be able to do it in collaboration with your team. So yes, you need to keep learning the hands on skills as well.

How long do you think it will take for your “grunts” to start giving you the one fingered salute if you proof to be an empty suit? At that point you can stuff your remarks about how easy it all has become because IT is a commodity that takes no expert knowledge. Your self-promoting sales talk that these facts in combination the excellent products and your outstanding architectures make it a walk the park to implement your solutions will bite you in the proverbial ass. If you don’t stand by your solutions in operational conditions and if you can’t implement and support them, go away. You can’t lead from behind sport!

So techies, system-network-storage admins, designers, analysts and architects get a lab!

Space can be an issue.

@Work: Well get an extra table and use that. Find and make more room. Yes the office will look nerdy but hey, form follows function. Unless of cause you want a designer “office look”, maybe because you’re working hard on climbing the corporate ladder. But even in that world the design of your suit and desk is not the most important characteristic. Those management & sales folks also have real and valuable skills!

@Home: If you’re single well … what do you think the living room is for? If you’re married and have kids it can become a bit harder. Have a spare room to use as study or home office? A free corner where you can set up your lab?

A word of advice: in a lab it pays to have direct access to the hardware during building and testing. How important that is depends on your needs and area(s) of expertise (i.e. networking versus SQL Server development). Perhaps you need to mimic clients their environments a lot for POC’s or trouble shooting and having a lab in a remote place isn’t really practical in that case.


We all have 24 hours in a day. Time is the most valuable resource you have. You cannot buy more hours in a day; you can’t produce time or grow it. Make the most of the time you have. That’ doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and have to become a workaholic. But seriously, becoming competent takes time and a sustained effort on your part. Unless you have a naturaly aquired rare and very valued skill, you’ll have to put in a lot of work. No, you’re not entitled to a great paying job with lots of vacation time, benefits, company car etc. because you went to college or university. Well, not more than any other person on the planet anyway. Now perhaps you say that those efforts might not pay off or help you advance in your career. Perhaps that’s true, but won’t you benefit when you need or want to find another job? Being good at your game and learning skills means that you give yourself some options. It creates at the very least the ability and possibility to try and make something out of opportunities that arises. Opportunity never knocks twice. So be ready.

The real question is what do you do with the hours you have? Sleep for 8 hours. That’s good, you need your rest. Work for 8 hours. Check. That leaves another 8 hours for everything else. What if you carve 3 times 2 or 3 hours a week out of that for lab time and reading? That’s about 24-36 hours a month of solid learning. So where can we get those hours?

Stop watching TV every night. I don’t even own one. If you don’t watch television you have at least a couple of hours extra in every day! That doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the news or great series or movies or be a recluse. Go to the movies once in a while, perhaps a 3D one for the extra experience. Rent or buy your movies & series (on line or off line) and watch them at a time of your choosing. I’ll be dammed if I let a TV guide influence, let alone dictate, my schedule!  And as a bonus to myself I watch my movies on a HD beamer. Now that’s quality time.

Gaming? Sometimes I do that, yes. But I don’t do it very much. I you have time to game till the wee hours of the morning; surely you can’t complain you have no time at all to test & learn anything. There are choices to be made.

Start commuting by train if you can. Chances are your company helps pay for it (anything to reduce the peak traffic hell) and you’ll be able to get some reading done. When your train is late, even more than you bargained for. I plan as much of my travels outside of peak traffic hours. I also telecommute as much as possible. That makes traveling a whole lot less frequent and less stressful. It also saves time, time not spends in transit and traffic jams. Time you have to do something else. Ride your bicycle to work if you can. You get some exercise and avoid traffic jams.

Get out of the house regularly. Read whitepapers or books in the park or in a coffee shop. Go walking, jogging or cycling with an MP3 player with pod casts. And once in a while leave it all tech stuff alone and do other stuff.

Power Bill & the environment

Well I don’t own a car. When I need one is use a rental or barter with friends. Indeed this is “Car as a Service”, CAAS. It’s quite cheap actually compared to owning and running one. For the most part I drive my bicycle and use public transport (train).

So the money saved by not having a car can be used for the lab and the reduction in carbon footprint gives me plenty of surplus CO2 quotas to run a couple of extra PC’s a few times per week. Just turn it off when you don’t need it. In winter it also helps heat the room 🙂

Is this unrealistic? How many of you have two cars at home? Home many electrical entertainment & household devices do you own? Two PC’s for 6 or 9 hours a week are going to break the bank and ruin the environment? Get real and get some solar panels.

Get Some Lab Equipment

You don’t have to build the lab feature complete from day one. Make good use of hardware replacement projects. Scrounge for discarded or redundant hardware. An old KVM console, replaced Cisco switches? PC’s or servers left over after a refresh cycle. Just keep an eye open for opportunities to get some good gear. Building such a lab is also fun and is a learning experience in itself. Even developers benefit from knowledge about hardware, networking, operating systems and virtualization.

Getting Access to the software

If you’re in the Microsoft ecosystem then a Tech Net Plus subscription is absolutely one of the best investments you’ll ever make. Developers should look towards MDSN but that’s considerably more expensive. A lot of vendors have free editions and trial versions out there. Use them.

Servers & PC’s

I have 3 small form factor PC’s and one mini tower PC with 4 to 8 GB of RAM and 250 GB of disk space. I also have a laptop for mobile work and a very beefy desktop with dual screens.

The lab is managed using KVM and a couple of extra 21” Flat Screens I got from an office sale. A lot of the time I just RDP into the servers I need to work on.

The mini tower has an extra 500 GB disk that is used as storage for the iSCSI target running on there, which means is can do clustering. Yup I run a Hyper-V R2 Live Migration setup at home.

Can I do with less hardware? Yes, but you can’t go entirely virtual if you want to play with Hyper-V clustering for example.


Next to an ADSL/VDSL/Cable Modem/Router, get one or two decent 1Gbps layer 2 switches, at least web managed, to test networking scenarios.

Add an extra router to the mix if you want to do sub netting/routing/VLAN’s or get a layer 3 switch (expensive).

Use differently colored Cat 5e cabling to keep things organized: yellow for iSCSI, orange for Hyper-V, green for ordinary LAN, etc.

Each hardware server node has an onboard NIC and I added an Intel 4 port NIC cards. That means they have room for iSCSI, LAN, Hyper-V dedicated NICS, multiple subnets etc.

It looks overkill to some but if you want to test various scenarios, with multiple subnets, routing, VLAN’s (with or without using VLAN id’s) this is very comfortable.


There are many whitepapers, web casts, podcasts and self-study books. Use them with on line documentation, support forums, blogs and articles to get the most out of your lab. The resources out there are vast and varied. You’ll find something that fits your learning style. Don’t just learn about pieces of technology. Learn how they interact with and depend on each other. Get some business insight about the use of technology.

What do I do with all that?

Using this kit and virtualization (VMware Server, Hyper-V) I run AD, DNS, WINS, DHCP, SQL Server, Exchange, MDT 2010, WDS, SCSCOM2007R2, SCVMM2008R2, W2K8R2 IIS etc. Just build your core infrastructure and add or remove virtual machines and environments as needed. This is the lab where I test upgrades, migrations transitions, learn about functionalities, test ideas and reproduce issues to find out how to fix them. This is also the home office from where I telecommute and run my little IT worlds in a couple of cities. Broadband, remote access cards (ILO/DRAC), KVM over IP in combination with secured connectivity make this all possible today.

Now this is all very modest, believe me. You don’t have to be Stefan Didak (http://www.stefandidak.com/office/index.php) to get a great learning & working environment set up.

Selling a lab to your employer & company

For your employer, company and actually also your customers it is a very big benefit to have lab. The better you are in what you do the faster you can deliver better quality results with less risk. The cost isn’t really that high. The moment the cost of becoming and staying competent is higher than hiring others to do the work; it’s time to seriously start thinking about sourcing the work.

At one place we are getting busy to build a test Hyper-V cluster with “recuperated” material from their data center. The servers are recent PE 2950’s from DELL that became available due to a very successful virtualization project. We have access to shared storage, both iSCSI and FC, that they have in place. The thing about this client is that they know that the “cost” in recuperated material is nothing compared having under skilled people working directly on production systems. Their entire lab (servers, network kit) is worth perhaps 20.000,00- to 25.000,00- Euro’s originally, but now it amounts to perhaps 4.000,00- 5.000,00- € in all now on eBay. As an example check out this link: http://tinyurl.com/ybfofb4

If your management thinks training is useless and doesn’t produce results they have multiple serious, issues. One of them might be very bad HRM. Which is even more proof that a lab isn’t that expensive when you really need one I guess? Consider a lousy employee with a master’s degree. One of those cost around 75.000 € / year all overhead & taxes & benefits included. And then you still have to make a profit. Let’s assume you have 500 employees an only 2 of them are really not functioning well to a level that they become a burden to others. That’s 150.000 € right there. Even worse, you need to hire extra employees, contractors or consultants to get results they are incapable of delivering. So actually getting one good employee gets rid of that cost and you still have plenty of cash to buy some lab gear and put a decent savings on your financial report.

0 thoughts on “Having a Lab & Using It

  1. Pingback: Building A New Lab For 2011 And Beyond « Working Hard In IT

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