After lurking on various subreddits such as r/homelab, r/DataHoarder, r/selfhosted, r/HomeServer and r/HomeNetworking for some time now, we have decided that we also want a cool looking rack cabinet! With some different servers, NAS, DAS and everything you can think of that suits in a rack. Rack mount all the things! Everything that can be rack mounted, should be in that rack cabinet. Due to the fact that we do not own a house with its own server room, we do not have the option to go for a full size server rack with servers that are noisy 24/7. It must be suitable to a family home. Sizewise, It has to be a smaller format.
And – it has to look good…
Why should you have your own home lab?
It’s fun to play around with, and you learn an incredible amount. That is our main argument!
That said, there are also several benefits to hosting your own services and applications from home.
It can be expensive to acquire all the equipment. However, all you need to get started is a PC and some hard drives. If you already have an older spare PC, this is something you can quickly start using as for example a NAS. Thus replacing a monthly cost for Dropbox or another similar cloud solution. The same applies to costs for web hosting, game server hosting, VPN, and other similar services you might use today.
Having your own equipment gives you full control over your own services. You do not pay for things you do not use, but you can instead choose to run only the services you want. If you want to test a new function or a new application, it is easy, and you do not have to purchase it from a software developer. With virtualization capabilities, you can quickly spin up a server where you can test out FreeNAS (TrueNAS), piHole, Plex or Home Assistant to name a few popular services we at least are interested in trying out for our selves.
You own your own data. Instead of giving all of your files and photos to Google, Microsoft or whoever you are currently using as a cloud service provider. You yourself have control over your data. You choose how you want your devices to talk to each other in your network, and can set rules that prevent your smart products from accessing all the data in your home. Furthermore, you as a parent get the opportunity to tailor access for your children; when they can watch TV, use the internet, and what they have access to and when.
We have zero experience with Linux as an operating system. Very little experience with network administration. That is what makes this project so exciting and interesting. With a dedicated virtualization server, you can easily set up a virtual machine (VM) that you can install whatever you want to on. Linux is open source, and free. It is also less resource-intensive compared to Windows. If you want to run some simple services and applications, you are almost dependent on knowing Linux, at least a little. There are LOTS of resources for learning Linux, and network administration online. And we’re well on our way and feel more and more comfortable managing Linux as an operating system.
What equipment do you need?
As mentioned earlier, a PC is basically everything you need.
Depending on what you want to get out of your home lab, there are a number of things you have to think about. If you are going to use it for NAS (Network Attached Storage) then you of course need some storage in the form of hard drives. If you are going to use it as virtualization, you must first and foremost have a CPU and a motherboard that supports virtualization, but also preferably a multi-core processor and excess memory.
We wanted a game server (primarily for Minecraft), a virtualization server for piHole and Home Assistant as well as a FreeNAS / TrueNAS installation. We will have all this gathered in one place, together with network equipment (see our post about Ubiquiti) and UPS in one and the same rack cabinet.
Buy new or used?
We have bought almost everything pre-owned. Everything from all the network equipment to the rack cabinet.
It is worth noting that the used market for server equipment is huge. For a home lab, it is not always necessary to have the very latest equipment. In most cases, it is good enough to have hardware that is a couple of years old. There are many companies that sell their old server equipment as they have higher requirements for equipment than what you have as a home user. And here is where you can make a number of bargains on different used hardware sites.
Which rack cabinet should one go for?
When we had to choose rack cabinets, we did not want a 79″ (2 meter) high and 47″ (1.2 meter) deep cabinet. One thing is the price as they can cost as much as a small car, but they also take up very much space. On various used sites, very common, older cabinets are often sold, which you can get at a reasonable price. With such a cabinet you get many opportunities.
Standard cabinets are in size 42U (1U is 44.45 mm or 1.75″. This is the unit for what you measure components you have in your rack cabinets). There are virtualization servers all the way down to 1U, so with 42U you get a lot of space.
The perfect beginner’s home lab cabinet
We went for a cabinet from Toten. A 15U. This should last for a while and be large enough to accommodate most of the servers, network equipment, storage space and UPS. The cabinet is 23,6″ (60 cm) high and 23,6″ (60 cm) deep and thus fits in a shelf in the basement with the same depth. It has a nice glass door, and it is possible to hang it on the wall if you wish.
The biggest downside with this cabinet is the depth. Most of the equipment that belongs to rack cabinets is for 47″ deep cabinets. This means that you have to look at all the short depth equipment available. It is in this category that some servers stands out, including the Dell Poweredge r210 ii, which we chose to go for as a first server.
This cabinet was bought pre-owned, but it looked brand new when we received it. We also got a rack shelf with the purchase, which can otherwise be a bit expensive depending on whether you buy the one that belongs to your specific cabinet, or a third party one.
Rack cabinets follow a standard, and it is not necessary to buy everything in Toten just because you have bought a Toten cabinet. Here, AliExpress or eBay are good options to turn to as it is a lot of money to save if you go for either pre-owned or a new, unknown brand.
We need short depth rack server cabinet
As I said, the challenge with short depth cabinets is that there are not so many options when it comes to choosing a rack-mounted server. Of course, you can always build one yourself, but even then there is a limit to what options there are when it comes to cabinets.
The maximum depth must be approximately 20″ (50 cm). It must have some space behind. Therefore, the first server we bought was a Dell Poweredge r210 ii.
We also bought this pre-owned, and it has been used as a firewall with pfSense installed by the previous owner. The CPU was an Intel Celeron, and it had 4 GB of memory.
A small but powerful machine
The Dell r210ii has the potential to be upgraded quite powerfully, in fact to the point that you can use it as a good virtualization server. The maximum CPU that the dell r210 supports is a Xeon e3-1280 v2, and the maximum amount of memory is 32 GB UDIMM ECC DDR3-1600. This requires the latest bios. We found both memory and CPU at a good price on eBay, and this was the next thing we bought.
This results in a relatively powerful small server, which with 2 SSDs (one 60 GB for the OS and one 500 GB for VM’s) manages to run Proxmox, and currently runs 3 VMs.
One for Home assistant, and one for a Minecraft server. On the third, an Ubuntu server is installed, where the plan is to run some applications in Docker, and possibly some other things, but this is what makes it so fun. It’s a VM that has been created that we mostly play with at the moment, and test some things out with. We do not yet know what it will end up with, but it will probably be awesome in the end.
Rackmountable network equipment
We have invested in full Ubiquiti network equipment and have never regretted it. This is something we are very happy with. Currently, we have a USG, an 8 port switch and a first generation Cloud key. We haven’t rack-mounted this, but it is possible to do. At least with a 3d printer available. As I said, we got a shelf for the purchase of our rack cabinet, and so far we are happy with the network equipment placed there. We want to eventually upgrade to a Cloud key gen2 plus (when home surveillance becomes a more important topic) that you can put in a rack. Or what we really want is a Dream Machine Pro that has everything you need in one device. Together with a patch panel, and a rack mountable PoE switch, it will look spectacular inside the cabinet.
Storage is expensive.
What is perhaps the most common reason why one wants their own Home Lab is the desire to have a NAS. FreeNAS/TrueNAS is a very popular option, but there are several alternatives to custom-built NAS, or ready-made NAS systems from different manufacturers. Whether you choose to go for a Synology or Asustor NAS, or use an old PC and install UnRaid, Open Media Vault or FreeNAS, it can quickly become expensive, depending on how much storage space you want. Hard drives can cost a lot of money. And you want to have redundancy in your data as well, in case there’s an accident and a hard drive fails. A rack-mountable NAS can quickly become expensive, but it is something we want eventually. Preferably with Hotswap option for the drives.
Currently, an old PC is used, with an ITX motherboard with integrated CPU. All in a Fractal Design Node 304 that stands on the floor with a mix of some 3 TB and some 4 TB disks.
Do you need this?
If you are a little above average technically interested and like to learn more and more of what the IT world has to offer then yes, absolutely. Our main argument is that it is fun, interesting, and you learn a lot.
The possibilities are endless with your own Home lab. With this we get a separate Minecraft server for the kids, so we can play with them and have our own world just for us. And not least with Home Assistant, which enables a local, self-controlled smart home solution. Where all smart home products are gathered in one place, in one app.
What will our lab look like in the future?
As you hear others say when presenting their Home lab; “This is not done yet”. It is probably common for everyone who runs their own home lab. It will never be finished. But that’s also what fun about it. It is a one thing having a gaming PC or workstation that you upgrade now and then. With this home lab you have your own rack cabinet with many options for inserting more and more components. Potentially with many virtual machines: That you can upgrade and downgrade all you want, with the click of a button.
The next thing we are going to invest in is a UPS. We could argue that we don’t need it since the power grid where we live is more than good enough. It is also not the case that we need to have a server running 24/7 and that can not withstand any downtime. But, should the power go. Should a fuse blow, then some data may become corrupt. Either on storage disks or on the Cloud key, or Proxmox. No PC likes to be turned off by simply losing power. With a UPS, we ensure that if the power goes out, we can just turn off the server and network equipment in a safe, controlled way while running on the UPS’s battery.
What will be next after that is uncertain. It will most likely be a self-built NAS, as we have already looked at short depth cabinets and are looking for motherboards, CPU and memory on various buying and selling sites. Or maybe a Dream Machine Pro. We’ll see! Stay tuned and feel free to comment on what you think we should go for next.
After seeing several different incredible setups of rack cabinets. We have decided to move our Minecraft Server to a separate dedicated server, in a rack cabinet. In a rack cabinet with great expansion possibilities, and we quickly got ourselves into what is a separate Home lab. With all the virtualized servers, NAS and network equipment gathered in one place. What equipment should we choose? What do we want to get out of our Home lab? Are there any skills you need to start with a Home lab? We have very little experience, and throw ourselves into the deep end and hope for the best. Stay tuned to see how all this unfolds!