Homelab

Wiktionary says a homelab is a server set up in one’s home for the purpose of testing various configurations of hardware, operating systems, etc. Another view is that a homelab is a place where tech professionals can learn and experiment and feel free to make mistakes outside of their work-related systems. The term also encompasses advanced home network, computing, and storage setups deployed by pros, less than casual users, and tech enthusiasts – regardless of its purpose.

I’ve always had a fancier than average setup, but I only recently got into what would meet the definition of a homelab. Two things led me to it: 1) our TV was intermittently disconnecting from the Wi-Fi; and 2) we were experiencing what I thought was poor internet service. During troubleshooting, I discovered that my router’s WAN-facing ethernet port was wonky. Since I needed to replace the router and update my WiFi, I figured I should also segment my TV and other IoT devices from my trusted devices. In the course of researching my options for rebuilding my network, I discovered that Linux, home storage, and a number of other things had come a long way since I last looked into them. (One thing that hadn’t changed is that the gold standard in Unix System Administration handbooks is still the Evi Nemeth book.) Particularly intriguing were the concepts of self-hosted cloud storage, improved security, and data sovereignty. I had discovered present day homelabbing, and I was, of course, going to go all in.

After spending a bit of time and money, I have repurposed a used Dell tower and a used Lenovo ThinkCentre as virtual machine hosts (using KVM/QEMU), a multi-segmented GigE LAN, and a TrueNAS running on a Terramaster serving up 20TB of Seagate Barracuda spinning rust drives. My virtual machines include recursive DNS and ad blocking servers using Pi-hole, a Jellyfin media server, and a Nextcloud instance. Future plans include implementing ZFS replication for a backup solution (RAID is not a backup!), a network monitoring solution, a local NTP server, and moving as much of my home automation as possible from cloud-based providers to a locally hosted Home Assistant server.

Although the latest tech is always fun, I have a deep appreciation for the tried and true tech. I picked up the Panasonic KXP-1124i dot matrix printer for $15 at a rummage sale (including 1000 sheets of tractor feed paper!). After a good cleaning and some TLC, it’s printing just fine. It reminds me of the days when I had to log into a printer terminal to list out a copy of my source code before class. If you’ve been computing for a while, you might also recognize my IBM Model M keyboard. I was surprised to find it in near mint condition. If the seller had told me it was new old stock, I would have believed him. I types like a dream! You really know you’re typing when you use a Model M (so does everyone within earshot).

If you’re looking into getting started in homelabbing and/or Linux (or BSD), there is no shortage of bad advice on the internet. There are a ton of YouTube channels, but so many are less than helpful (i.e., loaded with hype and clickbait). The follow creators proved very useful to me in my homelab journey. They exhibit by far more substance than flash, which is something I appreciate.

Veronica Explains (Thanks for inspiring me to seek out the dot matrix printer and the Model M!)
Learn Linux TV (Jay has lots of in depth videos including command line walk-throughs that really help you, well, Learn Linux.)
Chris Titus Tech (Chris has great Linux content and his Ultimate Windows Utility is a must have for any Windows user who cares about privacy and security.)
Explaining Computers (Classic no-nonsense YouTube channel. Thanks for turning my on to Zorin OS.)
Late Night Linux (This is a great family of entertaining and informative podcasts about Linux and computing.)

Linux/Open Source Computing

I remember one day when some classmates in engineering school asked if I had heard of “Linux,” this new free Unix that just came out. We all rushed to the computer lab with fresh boxes of floppy disks to download our own copy to install. Now, that OS (variations thereof) basically runs the Internet and 70% of the smartphones on the planet.

I administered Linux (and FreeBSD) servers in my IT career, but the need to use certain commercial software apps kept me running windows and MacOS on my home desktop/laptop machines. MacOS has been a unix variant for years now, so in a way I was running Unix, but I wanted to see if I would run Linux for personal productivity at home. I wanted to integrate Linux into my routine, so I found a KVM that would let me switch one of three machines between one Keyboard, Mouse (in my case, a trackball), and monitor. It actually supports two monitors, but right now I just have one good sized curved monitor. I can switch between my M2 Mac Mini, an Intel Mini PC running Linux, and a laptop connected via USB-C. Whichever machine I select can use the keyboard, trackball, webcam, mic, speakers, and all of the other USB devices. This setup lets me use the same console for work or personal, while keeping them isolated (the work laptop connects through my IoT network segment).

My Linux workstation runs Debian with KDE. I have Libre Office installed and try to use it as much as possible. I was able to pick up a lovingly used Lenovo X1 Yoga for a song. I’ve got Linux Mint (LMDE) running on there and it works flawlessly. My wife mostly hangs out on her iPad, but when she needs a proper computing environment, she sits down at an old Dell on which I installed Zorin OS. As an aside, Zorin OS wins my award for coolest linux distro name. (It’s named after one of the co-creators of the OS, but the 80’s kid in me believes it is named after Max Zorin from “A View to A Kill.”)

So far, I’m enjoying having Linux integrated into my computing stable. If I need some software, the first thing I look for is a FOSS package, preferably on Linux. But, if it’s cross platform and can go on the Mac, too, so much the better.


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