Starting a Homelab
For those starting off their career in Cybersecurity, a #homelab is often a great first step. Often times, while cruising Reddit‘s r/homelab or r/selfhosted, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of people with flashy servers, petabytes of storage, exabits of ram, and gigawatts of compute (/sarcasm) but honestly most everyone can start their homelab with an old computer or two and a hypervisor of their choice.
I recently restarted my homelab after taking a hiatus. In the past I had pair of Dell servers, (a R620 and R720) and a custom 14u (ish) rack running esxi 6.7 and proxmox. When I landed my job as an ISSO with Georgia Tech I slimmed down to a Synology NAS holding all of my lifes belongings as I found I ran out of time to “play” (mistake #1 – don’t ever stop tinkering).
I then landed my next job as an ISSE/Cybersecurity Analyst where I got to play around with vulnerability management and the more technical aspect of Cybersecurity. I also found I had even less time to tinker around… until recently.
So where am I today? Well I started off where my network needed it most and where everyone I believe should always start – their network perimeter, and I found Dell Optiplex 3020 SFF PC to fit the bill. It came with a 4th gen Intel i3, 4gb of ram and no drive. I quickly outfitted it with a 120gb Kingston SSD and loaded it up with pfSense.
Now you all may be wondering why I would choose something with a 4th gen Intel processor and an old personal computer instead of something like a Ubiquiti Unifi Firewall, a Sonicwall, or similar? Well quite frankly I’m not made of money and a $30 PC with a $10 SSD can do just as good if not a better job of securing my network, plus it comes with a ton more features I desire such as pfBlockerNG (network wide ad blocking mostly), and Unbound, and I can install plugins as I desire.
Next on the list was to replace my Synology box. While my DS920+ is still relatively new, I am finding it lacking for my needs. One, it does one thing and one thing well, its a NAS. But I find being locked into one vendors architecture and limited on upgrade path outside of what I wanted in a #homelab. So out it went and in came the Dell R520. This came in at a steal of a price, loaded with 96gb of ram, dual socket processors (granted not the v2 xeons, that will come later) and 8 3.5 drive bays. I loaded it with TrueNAS Scale (Linux version) to take advantage of ZFS, dual USB thumb drives for boot (more on this later before you guys start drilling me on how the usb thumb drives will prematurely die), a 128gb SSD mounted on a pcie adapter for my Truenas/Kubernetes applications and to store the OS log files. This NAS server serves the entire household for desktop backups, media (Movies, music, photos) and ISOs/VM backups for the R420 hypervisor below.
The final piece (for now) is the Dell R420 hypervisor. This server currently runs a 120gb SSD as its main boot drive utilizing ESXI 7 for the hypervisor. When I bought this it came with a 2 port broadcom gigabit ethernet adapter and a 4 port intel ethernet adapter (SCORE!). This played out perfect with my pfSense box as I transferred the 4 port NIC to it and now have 5 available ethernet ports on the firewall. On the R420 I outfitted it with 120GB of ram (96+24 it came with) and two Xeon 2470v2 processors. While these processors are starting to show their age its plenty of horsepower still for a homelab and the ram in this is plenty enough to run a small(ish) mock datacenter… for now.
The only thing missing really are the switches for a proper vLAN setup, however my desktop TP-Link 8 port Managed Switch will have to suffice until I decide to spur up more cash for a proper 24/48 port, a 12u (min) rack, a patch panel or two, and more access points.
Now its time to really start digging in and outlining my lab. Onto the most important aspect of every lab. Documentation…
Pictures below are of my first homelab minus the R720 which came later. Sadly I could not find the photos of the R720. I’ll eventually get photos of the R420/R520 combo up in another post. I custom built the rack from a 2 post 42u rack I cut down myself with a band saw and some time, coupled with what would now be $3,000 in lumber. This was circa 2018.