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Investing in a Home Lab For IT Certification Training

Invest IT home lab
Credit: ndquang/Shutterstock

For many IT certifications, a home lab can be a very useful learning tool. But before you spend the time and money building your home lab, ask yourself: "How much will it cost?" and "How much can it help?" Given the right answers, you can find great options for putting together your own home lab or go with a virtual lab as an alternative.

The most important element in deciding whether or not to add a home lab to your certification prep arsenal has to be a clear-eyed analysis of the amount of hands-on skill and knowledge you need to get past the certification exams.

For example, a veritable cottage industry for acquiring, setting up and maintaining home labs around Cisco switches, routers, and other related networking gear, has emerged to support candidates for the CCNA, CCNP, CCIE and other Cisco credentials. The same goes for other IT certifications, like those from Red Hat (RHCA, RHCE, and so forth), where testing is performance-based and requires candidates to set up sample configurations or to troubleshoot existing ones.

In general, you will be able to get a very good idea about whether or not a home lab might make sense by following the chatter on the various certification forums that inevitably pop up around the kinds of IT cert programs that attract or justify a consideration (and possible purchase) of a home lab as part of the preparation and study process. In fact, a quick search on "home lab <cert name here>" will probably tell you a lot by the nature and kind of results that show up on the first page of hits.

As to the inevitable next question of "How much will it cost?" the numbers depend on how much you know and how much homework you're willing to do to figure out exactly what you need to create such a lab. There's a profound trade-off between the amount of time and effort you're willing to put into researching your needs, and searching for deals, and how much time you're willing to spend "doing-it-yourself" when putting such a lab together. As you might expect, the more time and effort you expend on such things, the less you'll have to pay to put a lab together. 

But if you also pause to consider that your time has value, it may make sense to spend one or two thousand dollars more to buy a "ready-to-build" kit for a home lab, rather than researching, acquiring, and assembling such a kit for yourself. If your time is worth $25 an hour, and you can save 150 hours by buying a kit instead of starting from total scratch, you can afford to spend $3,750 more on the kit than on the parts because of the time you save, and still come out even. Of course, that calculus pre-supposes that you can afford the extra money, so many, many others will have been compelled by a "have no cash, will spend extra time" mentality to work the do-it-yourself side of that equation even if it does take longer to work through the process, and to earn the certification, as a consequence.

One nice thing about eBay is that enough IT pros have gone before you who are also sufficiently entrepreneurial so that you can find some pretty good CCNA, CCNP and even CCIE lab kit deals popping up there from time to time. You can also find great shopping lists for lab gear (which tell you what to buy, in sometimes blistering detail) and terrific lab blueprints (which tell you how to put the parts together, and often also, how to configure them into a working lab) as well. Thus, your willingness to research should be well-invested in finding as much information about what to buy, where and how to buy it, and how to put it all together, when it comes to putting your own home lab together.

But before you go too far down that road, you may also want to investigate (and perhaps even try out) virtual labs that let you remote over the Internet into somebody else's lab instead of acquiring the equipment and putting it all together on your own. For some IT Pros -- especially those who either must or who really want to hold the hardware in their hot little hands -- this may not be so appealing. For others -- especially those who understand the value of renting rather than buying, and who appreciate that the cloud dynamic applies to virtual labs as well as "virtual everything else" -- virtual labs may make more sense for many reasons.

If they're available, they're worth checking out and may be your best bet for lower-level credentials (like the CCNA and perhaps even the CCNP). But for more senior credentials (like the CCIE, with its infamous and fiendishly difficult lab exams) you will have to be prepared to mess around with hardware when you take the actual test, so you will need to ponder a home lab for preparation, unless you can arrange for test lab access at work (if you're lucky) or take a high-dollar cert prep class (if your employer is willing to cover such costs, in whole or in part).

The benefits of a home lab are pretty interesting, though, because they'll force you to integrate the cert prep curriculum into a working (if small-scale) environment. That's why many candidates build their labs around 19" equipment racks, and usually acquire at least two (if not more) CPUs worth of server capability (plus necessary RAM, storage, network connections, power supplies, and so forth) along with the networking, storage, operating system, services, and other components that go into such a mix. I'm told a keyboard drawer and a monitor drawer (or front-mounted monitor) are also typical purchases for such rigs, along with a plethora of cables, interfaces, adapters, and all the other little widgets that are inevitably required when turning technical concepts and scenarios into their real-world implementations.

Whether you go with a home lab or a virtual lab, the hands-on experience will prove to be invaluable to your IT certification training program.

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.