Posey's Tips & Tricks
The Case for On-Prem Home Labs in a Cloud-First World
The public cloud is mature and reliable. So why does Brien still run a bunch of physical servers out of his home? For a lot of good reasons that the cloud can't match, it turns out.
When I walked away from my corporate job to go freelance more than 20 years ago, one of the first things I did was build a home lab. It was a ridiculously expensive undertaking, but I knew if I were to make a career out of writing about enterprise IT, then I needed a way to validate the procedures I was writing about. Setting up a bunch of servers in my home proved to be the only realistic option.
Thanks to server virtualization products such as VMware and Microsoft Hyper-V, I don't have nearly as many servers running in my home as I once did. Switching to a virtualized environment not only drove down the cost of maintaining my home lab, it also solved countless other problems ranging from floor space to the extreme heat produced by all of those machines.
However, even though virtualization has allowed me to scale back, I have always maintained a relatively extensive lab environment. Not surprisingly, I've had several friends question why I continue to keep physical servers running in my home. After all, public cloud environments are mature and reliable, and most organizations take a cloud-first approach to their IT infrastructure.
So is there a case for continuing to operate a home lab, or should everything be done in the cloud?
In all honesty, I think the answer to this question is different for everyone. People have different reasons for needing a lab environment, and the degree to which that environment is used varies from person to person.
One of the main reasons why IT pros have historically deployed lab environments in their homes is because having a home lab makes it much easier to prepare for IT certification exams. But if a home lab is being used solely for exam preparation, it probably will be less expensive and more practical to simply deploy everything in the cloud. After all, the cloud makes it possible to deploy virtual machines running the operating system of your choice -- and then walk away from it all once you're done -- without making a major investment.
On the other hand, if you are someone who makes extensive use of a home lab environment, it may be in your best interest to build a physical lab rather than rely on cloud-based resources. Again, it comes down to your individual circumstances.
In case you're wondering, there are three main reasons why I continue to operate a physical lab environment rather than simply work in the cloud.
The first reason is cost. Because I use my lab environment so heavily, it probably costs less for me to operate on-premises than it would for me to operate solely in the cloud. Bear in mind that it's been a while since I have done a full-blown price comparison, so I can't say with 100 percent certainty that operating on-premises is cheaper...but I suspect that it is.
What is more important, however, is predictability. My lab hardware and the software that runs on it are all paid-for. I don't have to wonder how much my lab resources are going to cost me next month. Unless I end up having to replace a hard disk or something like that, my cost will be zero.
A second reason why I like maintaining an on-premises lab environment is because doing so gives me total control over the hardware I use. Cloud providers limit you to using a few predefined hardware profiles, whereas all of the hardware I operate on-premises adheres to my exact specifications.
Finally, I like operating on-premises because it gives me cheaper and more efficient access to my data. Granted, this has less to do with my lab environment than my production environment, but it's all kind of tied together.
As someone who creates an insane amount of content each month, I have to think about how best to store that content. That isn't really a big deal for things like blog posts and screen captures, but I do a lot of video work, too. A couple of weeks ago, I did a project that created 166GB of video data -- not out-of-the-norm for me, as I routinely create large video files. Storing this data on the Amazon Web Services S3 standard tier would cost $0.023 per gigabyte (or $3.81 total) based on the current pricing guides. Keep in mind, however, that this is billed month after month for as long as I want to keep the data (which is forever).
In the long term, it is far more cost-effective to keep the data on-premises. Never mind the fact that I have a slow Internet connection and really don't want to have to do a 166GB download every time I need to access the data.
Again, everyone's needs are different, and what seems like a no-brainer for me isn't going to necessarily be the right course of action for you. There are plenty of situations that would justify doing all of your lab work in the cloud instead of keeping a bunch of hardware running in your home. Regardless, there are still valid use cases for home labs.
Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.