The Importance of a Home Lab (Guest Blog)

The Importance of a Home Lab (Guest Blog)

By Ian Stout On 03/29/2021

Ever thought of creating a home lab? Here's why it's important.

One of the things that I have found to be quite beneficial is a home lab. When I was first studying for the various wireless topics I used this quite a bit to understand what I was learning. Now I find that I am still using the home lab to further my current understanding and continuing to learn other networking topics. Depending on your environment and budget this doesn't need to be anything elaborate, but I think it is well worth your time to do so. I am not saying that you should go out and buy the latest and greatest equipment, I have found that end-of-life or near end-of-life devices are easier to come by for a bargain and usually will serve the needs. You can get these from a wide range of places, surplus sales, companies upgrading their older infrastructure, attending a webinar, eBay, etc.

Access Points

If you're going to learn more about wireless networks this is almost a no-brainer. I would recommend getting a couple of enterprise-grade Access Points since you usually have much better control over the settings on them than the home-based devices, plus depending on the device you may be able to get one that will allow you to do other advanced features such as external antenna support, packet captures, 802.1X authentication, etc.

Clients

I was told, "Without wireless clients, wireless would be awesome, it's those blasted wireless clients that screw everything up." These can be a fairly easy one to come by, it could be a phone, tablet, laptop, or even some USB wireless cards. Each device performs and receives the wireless signal (RSSI) somewhat uniquely. Also, they each have a wide range of capabilities, and it's a good idea to test these clients in different situations or environments to know how they will perform also, in a controlled environment you may be able to discover what could potentially break based on a certain setting before pushing this out to production

Switches

Wait a minute, I am trying to build a wireless network lab why would I need do to anything with the wired infrastructure? This is because the wireless network is still very reliant on the wired network to function. A misconfigured wired network or device could easily affect connectivity to the wireless network. Don't worry, these could range from a simple inexpensive unmanaged switch that connects your devices in an isolated environment to a Layer 3 managed PoE switch that allows you to do all kinds of advanced features. Really I would start with something basic and move up from there as your skillset or needs require it.

Computers

Something else that I have started doing more with is having a few different computers to build some lab environments to test what-if scenarios. Again, these don't need to be anything elaborate. This could be as simple as an older machine that you can freely format and reload various operating systems on without the risk of losing any important data, a hypervisor environment that you start and stop on your local machine, to a bare metal virtual environment that you can spin up any number of virtual machines or better yet deploy prebuilt virtual appliances or applications. There are many different options and depending on your environment and use case any of these could be correct.

Other Tools

This is where you can go in quite a range of directions and depending on the use case all of them could be right.

One of the important ones is a WiFi scanner. This could be a simple app on your phone or tablet, software that is installed on your local machine to show all kinds of information about the networks around you, or a handheld scanner that gives you all sorts of information. This is something that I find that I use quite often in the beginning stages of diagnosing or troubleshooting a wireless network and can be used to discover what settings are configured on a wireless network.

Another great tool is a protocol analyzer. If you have to do any kind of advanced troubleshooting or if you need to determine the capabilities of a device to see if it is compatible with your wireless network. A Protocol analyzer will be your best friend for finding and interpreting this information.

Lastly, a spectrum analyzer is a great tool for finding and identifying nearby sources of interference that could be impacting the performance of your wireless network, these can range greatly in price depending on their features and resolution refresh rate.

Conclusion

Something that I was told in the past and seemed to quite enjoy is, "You never know how good you are until you have to undo something you just did." for me, I would much rather try and figure this out in a lab environment than a production environment, but maybe I'm just strange and don't have a sense of adventure.

The information presented in this blog post is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of all the devices or options that you could use, but more as a starting point and introduction to these tools. I hope that you have enjoyed this blog post and I want to thank you for taking the time to read it, if you have any questions reach out to me at @WiFiIan on Twitter or check out my blog at https://www.stoutwireless.com/

Tagged with: home lab, wireless, studying, equipment
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