Setting up a home lab can be challenging, but it is the best way to learn about systems infrastructure at your own pace. The process can appear intimidating unless you have full access to an IT department. However, you are often limited by your company's policies or lack of equipment at work. And at home, you usually don't have the required equipment or enough resources, even for a basic home lab.
IT Labs: My Experience
I have been working as a Solutions Architect and in similar roles for over a decade now; for various storage system companies and as a freelancer. Working directly with companies producing their own hardware makes demanding resources for testing labs super easy. Sometimes, I had the feeling these were unlimited. I quickly could be granted enterprise licenses and software, hardware infrastructure, and plenty of proprietary products.
Frequently, I spared some of my projects' resources to "geek around," running side tests or creating my own lab challenges to improve IT skills. In short, I had private "home" labs running at the work office, which I smoothly accessed via remote connection or VPN; well... from home.
Having many resources available is not always a good example or the best use case. And it is just not realistic to everyone. This is true for customers who want to reduce costs and IT enthusiasts who have minimal resources starting a lab.
Considering customers, I can relate two standard assignments required when stacking infrastructure in the IT realm: creating reference architectures and proof of concepts (POC). For both, one must plan and build cost-effective, scalable, reliable, and easy-to-implement environments. And here, cost-effectiveness is key!
Note: Some might think that a POC is just about testing performance and features; I think not.
While you could have unlimited resources to stand out a solution for your product, it is not always the most acceptable approach. Customers not only care about performance, features, and capabilities (that other solutions could easily offer), they genuinely care about costs. This might sound obvious to many, as reference architectures and solutions briefs usually focus on costs. Yet, I consider it necessary to highlight it.
Home Lab Challenge
For IT enthusiasts building a lab, a similar situation is presented. More often than not, you will be on a budget, and you'll need to decide carefully what kind of resources you need. More importantly, if you really need them.
Home labs are terrific for testing software features and studying for certifications. But many miss a significant point about building a home lab: the building process. That's it; the time you spent researching, selecting equipment, configuring, installing, and (a key one) troubleshooting. Wondering how to install software and getting stuck in the process due to a lack of resources is a frustrating but beautiful thing.
Take the following blog post as an example: How to Install VMware VCSA 6.7 with less than 10GB RAM. I created a small home lab in the past and got stuck during the VMware vCenter Server installation. The VM I was using for VCSA (vCenter) didn't have enough memory, and I couldn't continue the operation. I knew the minimum requirements but wasn't expecting to be a problem; I had to find a way to "hack" the VCSA installation. Of course, this only qualifies for (tiny) testing environments.
If I had had enough memory to install VCSA, I'd never know about this issue. As occurred to me when creating my VDI lab, hardware was never an issue, and I never paid attention to these "minor" details.
Note: Memory is a crucial resource for VMware Labs. The minimum required could vary, but often 64GB is the best choice.
Problem-solving and other soft skills are necessary, and they will define your IT career, at least as a system or solutions engineer. But the point here is not necessarily about problem-solving. It is about learning how to work with what you were asked to or what you have at the moment. Eventually, and if required, you could expand your home lab with more and better gear.
To have a successful home lab, you'll need to have some essential equipment on hand. There are many options for you to start building a home lab. Although having more resources is better, these are not always available, necessary, or affordable.
My key takeaway on engineering or architecting for IT systems is that an IT (enterprise) lab's essence lies in producing cost-effective solutions. For home labs, this is translated into designing on a budget and creatively administrating resources. Start small, plan well, and enjoy the process.