This post is not meant to describe the ultimate lab configuration. Instead the focus is on a lab environment that can be stood up quickly and easily as a learning tool. The best way to learn about computer networking and security is to have a home lab. The great thing is that a home lab no longer requires several physical computers as it did in the past. Virtualization enables anyone to take a computer with a decent processor and enough RAM to create a lab environment without being overly complex. Furthermore, it’s possible to build a Windows environment at minimal cost for testing.
Hosting The Lab
Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, and others provide capability to install and configure VMs in the cloud which is helpful when traveling since the lab is available and accessible from anywhere (perhaps saving power at home).
I have friends that buy older servers from various internet sources (ebay, etc) at a tremendous discount and run those with (potentially) massive hard drive arrays. The big drawback is the power consumption (and associated power bill). The associated components are usually more expensive, though they do last longer.
This is my preference – build/buy a hefty workstation-class system with a Core i7 processor. I highly recommend using an SSD as the primary OS drive. Also highly recommended is using a separate SSD for the Virtual Machine files. SSDs are exponentially faster than traditional hard drives and the difference is obvious when running a lab on them. For example, my lab computer has 2 SSDs: a C: drive and a D: drive. I can build a new VM in ~7 minutes. Installing a new Windows Server from an ISO file on the C: drive (SSD) takes ~12 minutes. Also, the server VMs boot almost instantly! It’s extremely fast! 🙂
The key is to outfit the lab computer with as much RAM as possible. My recommendation is 16GB at a minimum, 32GB preferred, with more than that even better!
What matters in the system:
- Processor: Does the work for the virtualization host as well as all VMs. Core i7 (or better) preferred.
- Hard Drive: SSD all the way! Recommend at least 128GB for system drive and at least 256GB for the drive holding the VM files (preferably more!). I also use a traditional hard drive 1-3TBs in size for VM backups. I really like the Samsung EVO SSDs since they are fast and reliable. A 500GB Samsung EVO SSD runs around $300 online (possibly cheaper by the time you read this).
- Memory: This is the one you want to put your money into. Personally, I would rather spend a little bit more upfront and have the ability to put 64GB (or more) into a system, then go cheap and have the computer max out at 16GB. The more memory you have, the more VMs you can run which means you can run more involved (& interesting!) scenarios.
I also attach external traditional hard drives (1.5TB and larger) for lab VM backups, though I tend to keep the operating system ISO files and OS template VM files (Sysprep’d operating system VMs) on a SSD for maximum install speed.