Invest In Your Own Lab

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My new position with Atlantis Computing has been an intense and fun experience so far. After a week in Mountain View, CA for the worldwide kick-off event I came back home to a full schedule of meetings with both partners and customers. Although I missed two weeks of blog posts, I assure you that I am now full of fresh ideas for new articles as the dust has begun to settle after my changing companies.

As with any new position I am in the midst of learning the basics of the organization, but I am also saturated with learning a whole new technology as well. Atlantis Computing’s software defined storage solutions are paradigm shifting game changers, and I am not just learning about new products but also entirely new concepts and methodologies for how IT approaches storage at its most fundamental levels. My mind is racing with ideas now as to how IT is going to evolve once software defined storage is the industry standard.

Mark my words – software defined storage will be the industry standard. This is not an “if”, this is not even a “when”, it is a “ready or not, here it comes” inevitable wave that is crashing upon the world of IT right now!

So how does an IT professional prepare for this tsunami of change? You have to learn to ride that wave now so that you are gaining the benefits of its momentum instead of being crushed by its weight. In order to learn though you need to balance understanding of theories with the hands-on application of best practices.

You can read books, articles, listen to podcasts, and watch videos all day long to learn the theories. Many times these will be provided to you for free, or at a very low cost. You also need a lab with the necessary hardware in order to apply the best practices with. Labs are not free, and even if your organization grants you access to a lab that they pay for you may not be allowed to dive deep enough into the underlying technologies to truly master your craft with.

This is why you need a home lab, as I have written about before, and here are the main reasons why:

  • You will have complete control of the environment. There will be no outage due to upgrades unless you initiate them, and no one but yourself needs to approve whatever project it is that you want to pursue.
  • You will learn more than just the technologies that you focus upon. You might be focused on learning about storage, but you are going to have to configure the networks, administer the operating systems of clients and servers, and even figure out the power and cooling needs. By owning the whole lab you keep your skills as a generalist sharp while at the same time developing your skills as a specialist.
  • Your education will be a complete experience exposing you to the both the good and the bad of any product that you work with. I have been through plenty of training programs that were more akin to sales presentations and marketing fluff than actual training. With a home lab the marketing team does not have final say on what features will be covered and which ones will be conveniently overlooked.

There is a downside to having your own home lab though, and that is the cost of building and maintaining one. Associates of mine have made the case that if they are going to have a home lab for business purposes then it is their employer’s responsibility to provide them with funds and equipment for that home lab. Since the company benefits from a well trained staff, and because some equipment is simply beyond the financial means of the average person to obtain, this does make sense in certain situations.

Emphasis on certain situations! You may not be able to afford the latest brand name enterprise class hardware and software for your home lab, but unless your company needs you to be an expert on those particular technologies you can still build out a home lab piece by piece in order to learn the fundamentals of the underlying technologies with.

I cannot afford a NetApp, EMC, or HDS array for my home. Instead I have a 4U server that I built myself with FreeNAS installed. The addition of an IcyDock SATA cage and some tweaking of the BIOS settings gives me five hot swappable 2TB drives configured to provide a RAID 10 volume with a hot spare ready to go if needed. Is it as good as a name brand enterprise solution for storage to be used in production? No. I do not have the levels of support that I need for such a situation, nor have all of the components been as thoroughly tested in combination as a name brand solution would be.

Is it as good as a name brand enterprise solution for training purposes though? No, it is better! Because I built this solution from the very basic components I have been exposed to technologies that I might not have to deal with when working on a solution from a manufacturer. Technologies like AHCI and S.M.A.R.T. which a NetApp, EMC, HDS, or any other manufacturer would take care of behind the scenes. With a home lab setup you cannot assume that a fundamental technology is being managed in the background by some proprietary component. You have to get your hands dirty and dig deep. You have to develop new skills and expand beyond what you were hoping to learn into the realm of what you have to learn.

Yes, you will spend more money than you probably want to in order to build a home lab with. Eventually though that investment will pay off, because unlike the person who expects their company to provide all of the necessary resources for the employee to succeed with you will be the kind of employee who succeeds without an investment from the company! This means that you bring more value to the organization in that:

  • You cost less to have on the payroll. The company does not have to spend as much on your development as they do on the person who expects training and equipment to be given to them.
  • When you hit a limit where the home lab will simply not cut it, the company will have less risk in sending you for more advanced training because you have a strong knowledge of the fundamentals.
  • Access to a good home lab means that you have immediate access to the resources that are needed for learning new skills with, while others must wait for those resources to be supplied to them.

Finally there is another major difference between those IT professionals who invest in their own home lab and those who do not, because eventually the scales must be balanced. Those who rely on the company for their equipment and training are surrendering their future potential income in order to gain access to those resources. Those who build their own home labs are able to demand more in the form of both salary and benefits, because they have empowered themselves and thus can demand more of those who require their services. You would not hire a general contractor who tells you that a requirement is for you to buy all of his or her tools for the project, but you pay more for the craftsman who is ready to build your solution because he or she has all of the tools and skills needed for the project right now. Every dollar invested in a home lab will eventually result in more dollars for you.

IT professionals are always learning, so empower yourself to learn (and earn) more by building your own home lab. You will not regret it! The benefits are numerous for both you and your employer, and the challenge of building a home lab is a fun project for an IT professional to take on. When it comes to IT those who have actual experience are always more valuable than those who just read about a technology, so start building that home lab today!

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