Whenever I want to learn the fundamentals of a technology I first turn to the leading open source project associated with that technology. Almost always these open source projects are either completely free or have a free version that covers exactly what I need. Besides being great low cost or free alternatives to their closed source competitors, open source projects often have strong communities of users and experts that you can reach out to when you want to learn in detail how the technology actually works. If you are able to read the code itself you can, but I am not a developer and having access to the people who do know how the code works and who are enabled to speak freely about it makes a huge difference with my learning experience.
Here are the three open source products that are both free (or that have a free version for you to learn with) that are my current personal favorites:
Although NAS is in its name, FreeNAS is what I use for my home lab’s SAN. You can connect to NAS services like NFS or CIFS, but I prefer to use it as an iSCSI block storage device. It is easy to install, has a great GUI that is accessible via its web interface, and is feature rich. I used to use an alternative open source solution, but for the last three months I have been using FreeNAS and now I am hooked. If you are looking to build your own centralized storage solution FreeNAS is the way to go!
I like having access to my home lab from the road, and for a while I used a commercial service so that I could access one of my home PCs. The problem with that solution was that I was not really getting access to my home lab, but instead I was just getting remote access to my home PC’s desktop from which I would launch the applications and services that were what I really wanted access to in the first place. It was very frustrating to have latency issues with the refreshing of a desktop GUI when all I wanted was access to a command line interface.
I have recently switched to OpenVPN and now have the solution that I always wanted: secure access to my home lab using two factor authentication and not just access to a single PC. I eliminated a monthly fee since I now do not need the commercial service, but I also gained the knowledge and experience that comes from having to build your own VPN solution. Both of those are big plusses in my book! With the OpenVPN client on my Surface Pro, laptop, and Android phone I am now able to access my home lab from wherever I have Internet access. OpenVPN also makes it easy to use the Google Authenticator token generator for two-factor authentication, so I know that my VPN is secured by more than just a password.
All work and no play will burn you out quickly, but even when I am playing I am playing around with different technologies. One of my favorite breaks from my work with data center technologies is to mess with my XBMC home media server. Libraries for movies, streaming access to your MP3s, building your own DVR, and many more features are why I love the XBMC project! Having XBMC connected to storage on my FreeNAS server I do not think I will ever use a cable or satellite television provider’s DVR hardware ever again. Maybe it is because I can choose my own customized skin so that the interface is tweaked and tuned to my personal preferences, but I believe that is just a matter of techie pride knowing that my media server was built by myself for myself. Regardless of the reason, XBMC is my favorite technical distraction for when I need a break from work!
Open Your Mind To Open Source Projects!
This list is obviously far from complete as I have not even touched upon Linux itself which is probably the greatest success story in the history of open source projects. The projects that I have shared with you today though are the ones that I have had not only success with deploying, but that I also feel have a high level of quality while still being available for no cost. If you already have the hardware in place then you can download any of these solutions and start using them today. You can also dive deep into each of these technologies and begin learning new things about each of these projects week after week. Great technology often has the quality of being both immediately beneficial and at the same time has great depth, and FreeNAS, OpenVPN, and XBMC each have these qualities.
Feel free to share with me what your favorite free open source projects are, and as always you can reach out to me on LinkedIn if you want to include me in your network. I am always happy to share what I know with others, but I am sure that I can also learn a great deal more from you! That is just one of the many perks of being an IT professional!