How to Build a Home Network That Will Make Any Business Jealous

APRIL 20TH, 2015

In the past I’ve discussed how home technology infrastructures and lab environments are one of the keys to personal career success and how IT practitioners should set a high bar in their own lives and hold their businesses accountable to an even higher bar. I often speak to IT practitioners looking for ways to improve their own education, skill set, and résumé. I propose an approach to building your home network and lab in a way that really makes your business jealous. I mean it quite literally. Why not approach your home network as an opportunity to raise the bar, both on your own experience but also on what you expect from businesses? The approach is an excellent one for changing how you think about your home network and its goals. Don't just use your home to learn new skills in a "checkmark" fashion such as "learned Active Directory management." That is an excellent and obvious use of your home network. But we should consider taking this even further. In many ways, this applies far more to those IT practitioners who work in small and medium businesses where it is common to cut corners, eschew best practices, leave work half done and not approve realistic budgets, but it is valuable for anyone. You can take this from the smallest of features in your own home - the physical aspects (like cabling, labeling, and organization) and take it very large (servers, services, security, backup, etc.). Cabling For a real world example, we should begin with the simplest component, cabling. Few people, even IT practitioners, take the time to cable their homes for data, let alone cabling it well. This is a big missed opportunity. This is something that is not only utilitarian but ends up adding value to the house as well. And many businesses do a very poor job of this themselves. Even though cabling is not strictly an IT discipline, it is a fringe area of electrical support that is related to IT and well worth using as a physically visible showcase of your home environment. Doing good cabling at home, since it is your home and presumably there is nearly unlimited time to do things well, can really be taken to an extreme. I recommend using forward-looking cable, CAT 6 or better, so that you can handle flawless GigE today and faster in the future. You do not want your home infrastructure to become dated unnecessarily. This is your chance not just to run a few cables, but to implement a complete cabling plant with over-provisioned cable runs to all parts of the house. Of course you can do this in stages doing just a room or a few at a time. In my own home projects I ran four cable runs to nearly all rooms with some like the master bedroom and living room getting more like six or eight. This may sound like a lot, but in reality for a well-wired home, it is not at all, as we will see. You want to run more cabling than you are ever likely to use now, while putting in the effort, both because it is good practice and because it is simply impressive. Having extra cabling means an easier time keeping things organized and more ability to flexibly change things in the future. Running the cables in the walls, up through an attic or down through the basement or whatever is appropriate with well managed cable runs is best. In my own house this was the attic with large "J" hooks keeping cables in place. Be sure to label all cabling very clearly. This is another chance to go above and beyond. Install nice wall jacks, label every jack and every cable in every jack. Make the physical cabling plant as organized, impressive, and as manageable as possible. All it really takes is a little time and effort and you can have something that you are really proud of and that you want to show off. Where the cables run to, of course, is a matter for some discussion. Maybe you will want to have a networking closet or even a server room. Having a good place to store your home networking gear can be a wonderful addition to a home lab. A patch panel for your cable runs is ideal. Do everything "right", just like you would find in a dream office environment. Good cabling will allow us to move as much as possible from wireless to wired in the home environment. Wired connections are faster, more stable, less management, potentially more secure and improve the performance of the remaining wireless devices by lowering the wireless saturation levels in the home. If you are like me your home network consists of many devices that have regular Internet access and are often wireless but can be wired such as desktops, video game consoles, Internet television devices, smart televisions, and more. Many or most of these devices can easily be removed from wireless which can only be beneficial. Save the wireless for mobile devices. Switches  A cabling plant, of course, needs something to attach to. A good switch will be the true heart of any home network, or any network at all. If you have a large home you could easily need a forty eight port switch or even need to look at stacked switches. A small apartment might use sixteen ports. Size will vary by need. In acquiring a switch it is a good time to consider not just size but features. Adding PoE (Power over Ethernet) now is ideal allowing for even cleaner cable management and an even more impressive network. Wait until you see what else we consider adding to our home network that might leverage PoE. Also, this is a time when we can consider more advanced features on the switch. Rather than just using a traditional unmanaged switch we can look at nice, rack-mounted switches that are either smart (web managed) or fully managed, which are excellent for getting broader switch experience. We might want to add a guest VLAN, for example, for visitors who need Internet access. If you have a guest bedroom in the house, maybe those Ethernet ports should be VLAN'd as guest access all of the time, for example. You are going to want to monitor that closet too, no doubt. Once you start to put nice equipment in there you will want to keep it safe. Perhaps temperature and moisture sensors that communicate with the network? Wireless capabilities Most home networks live and die by their wireless capabilities. This is a place to really shine. Instead of cheap all-in-one networking gear with anemic wireless that is stuck in the most useless corner of the house, you can use your shiny, new PoE cabling plant to put high quality, commercial wireless access points in the most useful point(s) of your home (and considering placing them on the grounds too, if you own multiple buildings or open space.) Centrally managed units are very affordable and can make for a very fast, robust wireless network and can make having guest wireless access very easy as well. Security  Next to consider, since we have such a robust cabling system in place already, is security. Why not add a camera or two to watch the outside of your house or the front door? You can use PoE cameras that are centrally managed. Look for business class solutions, of course, not consumer cameras and software available at the local store. Home VOIP One of the bigger and more interesting home projects to consider is a full-scale VoIP PBX. This can be a great and interesting project, one of the few really good uses for running a server at home that will be really used as a "production" service. A home VoIP PBX can make it easy to have separate extensions for family members, rooms, or purposes. You can have features like individual voicemail mailboxes, a house intercom, front door intercom, room to room calling, wake up calls, video conferencing, free calling for other family members (outside of the home), guest lines, multiple lines for simultaneous calling and the ability to make and take calls while traveling! Once we have a PBX in the home installing physical phones throughout the home, on PoE of course, is the next step. Phones can be very useful around a home, especially a larger one. Having real phones to manage can be very educational and certainly lets you take your home to another level of IT. Controls and Storage  No server closet would be complete without features like a domain controller, home web server (why not have a guest website for visitors and a wiki for tracking your home projects and information) and the biggest home systems - storage. Traditional storage like NAS or file server can be very useful for storing private photos and video, music and document collections, movies, and other media. DLNA streaming can make an audio and video library available to the entire house. Traditional storage such as SMB and NFS can provide high speed, protected mapped drives available to the computers in the home. And more modern storage techniques like "cloud storage" can be hosted as well. Of course all of those workloads can be virtualized and run on a server (or two) and run in the server closet. If you are incredibly ambitious this could include features like high availability or fault tolerance, although these will generally push costs into a range often impractical for home use by nearly any standard. Backups and monitoring And the pièce de résistance is, of course, backups. Use real backup software, several enterprise options are even free for home-scale use. Taking good backups, testing restores, using different media, backup strategies and backup types (such as images and file-based backups) can really showcase the reliability of your home network. Don't forget to go beyond running systems into monitoring. Log collection and analysis, bandwidth monitoring, system monitoring, load monitoring and more can be added for completeness. Think of all the things that exist, or that you wish would exist, in an ideal office setting. There is rarely any reason not to bring these same technologies into your home. Beyond these steps there are many places that one could go to make a home network. Features that might be interesting for you. Go crazy. Raise the bar, build your portfolio Our goal here is to raise the bar. Do at home what few businesses do. Building an amazing home network, one that is really used, beyond building a great home IT lab, is valuable for many reasons. A great home network is more than just an amazing learning experience, it makes for a perfect interview conversation starter, it is a portfolio piece demonstrating skills in cradle to grave LAN design and management, it shows dedication and initiative to the field and it sets a bar to be used when speaking to businesses. Go ahead, don't be afraid to make your business jealous of your home network.