Hack Labs, Part 2: Examples From the Trenches

Nick Cavalancia

In my last article, I discussed some of the why, what, and how around building a hack lab. But I wanted to take things a bit further and give you a view from the trenches so you can see how other IT pros have built theirs and how they use them. You’ll recall in my previous article I talked about the “hack” in Hack Lab also being referred to as a home lab in many cases. In scouring the interweb, talking to various IT folks, I found that most were using their lab to learn, educate, and prepare, rather than to, say, put a live piece of malware into an isolated environment to see what it does and how it works. 

Below are two examples of home/hack labs I think you’ll find interesting that take very different approaches.

Example 1 – Multiple Labs, Multiple Purposes

Ed Baker (@edbaker1965) is an MCT, IT consultant, and a Technical Evangelist at Microsoft UK. Because of the breadth of kinds of work Ed does, he needs to solidify his understanding of Microsoft infrastructure, hybrid, and cloud solutions. To accomplish this, he regularly needs to test, build, and rip apart those products in an environment that allows him complete control.  One of his current projects is reviewing the latest technical preview of Windows Server 2016. 

On a daily basis, Ed utilizes what he refers to as his on-premises “datacenter” (shown below) that consists of:

  • An HP Z600 Workstation twin Xeon 2.4GHz CPUs (E5620) each with four cores and hyper threading enabled with 24GB RAM, 1TB of OS disk, 2 TBs of data disk (with an abundance of iSCSI available from his NAS devices). This system runs Windows Server 2012 R2 in a Workgroup with Hyper-V.
  • Two HP Gen 8 Micro Servers each with twin core non hyper threaded Pentium G2020T 2.5 GHz processors, with 16 GB of RAM, and 2 x 500GB disks. These systems are running Windows Server 2016 TP4 member servers running Hyper-V, IS and File and Storage services.
  • Two NAS boxes – a THECUS N3200 2TB and a QNAP 419Pro 6TB. These are used primarily for home purposes, but Ed does use some iSCSI LUNS as cluster resources when necessary.
  • Cat 5E cabling utilizing a web-managed Gigabit switch.

One recent use case for this setup was Ed’s need to demonstrate a full Enterprise Mobility and Azure RemoteApp infrastructure that consisted of 10 VM servers. 

Ed also has a second mobile lab comprised of four Gigabyte BRIX systems (each with an i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and 128GB of mSATA storage), and two 8-port gigabitswitches.  These are setup to run as Windows Server 2016 Nano Server hosts.

Ed uses this lab to test out various Microsoft technologies, like Windows Deployment Services, the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, and various Assessment and Deployment Kits. 

Example 2 – The All-in-One Lab

Brian Svidergol (@bsvidergol) is an expert and author in infrastructure and cloud-based solutions built around a wide range of Microsoft technologies. Brian’s work covers everything from authoring books and whitepapers, to writing technical reviews, and architecting environments – this requires an equally diverse set of environments in his lab, which he uses daily. Brian’s lab is made up of a single computer running Windows Server 2012 R2. He relies heavily on virtualization to build up and tear down the necessary lab environment, running as many as 10 to 20 VMs of the 50 or so he has in his library. 

His current lab machine is made up of:

  • A single Intel Core i7-2600K overclocked processor, an ASUS motherboard, 32GB of G.SKILL Ripjaws Z Series RAM, a Corsair power supply, a big Cooler Master case, a gaming graphics card, and a 28-inch Samsung 4K monitor.
  • Storage is made up of a number of Samsung SSD drives (including 3 1TB SSDs in a RAID configuration).  Some external non-SSD drives are also used for backups.  

Because Brian’s work requires so many different lab configurations, he built his lab with an emphasis on performance. In fact, he was able to build a new VM running Windows Server 2012 R2 from the .ISO with a few manual steps, and was able to sign into the newly built VM in just three minutes!

Brian uses his lab to prepare for authoring certification exam courses, evaluating and experimenting with the latest TP of Windows Server 2016, as well as to test out new technologies before bringing them to his customers. 

Hack Labs: Never the same Twice

As you can see from just the two examples above, everyone takes a different approach to building out what they think will meet their needs. And, as both technologies and your interest in said technologies change over time, your needs will grow. Yours will likely never look exactly like these two, but that’s ok. As I said at the end of my last blog on this topic:  Your Hack Lab is about a purpose, not a definition. Determine your purpose and the lab will begin to define itself.

Remember that and you won’t go wrong.