What Do You (Actually) Need in a Homelab?
You've been on r/homelab. You've seen the photos of 14-rack-server setup running all sorts of virtual machines. Maybe you have an idea of the lab you want to create, but you're not quite sure where to begin.
As you may know from our previous blogposts, a homelab can be an incredible resource for hands-on learning and experimentation. But with so many options, it's not always clear what equipment is absolutely essential versus just nice-to-have. Whether you're looking to dive into homelabbing for the first time or already have a killer setup (and, say, want to explain the basics to a friend who's just starting out), we'll talk through the core components you need to get started.
Your personal tech playground.
A homelab is a small setup of servers, networking equipment, and other IT infrastructure that you can experiment with without having to leave the house. Having a homelab lets you create a hands-on environment for learning practical IT skills, experimenting with new technologies, and testing things out without impacting real production systems. DIY setups let you take risks and try things that you otherwise couldn't in a professional setting.
Homelabs are great for improving your skills and knowledge on your own time. The right setup allows you to develop experience with enterprise-grade hardware, virtualization, hosting services, networking, storage systems, and much more. And of course, they can also be used for fun projects like hosting game servers, web apps, and media centers for personal use. Overall, homelabs are the perfect playground for IT professionals, students, and hobbyists looking to expand their technical abilities.
So, what does a homelab consist of?
The core component of any homelab setup is the server hardware that will run your virtual machines, storage systems, and applications. You don't necessarily need the latest enterprise-grade rack servers to get going – when you’re first starting out, even an old desktop PC can work. The key considerations you’ll need to have in mind are CPU processing power, enough RAM for smooth performance under load, and reliable storage.
Some general rules of thumb:
- For processors, find a processor that exceeds your minimum requirements in terms of core count and speed. As your projects grow in scale, you will thank yourself for the headroom you give yourself now.
- For RAM, stick with upwards of 32GB, especially if you’re looking to use your homelab for virtualization purposes. If you are currently running your projects, look at your current memory utilization and plan for how you will be scaling
- Storage: Certain applications such as TrueNAS or specific virtualization setups will benefit from an HBA controller. More often than not, a RAID controller with both redundant and striped arrays is optimal.
- While consumer PCs can work, server-focused hardware components generally provide better stability and performance under heavy workloads.
- Refurbished servers from past generations offer exceptionally excellent value. Overall, focus on reliable hardware even if it's dated.
Of course, the exact configuration you’ll want to start with highly depends on what you’re planning on using your homelab to test out. If you already have a specific use case in mind and need help figuring out how to put together a build that matches (or are just curious to see what’s out there), check out our guides to different server applications and recommended configurations.
Part 1: Database Servers, Web servers, Domain Controllers, File Servers, Remote Desktop Servers
Part 2: Media Servers, Routers/Security Gateways, Gaming Servers, Administrative Servers, General Purpose Virtualization Hosts/Hypervisors
Getting Specific: Top 10 Questions to Ask When Buying for a Home Lab
Networking equipment forms the backbone that allows devices in your homelab to communicate with each other and access networks outside the home, like the internet. At minimum, you'll need a router to connect your homelab to your home network and modem. An Ethernet switch creates a high-speed local area network between wired devices like servers and desktop PCs by linking them together. This allows very fast file transfers and communication between these wired nodes.
Wireless access points can also be added to provide WiFi connectivity, allowing your mobile devices and laptops to access the homelab network wirelessly. More advanced options include enterprise-grade switches with more ports and bandwidth, as well as firewalls for network security and VLANs to segment your network into subnetworks.
The goal is having fast, reliable, and robust networking gear so that your various homelab components can communicate and transfer data efficiently. A high-performance network fabric ensures your storage, servers, clients and other devices can interoperate smoothly. Investing in capable networking equipment is definitely an important step in creating a versatile home server environment.
Just like your brain needs memory space, your homelab needs storage space - reliable and ample storage capacity is crucial for running virtual machines, hosting files, storing data, and backing up critical system configurations.
For primary storage, you can start simple with internal hard drives (either HDDs or SSDs) installed directly into your server hardware. However, this local storage is limited in capacity and lacks redundancy if a drive fails. External USB drives can supplement storage, but managing multiple separate drives can get messy quickly.
For more advanced needs, network-attached storage (NAS) appliances provide shared pools of storage that can be accessed by devices across your home network. NAS systems also support RAID configurations like RAID 5 or RAID 10 to combine multiple physical drives into a single logical volume, increasing capacity, speed, and redundancy. With RAID, if one drive fails, your data remains safe on the other drives.
More on RAID configurations
Other advanced file systems like ZFS are also useful on NAS devices, providing protection against bit rot and data corruption. For the highest performance, you can opt for cutting-edge enterprise-grade SSDs and NVMe drives - just be prepared to pay a premium.
When choosing storage, weigh factors like your budget, capacity requirements, desired speeds, and redundancy needs. And think about the future; plan ahead when sizing and selecting storage so you don't run out of space for all of your homelab projects and VMs!
Workstations and Clients
In addition to your core infrastructure of servers, networking, and storage, having dedicated workstations and client devices is super helpful for having a flexible setup.
Workstations like desktop PCs and laptops allow you to access and manage your homelab environment. They can serve as administration consoles for controlling your servers, monitoring systems, and configuring services. Powerful workstations also provide the muscle for development work, media editing, and other intensive tasks.
On the other end, client devices are invaluable for testing different user scenarios. By mimicking various real-world endpoints, you can validate how your applications, network, and infrastructure will perform for users. Useful client devices include:
- Older PCs or spare laptops to represent typical corporate endpoints
- Smartphones and tablets to model mobile user experiences
- IoT devices like smart speakers to test integrations and connectivity
- Specialized gear like network-connected cameras or badge readers
The more diverse client devices you have, the more thoroughly you can test your homelab systems under real-user conditions. For these, you once again don’t need to have the latest and greatest gear - older and cheaper devices often work perfectly well as test client devices. Starting to put together a range of workstations and clients pays dividends in allowing comprehensive testing
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And there you have it - the core components that make up a versatile homelab environment. It can be intimidating to get started, but with the right setup, you can begin to create your very own personal playground for learning IT skills, testing applications, and so much more. Start small as you need, then expand your setup over time. The possibilities are endless when you have your own homelab to tinker with!