Homelab: The experiment begins

Feb 27, 2024


I have been planning to set up a homelab for almost six years now. It all started in the last year of my graduation. At that time, the goal was to learn about PC hardware by building a high-end PC. On the other hand, I was already familiar with enterprise level hardware because of my involvement in the SSL lab upgradation effort (pity I didn’t get to feel that shiny new server I recommended as the next upgrade for the lab), so I also ventured into setting up a proper server but that was always a distant dream considering the cost to acquire a server and power it.

Later I started looking at Raspberry Pi. My earliest memory of the Raspberry Pi is from 2019 when I was working with Cisco in Bangalore. I did extensive research, prepared a plan but somehow ended up never buying the SBC. A Raspberry Pi is not sufficient alone in most cases - you need a case, an active cooler, cables, power supply, and a UPS. One buys all of this and suddenly the Raspberry Pi starts to look rather unattractive. I couldn't convince myself about the unit economics of buying the Raspberry Pi, so I dropped this plan.

Why now?

For the last 4-5 months, since I have decided to focus on my career again, I have been thinking about exploring the Linux world again. Naturally, the Raspberry Pi came back on my radar. I am going to work from home for the foreseeable future. More importantly, I have a mostly uninterruptible internet connection. The power connection sometimes fluctuates in my area. A RPi would instantly go down in case of a power cut, along with a high probability of data corruption. I was able to circumvent the issue of the router going down on a power cut by buying a router UPS , but buying one for RPi didn't make sense to me.

Being a backend developer, although the sysadmin, devops, networking, and platform skills don't bring any apparent advantages to my day-to-day work, I have decided to invest some time in home-labbing because -

  1. It has been my passion for a long time and I want to finally experience it.
  2. A peripheral knowledge of the infra and platform side of things definitely make it easier to design more efficient systems and debug non-trivial issues.
  3. As I progress in my career, I will not be handling just one portion of the product. I intend to take more and more responsibilities. That means wearing more than one hat. A homelab provides me an opportunity to learn one such skill.

The Hardware

I bought a HP Pavilion Notebook - 15-ab516tx in the third year of my graduation. At that time, it was a pretty powerful laptop and served me well in all my Linux and Windows experiments throughout the college term.

It has been gathering dust in my closet since I started using MacOS and Apple hardware. Getting back to Windows and its keyboard layout has proven to be more difficult than I anticipated. So, my use of this laptop was limited to occasionally using Windows and as an offsite backup destination for some of my old data (that I am keeping only for nostalgia, huh). I was hesitant to keep it powered on 24/7 to preserve it for some more years. But then I convinced myself that in the worst case scenario, I will have to buy a new battery. Apart from that, the possibility of it getting fried is pretty miniscule.

It has an Intel Core-i5 6th generation CPU with four cores. It currently has 8 GB DDR3L-1600 SDRAM installed. The other RAM slot is a DDR type slot, but I am not sure if this is accurate. For now, I assume that I am limited to 8GB of RAM on this system. The ethernet port on this device is the Integrated 10/100 BASE-T Ethernet LAN.

Yet another under-utilised component on this device is the NVIDIA 940M (2 GB DDR3 dedicated). I intend to use it for video transcoding in future however, I am doubtful about the support for it. If this doesn’t work, I might have to settle for Intel’s inbuilt graphic card.

It came with a 1TB 5400 rpm SATA HDD. It got very slow with time, so I purchased a 512 GB SSD and placed it in the SATA slot of my HDD. Later I removed the disk tray from the laptop and installed the unused HDD into its SATA port using a caddy. So, now I have 1.5 TB of storage space. Windows 10 is installed on a 200 GB NTFS partition. Another 500 GB is occupied with my personal files (which I intend to organise later).

The OS

I have not tinkered with Linux for almost 6 years now. Since I left college, somehow my zeal to explore new stuff also diminished. I had developed a false impression that building something is more important than using what others built. While I still believe in it, I don’t want to restrict myself with such black and white statements. Both activities have their significance. What matters more is to keep the fire burning.

Anyway, I had a couple of choices for the OS on my server - Ubuntu server, Arch Linux, Debian minimal, and a few Virtualisation platforms - Proxmox etc. Proxmox was out of the question because I wasn’t sure that my laptop would be able to spin up more than a few VMs with just 4 cores and 8 GB of RAM.

I don’t have a good experience with Ubuntu in the past, even though it has good support for non-free drivers, especially NVIDIA. Arch Linux may have been a good choice but I wanted to stick with an apt-based distro. In the end, I decided to install Debian-minimal on a 100 GB dedicated root partition.

For some reason (most likely due to my RTL8723BE wireless card on my laptop), the installer failed a couple of times due to OOM issues. I had to boot up the installer by modifying the GRUB by adding following lines (although I doubt PCIE errors can cause OOM, but it worked, so all good) -


Once the installation finished, I was greeted with the default TTY screen.

What’s next

The Debian minimal comes with literally nothing. Not even sudosudo. In the next post in this series, I plan to write about setting up the Debian server - networking, SSH, setting up lid-close action etc. Later I will explain how to set up Docker MacVLAN interfaces and make docker containers appear like another device on your network.

As with all other things, it is easy to get lost in many options available for homelab. So I have decided a few minimum required goals that I would like to achieve with this exercise -

  1. Create a fully-reproducible setup.
    1. Host a few of the interesting services - bookmark manager, Plex, Adguard, reverse proxy etc.
  2. Allow outside world access to some of the services and secure the server.
  3. Learn VPNs and configure one.
  4. Document the progress and the concepts learned.
  5. Few of the technologies I plan to learn -
    1. Docker - I already have a good experience with it, so it would be a refresh for me.
    2. Ansible - Automate the repetitive work
    3. Wireguard - I think it would be a good experience to learn how it works behind the scenes. Also explore TailScale later.
    4. DNS, Port Forwarding, CGNAT, IPv6, reverse proxy, cert management etc - to allow outside world access.

While this is an exciting thing to dive into, I will also be focusing on employing my server for development work. I have planned many exciting things for 2024, most of which will get some mention on this blog.

Stay tuned!