A new Windows Server release is one good reason to produce a home lab to learn at your own speed.
Home labs are a time-honored tradition among IT professionals. Home labs give you a place where you can hone your IT skills away from the watchful eyes of co-workers. A home lab can be useful for a range of technical tasks, from preparing for a certification exam to practicing a procedure before you deploy it to the production environment. A new Windows Server version release is also another good reason to put together a home lab to see what's new and what's been updated. Microsoft released its latest server OS in August, and a Windows Server 2022 home lab is one way to get up to speed with all its features.
Why not use the cloud instead of a home lab?
Given the cost and effort that generally goes into building a home lab, it might be tempting to use the cloud as a lab environment instead of building a physical lab. While the cloud does have its place, there are several advantages associated with a physical lab environment.
The most obvious benefit to building a home lab is there is a fixed cost. You will have to pay for any hardware or software if you need new equipment for the build, but there are few if any ongoing costs. This is not the case for a cloud environment. Public cloud providers bill subscribers based on the resources they consume. In other words, the more heavily you use a cloud-based lab environment, the more it's going to cost. If you have a limited budget and have hardware ready to use, then a home build might make more economic sense.
Another advantage to an on-premises lab environment is flexibility; you can configure your lab any way you want and you can make changes when you please. Cloud providers put constraints in place to protect the integrity of the underlying infrastructure. As such, there are some configurations that are difficult to emulate in the cloud.
What are the other benefits of a Windows Server 2022 home lab?
The main advantage of a home lab is the environment allows you to experiment with any configuration, which is particularly beneficial to simulate something that might be covered in a certification exam or in a real-world environment.
A home lab gives you the opportunity to work with services that you might never use, thereby helping to increase your skill level. For example, you might use a home lab to experiment with an advanced network configuration, Active Directory, disaster recovery, or just about anything else you might want to try. Windows Server 2022 upgraded its storage features, so you can test Server Message Block (SMB) compression to see how well it performs in your testing.
A home lab environment is completely isolated. This avoids any problems of accidentally harming your employer's production environment if you're attempting to learn on the job with a system connected to the network.
This isolation is also helpful to practice various skills and techniques without your co-worker's knowledge. This type of privacy helps avoid any questions or comments from fellow employees who might judge your efforts or wonder if you are looking for a new job.
Windows Server 2022 home lab hardware options
Although enterprise hardware has a reputation for being pricey, a home lab does not have to break the bank. All you need is one or more machines capable of running Hyper-V and some virtual machines. Many IT pros build home labs from old PCs or even from outdated servers that they were able to get at a good price.
I have maintained a lab in my home since the mid-1990s and have found that high-end gaming PCs make an especially good alternative to pricey server hardware. Gaming PCs are typically equipped with fast CPUs and lots of memory, making them ideal to run several virtual machines at a time.
Windows Server 2022 prerequisites and costs
Windows Server licenses can be costly. A Windows Server 2022 Standard Edition license retails for $1,069 and a Datacenter Edition license costs $6,155.
Other factors that can add to the cost are Client Access Licenses (CALs) , which are required for each user or device that connects to a server. Depending on the server's configuration, you might need to stack multiple licenses. Even so, you might be able to avoid the costs associated with Windows Server licenses.
Microsoft requires Windows Server licenses for servers used in a production environment. If you are using the licenses solely for lab use; however, you can use a trial version of Windows Server for 180 days.
To run Windows Server 2022, the lab will need a 1.4 GHz, 64-bit CPU; 512 MB of RAM and 32 GB of disk space. These are the bare minimum requirements, so you will want as much RAM, processing speed and drive space as possible to run multiple workloads.
How the Windows Server Hydration Kit can help deploy a home lab
As you work in your home lab, you might find that you are constantly setting up new Windows Server virtual machines. While you can set these VMs manually, there is an easier way such as the Hydration Kit for Windows Server 2022. This is a GitHub project with a repository that provides an automated way to produce a lab environment based on Windows Server.
The Hydration Kit creates the virtual machines that run on Hyper-V or VMware virtual platforms; the project contributors said other virtual platforms, such as Virtual Box and KVM should also work. At a minimum, the Hydration Kit creates a Windows Server 2022 domain controller that also acts as a DNS and DHCP server and a second Windows Server that runs SQL Server 2019 and System Center Configuration Manager. You have the option to deploy a Windows Server 2022 file server, standalone SQL Server and an additional Configuration Manager distribution point.
There are two main advantages to using the Hydration Kit. First, the kit greatly simplifies the process of setting up the lab environment. Rather than manually deploying and configuring System Center Configuration Manager and SQL Server, the kit uses a deployment process that is largely automated. This helps avoid wasted time and frustration with troubleshooting if something doesn't work as expected.
Second, once deployed, the Hydration Kit eases the process of producing VMs in your lab. You can use System Center Configuration Manager to define roles such as domain controllers, file servers or Internet Information Services (IIS) servers and then deploy those roles to your lab on an as-needed basis.
Although the Hydration Kit uses a generic configuration, it is fully customizable. For example, you can configure the Hydration Kit to use a custom domain name and a custom IP address range.