Tag Archives: home

Make Your Business Jealous

I have, in the past, 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 – “Make 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 farther.

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..)

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.  Once putting in the effort it is all about doing it “right”.  This is a 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 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.

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 a yet more impressive network.  Wait till 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, rackmount switches that are either smart (web managed) or fully managed which is 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 onto the network?

Most home networks live and die on 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.

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.

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.

No server closest 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.

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.

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.

The Home Line

In many years of working with the small and medium business markets I have noticed that the majority of SMB IT shops tend to one of two extremes: massive overspend with an attempt to operate like huge companies by adopting costly and pointless technologies unnecessary at the SMB scale or they go to the opposite extreme spending nothing and running technology that is completely inadequate for their needs.  Of course the best answer is somewhere in between – finding the right technologies, the right investments for the business at hand; and some companies manage to work in that space but far too many go to one of the two extremes.

A tool that I have learned to use over the years is classifying the behavior of a business against decision making that I would use in a residential setting – specifically my own home.  To be sure, I run my home more like a business than does the average IT professional, but I think that it still makes a very important point.  As an IT professional, I understand the value of the technologies that I deploy, I understand where investing time and effort will pay off, and I understand the long term costs of different options.  So where I make judgement calls at home is very telling.  My home does not have the financial value of a functional business nor does it have the security concerns, nor the need to scale (my family will never grow in user base size, no matter how financial successful it is) so when comparing my home to a business, my home should, in theory, set the absolute lowest possible bar in regards to financial benefit of technology investment.  That is to say, that the weighing of options for an actual, functional business should always lean towards equal or more investment in performance, safety, reliability and ease of management than my home.  My home should be no more “enterprise” or “business class” than any real business.

One could argue, of course, that I make poor financial decisions in my home and over-invest there for myriad reasons and, of course, there is merit to that concern.  But realistically there are broad standards that IT professionals mostly agree upon as good guidelines and while many do not follow these at home, either through a need to cut costs, a lack of IT needs at home or, as is often the case, a lack of buy in from critical stakeholders (e.g. a spouse), most agree as to which ones make sense, when they make sense and why.  The general guideline as to what technology at which price points set the absolute minimum bar are by and large accepted and constitute what I refer to as the “home line.”  The line, below which, a business cannot argue that it is acting like a business but is, at best, acting like a consumer, hobbyist or worse.  A true business should never fall below the home line, doing so would mean that they consider the value of their information technology investment in their business to be lower than what I consider my investment at home to be.

This adds a further complication.  At home there is little cost to the implementation of technologies.  But in a business all of the time spent working on technology, and supporting less than ideal decisions, is costly.  Either costly in direct dollars spent, often because IT support is being provided by a third party doing so on a contractual basis, or costly because time and effort are being expended on basic technology support that could be being used elsewhere – the cost of lost opportunity.  Neither of these take into account things like the cost of downtime, data loss or data breach which are generally the more significant costs that we have to consider.

The cost of the IT support involved is a significant factor.  For a business, there should be a powerful leaning towards technologies that are robust and reliable with a lower total cost of ownership or a clear return on investment.  In a home there is more reason to spend more time tweaking products to get them to work, working with products that fail often or require lots of manual support, using products that lack powerful remote management options or products that lack centralized controls for user and system management.

It is also important to look at the IT expenditures of any business and ask if the IT support is thus warranted in the light of those investments.  If a business is unwilling to invest into the IT infrastructure an equivalent amount that I would invest into the same infrastructure for home use, why would a business be willing to maintain an IT staff, at great expense, to maintain that infrastructure?  This is a strange expenditure mismatch but one that commonly arises.  A business which has little need of full time IT support will often readily hire a full time IT employee but be unwilling to invest in the technology infrastructure that said employee is intended to support.  There seems to be a correlation between businesses that underspend on infrastructure with those that overspend on support – however a simple reason for that could be that staff in that situation is the most vocal.  Businesses with adequate staff and investment have little reason for staff to complain and those with no staff have no one to do the complaining.

For businesses making these kinds of tradeoffs, with only the rarest of exceptions, it would make far better financial and business sense to not have full time IT support in house and instead move to occasional outside assistance or a managed services agreement at a fraction of the cost of a full time person and invest a portion of the difference into the actual infrastructure.  This should provide far more IT functionality for less money and at lower risk.

I find that the home line is an all around handy tool.  Just a rough gauge for explaining to business people where their decisions fall in relation to other businesses or, in this case, non-businesses.  It is easy to say that someone is “not running their business like a business” but this adds weight and clarity to that sentiment.  That a business is not investing like another business up the street may not matter at all.  But if they are not putting as much into their business as the person that they are asking for advice puts into their home, that has a tendency to get their attention.  Even if, at this point, the decisions to improve the business infrastructure become primarily driven by emotion, the outcome can be very positive.

Comparing one business to another can result in simple excuses like “they are not as thrifty” or “that is a larger business” or “that is a kind of business that needs more computers.”  It is rarely useful for business people or IT people to do that kind of comparison.  But comparing to a single user or single family at home there is a much more corporeal comparison.  Owners and managers tend to take a certain pride in their businesses and having it be widely seen that they see their own company’s value as lower than that of a single household is non-trivial.  Most owners or CEOs would be ashamed if their own technology needs did not exceed those of an individual IT professional let alone theirs plus all of the needs of the entire business that they oversee.  Few people want to think of their entire company as being less than the business value of an individual.

This all, of course, brings up the obvious questions of what are some of the things that I use at home on my network?  I will provide some quick examples.

I do not use ISP supplied networking equipment, for many reasons.  I use a business class router and firewall unit that does not have integrated wireless nor a switch.  I have a separate switch to handle the physical cabling plant of the house.  I use a dedicated, managed, wireless access point.  I have CAT5e or CAT6 professionally wired into the walls of the house so that wireless is only used when needed, not as a default for more robust and reliable networking (most rooms have many network drops for flexibility and to support multimedia systems.)  I use a centrally managed anti-virus solution, I monitor my patch management and I never run under an administrator level account.  I have a business class NAS device with large capacity drives and RAID for storing media and backups in the house.  I have a backup service.  I use enterprise class cloud storage and applications.  My operating systems are all completely up to date.  I use large, moderate quality monitors and have a minimum of two per desktop.  I use desktops for stationary work and laptops for mobile work.  I have remote access solutions for every machine so that I can access anything from anywhere at any time.  I have all of my equipment on UPS.  I have even been known to rackmount the equipment in the house to keep things neater and easier to manage.  All of the cables in the attic are carefully strung on J-hooks to keep them neat.  I have VoIP telephony with extensions for different family members.  All of my computers are commercial grade, not consumer.

My home is more than just my residential network, it is an example of how easy and practical it is to do infrastructure well, even on a small scale.  It pays for itself in reliability and often the cost of the components that I use are far less than that of the consumer equipment often used by small businesses because I research more carefully what I purchase rather than buying whatever strikes my fancy in the moment at a consumer electronics store.  It is not uncommon for me to spend half as much for quality equipment as many small businesses spend for consumer grade equipment.

Look at the businesses that you support or even, in fact, your own business.  Are you keeping ahead of the “home line?”  Are you setting the bar for the quality of your business infrastructure high enough?

Originally published on the StorageCraft Blog.