To illustrate through some of my own experiences I wanted to talk about the network that I built at home in the late 1990s. When I was building my own home network it was very uncommon for people to have networks at home and “home networking equipment” was not yet available so I was working with small office equipment by default. I was on a tight budget so everything that I did had to be very inexpensive and practical.
Before I started building my home network the only piece of gear that I had was a Pentium based workstation without any Ethernet card. I had to add that myself. I bought a small five way hub and mounted it in the basement of my two story (three with basement) apartment. I ran CAT3 to each floor of the apartment. I put a workstation in my bedroom on the top floor. I added a large workbench in the basement.
I hunted around and found a shop selling used Intel 386 and 486 based Compaqs. I bought several and set three up on the metal workbench in the basement. I got an early copy of Linux and installed it on all three machines. Doing a Linux install was no small feat at the time. Even doing a Windows NT install could be incredibly challenging. Having the command line only Linux machines gave me a lot of opportunity to work with UNIX at home and made learning about IP networking much easier.
At the time that I was first building my educational home network the only Internet access that I was able to get reasonably was dial-up. Getting a serial/modem router was expensive and difficult at the time so I was forced to build my own. I was studying for the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification at the time and Microsoft provided free time-limited copies of the operating system for use while studying. I used Windows NT 4.0 Server and Proxy Server 2.0 to build a high performance, caching, firewall/proxy that would manage all of the Internet access for the house while the caching proxy would accelerate the Internet access.
I was fortunate that this setup provided an “always-on” Internet connection at a time when the idea of having something like that at home was almost unheard of and all of the computers were able to talk to each other very quickly. Adding the caching proxy made a very big difference for web surfing performance. This was one of the best steps that I took during this period.
To encourage the use of the network for a wider audience and to provide artificial challenges for myself I built a MUD server that run on one of the faster Linux machines and could be accessed from anywhere in the house. I managed user accounts, tuned machines, did break/fix, installed new software, programmed, etc. This network, incredibly basic by today’s standards, was quite impressive at the time and gave me a significant advantage in interviews and on my resume. I was told my interviewers at the time that my initiate and willingness to spend so much time at home working with these technologies was one of, if not the, most impressive thing on my resume.
I found it additionally helpful that I was using commercial Compaq Deskpro desktops, even if they were old, because I would often compete for desktop support contracts and having worked directly with Deskpros put me above many people competing for the same jobs who had only ever played around with consumer PCs. This was a critical lesson for me. Consumer is not the same as commercial and companies know that. Shortly after that I decided to stop using desktop machines to work with as servers – which is still common today almost a decade later. I went out and bought an old Compaq Proliant server complete with RAID controller, hot-swap SCSI drives, etc. This took my home network to a new level or seriousness and gave potential employers something to really think about. There was very little hardware that I hadn’t worked with directly and when I talked about working with Windows NT 4.0 Server they knew that I meant on server class equipment in the way that big businesses were using it.
As the cost of older equipment drops and the cost of software continues to plummet (enterprise operating systems are very inexpensive today as are many commercial database products, firewalls, etc.) enterprising young IT professionals have greater and greater expectations to live up to. Today everyone, even non-IT professionals, have extensive home networks with switched Ethernet and hardware firewalls. Consumer class servers are being introduced by Microsoft to bring obvious data management features into the home. Media centers and the associated servers for them are beginning to appear in homes now as well. Everyone has high speed, always on Internet access. Now we expect to see even more from an IT professional’s home learning network.
A home network at first should cover basic systems and networking technologies. As the student advances the network should advance to reflect the technologies that he or she is hoping to work with in the office. The home network should be used as a means to push forward – to gain experience in areas where the traditional workplace may not be providing enough resources or opportunities. Even if the career stalls the educational process should not and the home network can be used to leverage that education into a form of experience that can be invaluable when that same experience cannot be gained through traditional employment.