Home Lab & Network Evolution, Part 3Post - November 19, 2021 - network, infrastructure, home lab, smart home
As Seen Previously On This Blog
Make sure to read the previous posts in this series:
Smart Home Beginnings
My initial investment into smart home technology began in the middle of 2014 when my fiancee and I moved in together (henceforth, there’ll be a lot more “we” and “us” in this journey than “I” and “me”). I bought a 2nd Generation Nest Thermostat. I had just moved into a new apartment and management didn’t have a problem with my replacing the thermostat, so long as I swapped back to the original unit upon move-out (which turned out to be just a little over 2 years later). The automatic away functionality of the thermostat was nice, and it’s “learning” features worked relatively well for my use case.
To continue on the smart home theme, I also acquired a 1st Generation Amazon Echo. My uses of the Echo at this point were pretty limited - mostly to asking about weather, listening to NPR’s news update, and such. And of course, asking the Echo what the temperature of the Nest was. As time progressed and we added more and more smart home devices with Alexa integration, we got a lot more value out of the Echoes.
My smart home beginnings from mid-2014 to the fall of 2016 were really limited to just these 2 devices. Other than that, the only major acquisitions while we lived in this apartment were a Brother HL-3170CDW printer and TP-Link TGR1900 Onhub WiFi router.
The printer became a necessity due to my wife’s (yes, by now we got married) occasional job requirements, and we still have it. The router was supposed to be a solid upgrade from our old WiFi router. For the small-ish apartment we had at the time, the device worked well for us. But as we soon discovered when we moved into a two-story home, and continued to expand our WiFi-connected devices… it became insufficient, quickly.
The latter half of the fall of 2016 is when my wife and I moved to Oregon. I was the advance guard in the move, and we decided to setup a second entertainment center before all of our stuff got moved here. I ended up buying a Yamaha RX-V481 A/V receiver and a Sony Bravia XBR-55X850D television. These helped me get by as my gaming rig and the other fun stuff hadn’t gotten hauled on to our new home yet. Thankfully though, my wife and I invested in dual Apple A1398 15” MacBook Pros in advance of the move, so I still had some computing capabilities in our almost entirely empty home. For the first time in years, I had a laptop! The smart TV functionality in the Bravia was welcome until our TiVo Roamio arrived to the new home, and the Yamaha receiver had network connectivity for me to play music on the speakers I also purchased with it.
We needed a network going in the new home as we spun down the old apartment, so I ended up just temporarily renting a cable modem with built-in WiFi from our new ISP. When we completed the move to Oregon, we sold off the old Motorola Surfboard modem we were using previously, as it was incompatible with the new ISP.
Some of the initial technological investments in our home came in replacing older, unconnected technology with more of the emerging smart home products. We replaced all of our smoke detectors with 2nd Generation Nest Protects, and replaced the garage door opener with a MyQ-enabled Chamberlain opener, the LW9000WFi. The Nest Protects have occasionally detected when we had a bit of smoke coming from some cooking in the kitchen, so I know their Internet connectivity works well. And it’s nice to be able to open or close the garage door remotely if necessary, especially if we leave it open and then get a Home Assistant alert that we left it open (I’ll talk at length about Home Assistant later).
We also invested in a connected home alarm system, opting to go with one of the first home DIY alarm solutions on the market at the time, Scout Alarm. The same convenience and peace of mind I got with the MyQ garage door opener applies to our alarm system. We’re still using it, but our base station is old enough at this point that it’s difficult for them to find any more compatible sensors if we need more, and their newer water detection sensors don’t work at all for us. We’ll likely move to a different alarm solution at some point in the near future. Scout’s integrations with other smart home systems is also pretty limited - they rely mostly on IFTTT.
This all initialized our home upon moving to Oregon, but we acquired a few other things prior to really investing in the next generation of our home lab. I was gifted a Raspberry Pi 2 Model B for Christmas 2016, which I just left aside with no real purpose. I wasn’t sure what to do with it for quite some time. We also bought two Logitech Harmony Ultimate Hubs to control our two entertainment centers. These replaced an older Harmony remote model we had acquired some years back (which wasn’t Internet-connected; I think it was the Logitech Harmony 670), and these hubs are still fantastic for us. Having our media systems integrated into a single remote with a mobile phone app as well is such a wonderful convenience. Logitech has recently stopped manufacturing the physical devices, but are still supporting the software which runs them. So I know eventually we’ll have to chart a path forward without them.
The last acquisition we made before the home lab revamp was an iRobot Roomba 980. We really thought this vacuum cleaner was going to be super helpful for us, but it has proven not to be. Not by any real fault of iRobot, to be fair. Our home has two stories, and it cannot navigate stairs. Additionally, we have to gate off certain sections of the house for pet control, and it cannot navigate those either. Finally, due to the large amount of technology we have, there are occasional wires and such around. It just didn’t prove to be a good solution for us due to the way we live our lives. We still have it, and mostly just turn it on for a select couple of rooms every now and then while we head out of the house for groceries and such.
By now, though… The capability of the home lab was showing strains, so I decided to do something about it in early 2017.
Prosumer, Here We Come
When we moved to Oregon, some of my new coworkers told me about their home labs and what they were running. One coworker had a really, really beefy setup - multiple rackmount servers running a whole host of things, including a very expansive media library (for home use only; don’t go thinking they share that stuff out illegally). They were running Ubiquiti’s UniFi network hardware and software. After research and talking with them and others using UniFi networks, I decided to jump on in.
I ordered a StarTech 8U open frame mount since the UniFi switch I was to order was rack-mountable; and I ordered a couple of Raxxess trays. I also ordered a couple of StarTech 1U Rack Mount PDUs. Finally, the UniFi equipment I ordered was:
When I got all of this setup and installed, I was quite happy. I finally had a modern, usable interface to manage my home network. Getting to easily see all of the interconnected devices on the network was really handy, and I started to use VLANs to separate out my emerging category of IoT devices so that if they got compromised, I would hopefully be able to protect the rest of our personal devices from also getting compromised. For my network size back in early 2017, this set of hardware worked perfectly for me, and the Cloud Key was a pretty reliable host for the UniFi Network Controller. Racking everything on an open frame also really helped me consolidate most of the core network equipment in one place. I did have to get a couple of longer ethernet cables to reach my gaming rig and the arcade cabinet I put together - the network core was installed in the loft, and that’s where our gaming rigs and consoles were kept.
Two other things were added in to our home lab right after I put together the new UniFi core. We acquired a Netgear CM1000 cable modem so we could stop renting one from our ISP, and we also found ourselves in possession of a used Dell PowerEdge R200 1U server. The 1U server was an interesting addition to the home lab - I wasn’t totally sure for what to use it. I ended up utilizing it as an SSH gateway to the network (a.k.a. a bastion or jump box), and I also got Nginx installed on to it to act as a reverse proxy for the UniFi controller, so I could access it outside the home if necessary (I know that UniFi has remote functionality through their own services, but I wanted a direct connection). I also registered a domain to point to my home IP address, and hooked it up to a DDNS provider. I had the DDNS agent running on UniFi Cloud Key, as it supported the service I was using at the time.
Last Gasp of Light-Touch Maintenance
The remainder of 2017 (yes, the remainder of 10 months, hah) was also the remainder of time I had left when my home technology was in what I like to call a “light touch” state. In March of 2017 we added a 2nd Generation August Smart Lock, along with the August Connect so we could remotely control the lock via an Internet connection. The smart lock proved to be very useful for us while we used it. Being able to unlock our front door from the car made getting inside much easier. We had to stop using the lock when our front door expanded and contracted over time from heat, however - we were unable to get the door to line up properly for the lock to function (though manual locks still worked well). Once we replace the front door, we’ll reinstall the lock. The front door was apparently twisted by a previous owner when they slammed something heavy against one of the top corners.
In keeping with the smart home technology adoption, we started adding Philips Hue bulbs (and a hub) in April of
- We opted to go with models which had full color control so we could get different moods in different rooms (primarily for watching movies and entertaining kids). We also added an Arlo Pro 2 system in late 2017 to complement our Scout Alarm system; this effectively added in video cameras to our home security solution. We were happy with what the Arlo system offered to us at the time. In 2017, it was one of the best options available without having to resort to setting up a house-wide PoE (power-over-ethernet) network. Though that being said, we eventually want to wire up our home with in-wall networking ports. And on key places outside as well, so we can have PoE cameras on the exterior too.
Backing up in time slightly, the summer of 2017 saw us make major changes to the home itself. We had solar panels installed from SolarCity (now a part of Tesla). Included with the solar panels was a gateway to relay solar power generation statistics to SolarCity’s online servers, where we could monitor energy production on a day-to-day basis. We also replaced our entire HVAC system, which resulted in our replacing the Nest thermostat with a Trane thermostat, which was supported by the new climate control system (Nest thermostats, at the time of this writing, still do not support our HVAC, which has scaling heating & cooling, and not just on/off). The thermostat’s Internet connectivity was provided by Nexia, though they later folded the Nexia branding into Trane.
The close of 2017 saw a formerly-discarded piece of technology return to active service. I dug out the old Raspberry Pi 1 I had acquired years ago, which was supposed to power my arcade cabinet. I reinstalled the operating system and set it up as my SSH gateway for my home lab, thus removing that function from the 1U Dell server I had previously been using as the SSH gateway.
So what was in store for us next? Two words - Home Assistant.