5 easy ways to get started with Linux servers without a homelab
Oliver Jakobi • March 29, 2021linux homelab tutorial
With 100% of the TOP500 Super Computers and a huge amount of servers around the globe running Linux, having a good understanding of the operating system is not only an interesting hobby, but also a skill that opens up many job opportunities.
When I set up my first Ubuntu server in 2008, I had no prior knowledge other than a little html and php that I ran on XAMPP on my windows computer.
In this post I want to list some easy ways to get started learning Linux as a server operating System without having to invest in heavy gear for your homelab.
Cloud VMs are an easy way to get started with Linux right away, if you don't feel like going through the process of installing an OS, setting up network connections an user accounts etc.
I personally use Hetzner Cloud, because they are cheap, really reliable, and have a good uptime.
Other options would be DigitalOcean, Linode, Upcloud or any other provider that starts with small-ish plans.
With this option, you can easily start exploring Linux from your computer, tablet or even your smartphone. You only need an ssh client and a little money you can spend.
Local virtual machines
Virtualization allows you to run one or more virtual servers on your desktop PC or notebook, as long as the hardware supports it. You can decide, how much of your hardware can be used by the virtual machine(s), how they are allowed to use the network, etc. but you will have to install the operating system on the virtual machine yourself.
Virtualization Software is available on macOS, Windows and Linux. They all vary a little in feature set and usability experience, but it's a good way to start because they let you login to the console with a virtual screen, which takes away the hassle of learning how to login with ssh at the beginning. (You will of course have to learn that anyway)
Depending on your operating system you can find virtualbox, virtual machine manager, or vmWare Player suitable for you.
Old desktop computers
This might not come as a surprise, but old desktop hardware can be used as a home server if you cannot get the performance out of it anymore, that you need for the latest games or editing software.
In fact, an old desktop PC with an Intel Pentium4 was my first Linux server. Even slow CPUs, a little RAM and an old hard drive can take you a long way to learn the basics and even intermediate stuff. This option might be a bit tedious though.
I remember myself sitting on the floor in front of the "new" server, the mouse, keyboard and display of my destop pc plugged in, because I had no spare peripherals that I could use.
However, once the OS is installed you can access the machine with an ssh client (as long as you don't destroy the network configuration by accident, shutting the network card down, like I did).
For this you need an old PC and maybe a network cable and a free port to plug it in.
Single Board Computers / Development boards
Raspberry Pi for everything! Do I need to say anything more?
Single Board Computers (SBC's) are another fantastic way to get started with Linux. Even some more advanced stuff like loadbalancing and various networking related topics can easily be covered with these credit card sized compute units. I still have a few of them running on my network, providing different services. You can even get into cluster computing for a reasonable amount of money. If you have some spare peripherals, some of the newer boards also do good as mini desktop PC's.
Apart from Raspberry Pi's, Banana Pi, CubieTruck and other ARM based boards, there are also some x86 boards available, like the ones that Udoo offers.
These could easily go into the same category as old desktop pc's, but there's one thing that boosted my learning curve, when I started to play around with Linux.
Notebooks bring everything with them already. You don't need a screen, Keyboard or mouse. It's all there. If something doesn't work and you cannot access the machine on the network, just flip the screen open and login on the machine itself. That really helped me fix some problems in the beginning. In Fact, my second Linux server was an old netbook that I didn't use anymore. So when the hard drive on my first machine gave up, I setup a new one on that netbook and it served me well for a few years.
Whatever hardware you have at hand or can afford is the best hardware to start playing around with Linux. You will probably setup your machine a couple of times and make mistakes. So while you do that, why invest in expensive hardware?
Have fun poking around!