a bit of history

Nov 10, 22

WARNING: The following post is full of information about how I gained the knowledge that helped me build my home lab, and the means to realize it. If you don’t care about backstory, then you won’t care about this.

in the beginning

I’ve been a computer nerd for a long time. My first computer was an IBM XT that my grandmother bought me with a monochrome green and black CRT. I was playing Castle Adventure at three years old. I was excited when SCSI-2 drives started coming out. I helped my friend get Linux running on a Dreamcast to play NES games on the projector in computer club in high school. My family almost staged an intervention when I was spending ~10 hours a day reverse engineering Diablo II to help hack the game and characters. I was building firewalls from old off-the-shelf consumer boxes when “broadband” entered the lexicon. I’m a nerd. I don’t have any education beyond high school, or any certifications, but I do use computers a lot.

I worked in IT for a while in the mid aughts, but then 2008 happened and I had to enlist in the military in order to be able to ensure my wife and three kids were able to pay for groceries. I took a non-technical job as a helicopter mechanic for seven years as it was the first job they could lock me in for.

I didn’t stop being a nerd. I kept computers that other people threw away running and tinkered with them for fun. I turned old laptops into servers for this or that. I set up media streaming in the house (even though I don’t watch much TV or movies), I tried my hand at running a mail server (it’s hard), I ran some phpBB systems for nothing of importance. My home lab right now is the kind of thing I always dreamed of, and I’m just getting started with it.

With an understanding of that background, here’s a short walk through the distant past to get us to the relative present.

i liked reading, computers, and reading about computers
circa 2008, a closet full of random crap and scrap computer parts
at the hospital for the birth of my youngest, one of the oldest playing gnometris on my laptop
it's important to get your little ones started nerding early
this old xbox was running xbmc by this time, connected to a nas i was running elsewhere
on emergency leave from basic training at this point, keeping the little nerd lessons going
living in the barracks for several months before my family could come, i set up a bunch of prints of my family and used just a netbook
you can see my kid being normal while surrounded by a cable mess and some parts laying around
the easiest way to get your family to accept how much you're on the computer is to get them all computers
fixing random computers from soldiers who didn't know why their laptop was so slow
fixing random phones for people with crap tools, too
when my wife sees that i couldn't resist including this photo of her with a mouth full of sandwich she will be mad (click to enlarge btw)
this was my main computer for about three years - i only had to replace the tape twice
my second deployment was to a real base where i lived in a shipping container with electricity
the stuff i did for work was pretty cool too, i guess
was glad to have time to fix things on that second deployment - kept me sane. that's a brand new digitizer
after i got back i built something resembling a real gaming pc 🎉
and then immediately had to fix someone's broken xbox

army cyber

While stationed at Fort Bragg, working as an Apache mechanic, congress demanded that every branch stand up their own cyber warfare branch. The Army started the process of creating the Cyber branch and creating the new jobs that would do this. They had identified a previous job that would automatically reclassify into the new job, but there weren’t enough of them, so they opened what’s called an “in-call,” allowing absolutely anyone to ask to be considered for the new job. The packet for this new job was almost 30 pages of questions in long-form answer format. My favorite question as the one asking us to explain the joke in an xkcd comic. I put together a packet that asked a lot about my education, certifications, and deep experience in cybersecurity. I had hacked some things for funsies (legally), I had done some work fighting massive internet-wide worms and stuff in my IT days. Mostly I hinged my packet on “I love computers, learn very quickly, and I have a lot of foundational knowledge acquired through the school of hard knocks.”

I was shocked when I was selected in the first round. I really didn’t think that the Army that I had been with for seven years at that point would select me based on a packet that checked so few boxes. Whoever green-lighted me must have liked the fact that I responded to the comic panel properly, then also added a note to them that I own a signed copy of volume 0. Nerd cred, that’s the only thing I can think of that got me selected.

So, off to Pensacola for school, then to Fort Gordon to work on a Cyber Protection Team. I got put onto an Industrial Controls Systems team, just by chance, and got to spend a bunch of time in a weird team with a weird mission for whom the majority of the tooling funded and fielded by Army Cyber didn’t work. Most of my team had been to training for how to secure and defend enterprise networks, and suddenly they were working on HVAC systems, assembly lines, and hydroelectric plants. We had to figure stuff out kind of on our own, and I was happy to be in a space where I kind of understood the basics and had the freedom to experiment and learn. I took it, and within a couple of months was building tooling to make our jobs easier and enable us to better answer questions with less manual work. Encoding knowledge as automation is my favorite way to learn, because making knowledge reproducible solidifies your understanding and enables other people to learn from you at their own pace, or leverage your knowledge without understanding it. It’s a super valuable use of time. I unfortunately got interviewed after a stupid Army field exercise, so if you want to see an unfortunate photo and read a PR-washed version of the above, have at.

good things would come of this eventually
the family was pretty happy the be in florida for a little while
immediately my classmates discovered that i knew computer things so i was immediately enlisted to help them with new builds
this was one of my favorite builds i helped with, in a very tiny case. fit a furyx and watercooler for a ryzen chip in there
once we got to the new duty station and away from the beach, computers became cool for the family again
got a little mazda after getting rear ended (this becomes more relevant on the next slide)
four days after buying a new car i had some leads soldered to the serial bus and was adding new features
as my rank climbed, so did my ability to buy cool computer stuff. here's me setting up gaming from a windows vm and ending dual-boot
the computers i got to build platforms on for work had a bit more horsepower than the stuff i was able to tinker with at home
this deployable kit had everything a cyber network defender needed fully automated to provision and manage, using my code
after being diagnosed with crohn's, i had to go to the hospital for a few hours at a time for infusions
started getting some donated hardware to kick-start my home lab beyond vms
where we're going, we don't need keycap legends
at some point you find yourself needing to look at more things at once than you have pixels to put them on
i got to help evolve the deployable kits into something that scaled horizontally and give us smaller boxes to deploy with

the nerd

After a year and change, I had rewritten our hunt and collection methodologies to account for our strange mission, built a slightly better analysis pipeline than we’d had before, tried to build some training around it, and did everything I could to ensure that we were doing the best work we could do. It worked, so they put me in the office that designed the standard-issue kits and wrote all the automation to tie everything together. That office was the Networking Engineering Research and Development lab, or NERD. Fun backronym. I did that for a year or so, got to play with some cool computers, and tried to move the needle as much as I could. I got promoted to Staff Sergeant and financially we started doing okay-ish again.

Then I got diagnosed with severe Crohn’s disease and told I would be separated from the Army. I had built a lot of skills and just started to be able to home lab by this point. I managed to land a pretty good job, thanks to my time working alongside pre-sales technical staff and contractors, and could afford the home lab I’d dreamed of all these years you’ve just read about before.

to greener pastures

Up next, the rapid evolution of my home lab.