9 home office essentials for developers who WFH

Working from home is here to stay, so why not build the hackatorium of your dreams?

home office tech maintenance
Flickr / Mr Thinktank

The pandemic may or may not be over, but the home office is here to stay. Some workers might miss their morning commute and some bosses still believe in the power of having everyone under the same roof, but plenty of companies see the cost and productivity advantages of letting everyone work from home. You may not work remotely every day, but it still pays to take your home office setup seriously.

The ideal home office? It's your choice

When the pandemic first hit, many of us promptly commandeered the dining room table and made the best of it. With remote work shifting to be permanent option, at least for some, it makes sense to think about just how wonderful your home office could be. Good furniture is the most obvious—and ergonomic—place to start, but there's also an opportunity to rethink your home network, local servers, and storage and safety concerns.

The best part of updating your home office is freedom of choice. A friend once worked for SC Johnson Wax in the headquarters designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The building and offices were beautiful but every detail was kept just as Wright imagined. Before she went home each night, she had to clear her desk of all papers to keep everything looking orderly. It was still Frank Lloyd Wright’s space, not hers.

The home office, on the other hand, can be everything that you want it to be. If you want top quality designer furniture, you can order it. If you don’t care, you can save money by scooping up a lost desk sitting on the curb. At home, there’s no hip designer insisting on uncomfortable chairs, and no stingy boss buying the most basic, contractor-grade desks.

Technology for your home office is even more wide open. Some are happy with a Wi-Fi signal strong enough to reach the couch. Others have elaborate plans for establishing a “home cloud” with many of the services found in the best commercial clouds. As long as your boss is satisfied and the packets are secure, you are free to create and explore.

Here are nine ideas for transforming your current work-from-home setup into your own personal technology castle. The home office after all, is where you and you alone have root.

Furniture for one

Office architects usually standardize on a one-style-fits-all design and everyone gets to live with it. Folks with seniority can sometimes wrangle their own chair, but if your office uses hoteling software to assign different seats daily, you’re stuck. Not so when it comes to furnishing your home office. There are countless options, and the good news is that you can explore them all. So, let your tastes run wild, and don't forget to consider good ergonomic design while you're at it.

The ideal monitor

You might be happy with a garden variety monitor. Or, you may prefer something a bit bigger. Some want dual monitors, and some just want an ultrawide type. No matter what you like, it's worth it to spend a little extra on the right monitor. That's especially true when you consider that 100% of your work day is spent staring at a screen.

The possibilities really are endless. I once saw a developer who had attached two 75-inch 4K televisions to his coding rig. The contrast wasn’t great, because the televisions were made for the living room, but he could display nearly an entire Java stack dump.

Go wired, and wireless

When I was setting up my office, I pulled several Cat 6 cables through the wall. While Wi-Fi is more flexible, good shielded cables won’t fight your neighbors for spectrum. Gigabit hubs are often cheap, at least for the five-port models, so there’s not much extra cost in stringing cable. You could invest in a full box with 1,000 feet and a set of crimping pliers to finish them off. Or, you could just get a longer stock model. Some special grades of cable are designed to run in duct work. That may be a useful option if you've got forced-air heating or cooling.

Even if most of your packets will  travel on Ethernet wires, you may also want to tune up your home wireless network. It’s less fun to slouch in the living room with a long tether. Plenty of single routers will cover a small house or office. If your home is on the larger side, consider upgrading to a Wi-Fi mesh. They do a better job of covering every square inch of the house.

Invest in good storage

A friend once had to tell his wife that a disk crash destroyed all the family photos. I suspect that investing in good storage is much easier than having that kind of conversation. Thumb drives aren’t horrible, but they’re easy to lose and they can be unreliable for long-term storage. A better solution is a separate file server sitting on the home network, where it will always be available from anywhere in the house. You may be satisfied with single drive storage, but consider the added assurance of RAID protection.

Off-site backup is an essential addition to your home storage system. You could use encryption and cloud storage from an alternative cloud service like Backblaze or Wasabi. Maybe you prefer storing physical disks in a bank vault or the home of a trusted friend. If you are worried about catastrophic events like hurricanes and fires, you could seek out a trustworthy cache farther from home, perhaps even in another country.

The Interplanetary File System offers a new kind of framework for distributed data storage. Decentralizing your data could be useful in case your home office is ever destroyed. It can also open up issues with data leakage, so be sure to use careful encryption.

The office software you want

A number of good open source projects duplicate many of the best cloud office services. Nextcloud, for instance, bundles many of the best office applications into one package. Once it’s running, you can duplicate most of what Google, Zoho, or Microsoft sell.

The freedom and low cost of these services comes with responsibility: You’ll need to install patches yourself and arrange for offsite backups. Still, the local server won’t slow down with the general internet.

The bare metal server network

Setting up a server network for your home office is easier than you may think. Many old machines can have new life as a server. My office has two old boxes, each with 32 gigs of RAM. All it takes is a copy of your favorite open source distro and an out-of-the-way corner where no one cares about the fan noise. You might need to shut down the servers in the summer to save on air conditioning. On the other hand, you could use them to mine crypto currencies in the winter to heat the house.

Having the root password opens the door to experimentation—the kind that just won't fly in a locked-down office machine. Your home server network could be the fastest way to try out new configurations before proposing them to the team.

A cloud of your own

How about building out your own private home cloud? You could even choose an option that lets you spin up and tear down instances just like the major clouds. Hundreds of good open source projects and products simplify running containers or even clusters on a spare machine. GitPod and Ubuntu are just two of the options.

If you'd rather not roll your own, consider an on-prem cloud that is ready to go out of the box. Antsle sells the Antsle One, a silent, fanless wonder that can pack up to 24 virtual CPUs into a box that sits on your desk. If you want something smaller, Nano looks like a Raspberry Pi and fits in the palm of your hand.

Home office security

All the fun and freedom of the remote office comes with a price. You’ll need to watch over security yourself. The good news is that many products built for the SOHO (small office, home office) have basic impediments like firewalls. The not-so-good news is that these routers and tools are unlikely to receive the same level of scrutiny and auditing as commercial versions built for the enterprise.

The best way to avoid trouble is to limit the danger from the beginning. Don’t use real customer data for test cases. Create random test vectors. If your job requires extra precautions because of regulations like HIPAA, consider limiting the work that you do from home.

Just for fun

Your current boss may have a sense of humor, but what about the next suit up the line? Even if the bosses are all right, what about your coworkers? It takes just one backstabbing weasel to steal your promotion. In general, there's a limit to how much fun you can have in a company office space. The downsides are real, and the stakes are high.

The home office, though, is your domain. Do you want huge screens that turn the wall into a magnificent dashboard to track your server load? How about a siren or a fog horn that warns you if the monitoring bots detect a crash? Maybe you want disco lights whenever you commit code to the local repository. The point is: don't forget to have fun in your own personal home technology castle. You'll be glad you did.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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