The Bit Bucket

Recently I got the bug to finally clean up and organize my home office. Amid the boxes, old Macs and RC truck parts in the closet were the Cisco routers and switches from my CCNA lab setup. I debated with myself as to how to best organize and store them, and ultimately spent a good deal of time pondering before I came up with the solution.

Typically, CCNA labs are done either virtually (through software that simulates routers and switches, and the various links between) or with real hardware. Both ways have their pros and cons, but I prefer going the hardware route. Most who go the same way will pick up an equipment rack of some sort to mount all of their lab gear in. There are inexpensive tabletop stands which run about $30, but their design prevents anything from being stacked on top during the other 11 months of the year you're not using the equipment. A more efficient option for storage is a rack case, but those generally start at $100, and are pretty heavy even when empty. Add 6U or 8U of gear, and you won't ever want to take the thing out of the closet.

What I decided I needed was something inexpensive and easy to move and store, or inexpensive and would hide the gear in plain sight. After doing a lot of measuring, I found that the EINA nightstand from Ikea had interior dimensions just big enough to fit my routers and switches -- they would stack nicely on the shelf, and the whole unit would work well as an end table next to the couch in my office. The price of $30 was compelling too. However, I would have had to take the rack ears off of the gear in order to make it all fit, which concerned me as stacked gear will tend to slide around when you're plugging/unplugging cables if it's not bolted down.

I did some more rummaging around the house, looking for anything 19" wide that might work. Then, sitting empty on top of my summer tires in the garage:

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...which subsequently turned into this:

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I call it the Bit Bucket. 6U of rack space, plus about 1/2U above and below to snake cables through. It worked out so perfectly I was giddy (just ask my wife). Here's how I did it.

The bucket is a Rubbermaid Roughneck model 2215 storage box, about 18 gallons. I've had this particular one for many years, but while grocery shopping at SuperTarget today I saw that they still carry them (and they were on sale for $5, even). The inside distance from handle to handle is exactly 19", which is what rack equipment is designed for.

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Why a Rubbermaid bin? Well, they're tough, reasonably waterproof (if you have the lid on, of course), and wonderfully stackable. The design of the bin dictates that the equipment hang vertically, instead of mount horizontally like normal. For some equipment, this could cause heat-related problems (most gear is designed to pull cool air in from the front and exhaust hot air out the back), but my Cisco routers and switches run pretty cool so I wasn't too concerned. What I was concerned with, however, was the weight of all the equipment hanging from the bin, and if the sides would be strong enough. I flipped the bin upside-down and stood on the bottom; while I'm pretty skinny, I'm pretty sure I still weigh more than my gear does. The bin held me up just fine, and that was enough to convince me.

A quick trip to Guitar Center yielded me a pair of 6U Raxxess rack rails for $12. They have pretapped holes for screwing your equipment into, as well as plenty of holes for mounting the rails to the box (or, in my case, Rubbermaid bin) of your choice. I decided that four bolts per rail should be sufficient to support and distribute the weight of the gear along the sides of the bin. I simply lined up each rail where I wanted it to be mounted in the bin, marked the holes with a Sharpie, and then drilled them out.

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I used big fender washers on the outside of the bin to keep the heads of the bolts from tearing out the plastic.

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The middle two bolts hold each rail against the inside of the bin, since that part is the narrowest but also perfectly flat. The outside bolts, however, were a bit of a problem since the contour of the bin prevented it from making contact with the rail -- there was a good 1/2 inch gap between the inside of the bin and the rail. I didn't want to simply tighten down the bolt and deform the plastic, as that might have prevented the lid from fitting correctly. Ultimately I cut pieces of leftover PEX tubing I had (from when I ran a water line to my refrigerator) to act as spacers, so that I could tighten down the bolts nice and snug, but not pull in the sides of the bin.

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..and that's about it. I Velcro'd a power strip into the bottom of the bin, dropped in my routers and switches, and bolted them down. The Bit Bucket feels very solid and doesn't flex, and with all the equipment in it the weight is still low enough to be manageable. I can snap the lid on it and it looks like an ordinary storage bin (albeit one with bolts screwed into it), and other bins still stack on it nicely. The best part is that this whole project set me back $14 ($12 for the rack rails and $2 for the fender washers) since I already owned the bin and nuts/bolts. If you were building one from scratch I bet you could do it for $25 or less.

Working on this project also got me thinking about it on a bigger scale. Sure, it's an inexpensive, efficient way to rack up a CCNA lab or something similar, but I could see it being used anywhere a small rack of network gear needs to be placed in a non-ideal environment -- perhaps providing wireless Internet in a disaster area, or telecommunications for humanitarian missions. If anyone does something cool with a Bit Bucket they've built, please let me know about it so I can feature it here.

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cwsmith's picture

Great job!

This would be perfect for a band's PA equipment, or a guitarist's effects chain, for road gigs. Rugged, stackable, waterproof (and beerproof), and looks like an ordinary storage bin when it's in the van.

Thanks for posting, Doc. I'll be building a few of these myself, I think!

Re: Great job!

cwsmith wrote:

This would be perfect for a band's PA equipment, or a guitarist's effects chain, for road gigs. Rugged, stackable, waterproof (and beerproof), and looks like an ordinary storage bin when it's in the van.

Thanks for posting, Doc. I'll be building a few of these myself, I think!

Thats exactly what I had done a few years ago.. It never occurred to me to attempt to take other computer related rack mounted equipment and put it in there..