CCNA Lab Series 2011: Overview

Finding a Way Through the Maze to a Solid CCNA Lab

You need experience using the Cisco Command Line Interface (CLI) to be ready for CCNA. Pay attention to others who have taken these entry-level Cisco exams, and you'll hear stories about the challenge of the Sim questions on the test, how hard the test is, and how you really need hands-on skills to be ready for the tests. But if you want to get that CLI skill using real gear, you face a classic chicken-and-egg problem - how do you know what gear to buy if you haven't learned much about the technology yet? In fact, the scope of CCNA includes very little about different router and switch hardware models, IOS versions, and all the other things you need to think about when choosing what to buy. So what do you do?

The answer, unfortunately, is not simple, but the posts in this new blog series can give you enough information to make some decisions. Welcome to part 1 of a new series about how to build a lab, with real used Cisco gear, that you can use to prepare for the CCENT and CCNA exams. This post is the kick-off for the series. Today's post gives the big picture overview of the series.


Back in 2008, I happened to blog here about CCNA lab gear, and it was a popular series. In fact, I didn't even intend for it to be a series - it kinda took on a life of its own. I moved on to CCNP, and last year combined the topic into both a CCNA and CCNP discussion. However, it's been over 3 years since I last did a CCNA-specific series on lab gear, so its time. Here's a quick reference to those earlier series, with links to the index page for each.

  • 1st CCNA Lab Series (2008)
  • 1st CCNP Lab Series (2008)
  • 1st Combo CCNA/CCNP Series (2009)
  • 2nd CCNP Lab Series (2010)
  • Note that as of the date of this post, Cisco has not published changes to the CCNA exams since July 2007. So, the requirements for the exam have not changed, but the used market has changed to some extent. Also, blogging about this topic always seems to bring up good discussions, and the page view stats tell us people care - so here we go again!

    (Note: CCNP did change in early 2010, so the most recent CCNP series listed above reflects changes to the scope of those exams.)


    Real Gear Only for This Discussion

    First off, you don't have to use real gear to get hands-on CLI skills for CCENT or CCNA. If you want to more about the alternatives, I've included a few links. But for this series, we're discussing real gear, and not the other options. Yes, there are pros/cons to using real, vs Simulators, vs. Emulators, and so on, but we've even discussed that recently in this space as well.

    Newbies Welcome, Oldies to Assist

    I'm writing this for folks just starting out with CCENT and CCNA, but I hope that others who've been there/done that will help with comments. Maybe you've started using your primary self-study tools (my book maybe?), and trying to figure out what to do for CLI practice. This series picks up the story of what to think about once you make the choice to use at least some real gear.

    For those of you who've passed this point, here's another chance to help others. Please join in! Offer any anecdoates about what you experienced, what you bought, what worked well, and especially, what didn't work so well. Or pass on the link to others who're thinking about building out their labs.

    Budget >$0

    I assume you have a budget > $0 for real gear. If you really don't have a dime to spend on it, check out Dynamips, or Packet Tracer is you're a Cisco Networking Academy student.

    As long as we're talking budget, I want to ask, to get a read on what people are spending these days. It's pretty self-explanatory: what can you spend, or what did you spend?


    Perspectives on Why Used Cisco Gear Can Be Useful

    Why go down this path at all? Here are some positive reasons and perspectives.

    First, unsurprisingly, prices of used Cisco routers and switches can be cheap, often cheap enough for a personal self-study budget. The prices for models that Cisco still actively markets, and would still be somewhat reasonable to use in a production network, almost never reach that low price point. However, after a model series is no longer marketed by Cisco, and is replaced by some new models, the prices generally start to drop. Then, once companies complete a technology refresh cycle, pushing the older models into the used market, the prices can drop a lot. Devices that formerly sold for a few thousand might go for $50-$100.

    Old does not equal bad, at least for certification self study. For instance, the day I wrote this post, I also happened to turn on the power on one of my racks of gear today to test something. I made good use of one 20-year-old device (a 2509 router). The reason I powered up the lab was to test commands on an 8-year-old (2950) switch. So don't assume that old means its useless. Also, note that a lot of newer models of routers and switches have hardware improvements for better performance. In your lab, you really don't care about how many millions of packets per second the router can forward, because you can't generate nearly that much load. Finally, while some commands change over time, many are the same as they were long ago,

    Older software versions still have some use, particularly for CCNA. Cisco has called their OS "Cisco IOS Software" for a while, with IOS meaning "Internetwork Operating System".  Some of the features still included in CCNA today existed 20+ years ago in IOS. Often times, the commands used to configure such features are exactly the same today. For example, to configure RIP, the commands 20 years ago were "router rip" and "network x.x.x.x", just like today.  Sure, some differences exist between current software versions and 20-year-old versions, but while you are evaluating what to buy, keep an open mind about the age. (Note that for some other certs, that use features added to IOS more recently, the age of the IOS makes much more difference.)

    Perspectives on Why Used Cisco Gear can be a Pain

    My good friend and co-worker Rich does all the legwork to gather EBay prices for used gear. We then post the summary online. He's made it through two of three passes in the last month so we can update the pricing along with this series.

    One day recently, Rich brought up something about the lab gear without my even asking. He said that he can't imagine that if he was on his own, doing self study, he'd never make it through digging around all this detail on EBay,, even my web site, looking to find how to spend his few hundred $ to build a lab. He'd spend the $100 for the Simulator. Getting a Simulator for $100 and bypassing all this, or using PacketTracer for free if you're a Cisco Networking Academy student, may become much more appealing once you look at the detail.

    Disclaimer: I do make money if you buy the Pearson Network Simulator, and I make no money if you instead buy real gear.

    Rich's point was that to get make the right choices with the lab, and not make mistakes, and not feel like you wasted money buying something you shouldn't have, you could easily spend dozens of hours looking for the "right" answer. And I agree with him to some extent. Do you learn through that process? Sure. But other options may be easier.

    On this point, if you start thinking like Rich, but want a reasonable alternative for real gear, search instead for a company that sells complete CCNA labs. Many of the same companies that sell used gear piece-by-piece will also sell you a complete CCNA package (or for other certs as well).

    Perspectives: This Blog Vs. Wendell's Web Site

    As I've mentioned before, I've written multiple blog series on the whole Cisco lab topic. I've also got some reference info on my web site. Let me give you a couple of works for context comparing these two.

    A few years back, after I had done a few of these series on lab gear in this blog, I got frustrated. Every time I went to do the next lab series, I had forgotten details. I thought, surely someone has written this stuff down somewhere in one place, rather than searching the world. Well, I didn't find one place with it all written down, so I wrote it down. That's essentially two of the tabs at my web site (CLI Options and Lab Gear).

    The details and the web site are meant for reference, whereas the blog is meant as a convenient place to discuss options. Feel free to start kicking the tires over there. I'll be updating the price history details during this series once we get through one more round of price checks, and fill in any holes.

    The Big Stuff, Which is where We'll Go in the Next Few Posts

    Don't sweat the small stuff - so what's the big stuff? In this context, it's topology, hardware, software, and build lists (including budget). The next posts in this series will focus on the big stuff. I'll briefly introduce each here.

    Topology: To experiment with features, you need enough gear to connect routers and switches in a topology meaningful to that feature. For example, it is possible to configure RIP on a single router. However, it's pretty boring, and you miss the chance to see what happens when that router learns routes from a second router. Two routers for RIP are interesting, but you really need three to make a redundant topology that shows all the features of RIP.

    Hardware: This one is a bit obvious: real gear means real hardware. The difficult questions are: which models of routers and switches are currently at the sweet spot for low price plus supporting the better/more recent IOS images? Which ones support the most features for the next certification I intend to pursue? What cards or other items are needed? What gotchas exist when buying that model device?

    Software: IOS comes in different versions, and within a version, different feature sets. The more recent the IOS version, the more likely it supports more recent and more advanced features in some feature set. The better the feature set, the more functions supported in that image. You have to wade through the detail when choosing what to buy.

    To that end, you need to think about the features covered on the exam, compared to the IOS software. You may find a really cheap router, but it has an older IOS, and only the base feature set. But don't reject it at first glance! Turns out that a lot of the CCNA topics are included in the most basic feature sets of IOS. Would you spend $10 for a router that let you practice 90% of the features, versus spending $100 for a router that does 100% of the commands? Not everyone will answer the same way. I'm just suggesting that you can filter your choice based on what you need to practice, and maybe do pretty well with some really cheap options.

    Build Lists and Budget: You may work through all this and figure out what models work best these days, what IOS you want to look for, that kind of thing. Then you need a list of what to go buy - in other words, the build list. Three 1720's?  (Don't forget the power bricks!) What cables do you need to make which topologies? What are the RAM and flash requirements - and do you need to upgrade one of more of the devices you plan to buy?

    Questions for Ya'll, to Get Us Started

    What models of routers and switches should we consider? Over the last few years, I've been listing six different model series of routers on my web site as example devices to consider (2500, 2600 non-XM, 2600 XM, 3640, 800, 1700). These happen to be the models most often considered for a self-study Cisco lab. What do you think is finally getting cheap enough to add to the list? (I may not add all such suggestions, but some of this list is a direct result of feedback from folks like you in this blog, so fire away.)

    How much would you spend? Answer the survey earlier in this post to help me get a read for it.

    That's it. It's a lot - more to come in a week or two. Feel free to post comments/questions.

    Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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