Cisco Introduces Cisco Learning Labs

Another way to get Hands-on Skills for Cisco Cert Exams

The folks from Learning@Cisco announced a new service today: Cisco Learning Labs. In short: pay money, get remote access to a lab topology of routers and switches, plus lab exercises, from Cisco. The unique twist: the routers and switches are actually virtual routers and switches hosted by Cisco. This post examines the details of the initial offering, possible future features, and some of my impressions about what I see as both positive and negative about this new service.

First off, let me say thanks to the folks from Cisco who gave me early access to some labs and gave me the scoop about the service. I spoke with:

Marcello Hunter, senior manager, product management

Ray Viscaina, technical support engineer

Thanks guys! Now on to the details.

The Initial Offering

In it's initial offering, Cisco Learning Labs is a service that lets you do lab exercises on a virtual lab topology hosted by Cisco. The service groups labs based on certification exam. You pick an exam, and purchase the rights to do a package of lab exercises for topics on that exam. You get access for three months, during which time you can access a virtual lab pod, running real IOS (routers and switches), but instead of real gear it's real IOS, running in a virtual environment on a Sun workstation. You can do the labs in your package for 25 hours. You can also erase the config and do whatever you want using the toplogy provided by that lab exercise. If you need more time, you can add hours in 5 hour increments.

Cisco provides options for five exams today, but the list of supported exams is likely to grow. (Wendell's opinion: if the labs can be done entirely on routers and switches, then the exam is a good candidate for future inclusion in Cisco Learning Labs.) The initial 25-hour package costs $50 for ICND2, and $75 for the others. The add-on packages of 5 additional lab hours are $20 for ICND2 and $30 for the others. The initially supported exams are:

  • ICND2
  • ROUTE
  • SWITCH
  • TSHOOT
  • MPLS

The virtual lab pods use a Cisco internal-only tool called Cisco IOS on Unix. (Cisco doesn't like to make acronyms from acronyms, so the official name is "Cisco IOS on Unix", but most Cisco internal folks call it IOU.) The IOS images are built for IOU, and include all hardware-independent features for a given IOS version/feature set. Once you connect to Cisco Learning Labs to do a lab, you open Telnet windows as if you are connected to the console of any device in the lab topology.

And yes, it supports both router IOS and a switch IOS, and the switch IOS includes layer 3 switching.

The Future Offering: Tell Learning@Cisco What You Want

I asked Marcello and Ray about several features that I didn't see, but that I thought would be useful.  The answer for all such questions boiled down to this: they are actively considering a large range of additional features, and will be listening for opinions. Here are some of the possible future features that we discussed as possibilities:

  • Ability to create your own topology
  • Labs for other exams
  • Labs unrelated to exams
  • Labs from third parties (eg, Cisco Learning Partners)

The good news is that of you like the beginnings of Cisco Learning Labs, but want more, Cisco is listening. So, how do you tell them your thoughts? Two places:

  • In the comments area of the Cisco Learning Network Store, where you can buy the service. You can also rate the service.
  • In a forum at the Cisco Learning Network: learningnetwork.cisco.com/groups/cll.

Cisco IOS on Unix - Yep, That's the Official Name

Cisco has had an internal-use-only router IOS virtualization tool for year. I first saw it I think in 2002 or 2003. Cisco has used it for internal testing, for labs at events like Cisco Live!, and for general learning. Of late, Cisco started using it for the CCIE R/S lab in the troubleshooting section. In fact, you may have seen a recent announcement about the CCIE R/S troubleshooting lab section now including switching; Cisco has added switch IOS support to IOU. 

Cisco Learning Labs uses this same Cisco IOS on Unix virtualization software. I asked Ray and Marcello about the IOS images for Cisco IOS on Unix, and got this answer:

IOSTM on Unix router images are compiled at the same time as product specific images in a given release train and image build cycle. They are compiled specifically to operate on Solaris operating systems. Basically, for every release of IOSTM software, there's a corresponding IOSTM on Unix image.  For the IOSTM on Unix Layer 2 switch images, those are currently built as needed by resources within Learning@Cisco.

The router IOS images support Ethernet and serial interfaces, as does Dynamips. However, features that rely some other hardware-specific features are not supported. Specifically mentioned, were voice ports, PoS, and the config register.

The switch IOS image has a few quirks, but those quirks don't cause a problem. The image is generic in terrms of hardware. The interfaces are all Ethernet interfaces, with unusual numbering: E0/0 - E0/3, E1/0 - E1/3, and so on, up through E12/3. Any features that rely on hardware are not supported (for example, Ethernet autonegotiation), but most everything else should work, and work exactly like real gear with real IOS. Finally, in case you missed it earlier, the switch IOS image supports layer 3 switching.

Access to Cisco Learning Labs

To access your labs, you use a browser. You pay for the service, and establish a login. From there, each time you use the service, you start by logging in to a Cisco web site, where you will be authenticated. Once logged in, you see a list of labs, and a note about your remaining time.

Once you start a lab, the timer starts, and you see a topology diagram for that lab.  To access the console for a device, just click the icon for that device. The interface pops a window for telnet that connects to the console of that virtual device on some server in Cisco Land. Click another icon, and you get another telnet window to another device's console. Obviously, there's much more to it behind the scenes, but at this point, it's much like what you see in a Simulator or Dynamips: you have connected to the consoles of the devices.

To see it in action, take a look at this short video.

(Note: Formatting problems on video; I'll post a comment with a link when I get it fixed here in a few minutes.)

Topologies

In it's current state, the Cisco Learning Lab offering does not give you the ability to choose or set the topology. The lab you choose dictates the topology. Because the lab exercises come from the authorized Cisco courses, the topology matches the suggested lab topologies from those courses.

For example, the following figure shows a screen image from a VTP/VLAN lab in the ICND2 lab bundle. The topology mimics what you see in class - in fact, the diagram can be seen in the lab guide from the ICND2 course. However, in the course, the core devices are typically not accessible to the student, but in CLL, all the devices are available.

Lab Exercises

The labs exercises themselves come from the authorized Cisco courses. Cisco then modifies the lab exercises to make sense in the context of the self-study environment.

Wendell's Opinions

First, everything else earlier in this post was as objective as I can make it. Before giving my opinions, a brief full-disclosure: Cisco Learning Labs competes to some extent with the Pearson Network Simulator, and I get paid when that product sells. (I didn't create that simulator, but I wrote some labs, edited others, and consulted on the project.) 

Now some opinions:

Pros:

It's essentially a Version 1 service, and as such, it's a great start. We'll se how things progress as Cisco continues to develop the service.

It's a wonderful offering to go along with taking the Cisco authorized courses. The ability to go to a Cisco authorized course, and then go home and do the exact same lab exercises on a remote virtual lab pod, is a very useful tool. Tons of students in courses want to be able to repeat labs once the course if over. I hope Cisco Learning Partners start bundling these labs with their courses.

Real IOS, so no differences in output, command syntax, etc.

25 hours is probably enough to do all the labs at least once.

On that last point, a suggestion: Start the clock, view the entire lab (use the "All Questions" option), right click to save the doc as a web download. Take a quick screen shot of the diagram, and the get out of the lab to start the timer. Now you can take your time, read the lab, and get the most for your money.

Cons:

Showing core devices in a lab topology bothers me, but that's just a personal thing, I'm sure. I'm sure it's just a holdover from the usage of core devices in a course's lab pods (for example, 8 identical student pods interconnect through core devices), but I think those get in the way of learning for self-study folks.

The only way to get to the lab exercises to read them requires you to run the clock. I'm thinking that one might be easily overcome by Cisco, so stay tuned on this point.

It's not what we want, what we really really want. Huh? See this post.

Currently, if you get up and go away somewhere, and forget to log out, you're burning hours, because the timer doesn't stop. It's a technical thing that Ray tells me they're working on, but the solution that lets Cisco add an inactivity timer also causes some other issues. For now, be careful to make sure you logout when you're interrupted for more than a few minutes. Just make sure to copy run start on any device where you want to keep and config changes.

25 hours is probably enough time to do the labs that come with the service. It's not enough practice time for getting reading to pass the exams. (See the informal surveys with this blog post.)

Related Posts:

Cisco Introduces Cisco Learning Labs

Update on the Question of Cisco-Approved IOS for Self-Study

If Cisco Would Give Us Anything for Learning/Testing…

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