Building home labs for Cisco certs: what you need to know

Author Wendell Odom offers expert advice on the routers, switches and other gear needed for a great Cisco home lab.

Wendell Odom, Cisco press author, instructor and blogger was recently a repeat guest for Network World chat. Attendees asked him the best ways to build a home lab, which certs still have power in the market, and strategies for most easily passing the hardest exams. 

Wendell Odom, Cisco press author, instructor and blogger was recently a repeat guest for Network World chat. Attendees asked him the best ways to build a home lab, which certifications still have power in the market, and strategies for most easily passing the hardest exams. 

Moderator-Julie: Welcome to today's chat. Our guest is author and Cisco certification trainer Wendell Odom. His books include titles on QoS, CCIE R/S, as well as several titles related to CCNA certification, including the September 2007 book CCNA Official Exam Certification Library (CCNA Exam 640-802). He is also involved in the newly announced Cisco CCNA Network Simulator (which he'll tell you about). Wendell also writes the popular Cisco Cert Zone blog on Network World's Cisco Subnet.

Wendell_Odom: Hi, it's Wendell. Glad you could make it! Go ahead and ask questions or make comments!

Alfred: How will someone new to the CCNA purchase equipment for his/her lab?

Wendell_Odom: Well, the how is mainly in the used market, with eBay and craigslist being popular sites. But the "what to buy" issue is the bigger issue. I spent some time on it in my blog at Network World back in the fall. Generally, two routers, one 2960 switch, and cables, is probably a minimum for a good start.

Winol: Hi Wendell! I'm actually trying (very hard) to pass my CCNA. I'm also planning to pass some other professional certs in 2009. I'd like to know what is a good compromise between the CCNA and CCNP (or CCSP CCVP etc.). In terms of a lab, I know some 2950 with Standard and Enhanced IOS will still be useful, but what next? Thanks for everything.

Wendell_Odom: You need a pair of routers with at least two serial interfaces. You can get by with super cheap 2501s for a lot of the CCNA topics. If you're moving on to CCNP one day, 3640s, oddly enough, seem to be a good price/function combo. See my CCNP series in my blog for some of those tradeoffs.

Peddler: Do you need a static IP address or a dynamic IP one to build your lab? Which would you recommend?

Wendell_Odom: For the lab, you don't even need to hook it to the Internet, unless you want to access it while you're not at home. Privates are fine. If you're asking if you need a static address from your ISP to access your home lab while not there, I do it with Dynamic DNS, and use dyndns.com.

Jeff_Lieskovsky: Hi, Wendell. I have both of your books and a home lab made up of a 2950 switch and 2924 XL switch, two 3640 and two 2610 routers and a 851W borrowed from work. Is there some place where I can go to get practice labs or step-by-step instructions to practice play with my equipment?

Wendell_Odom: Jeff, if I had a spare year, I'd write one for every last cert that's popular. But I don't know of any great lab books for CCNA/CCNP or other professional level certs. There are tons for CCIE. Do you think such books would sell with labs for CCNA? The CCNP exams?

edohi: You gave the link to the blog post on the CCNP Lab Series. Do you have the URL to the CCNA Lab Series - Master Links?

Moderator-Julie: Yes, Wendell also wrote a series on building a CCNA Lab You can find a list of links for all of those posts here.

slandi: When thinking about home labs what are your opinions on software-based virtual labs and could you name some that might be viable? I have seen some of them, but they seem rather costly and was wondering if you had an opinion on them?

Wendell_Odom: Slandi, when you state "virtual labs," I'd put them in two categories: simulators and emulators. Dynamips/GNS3 is free, and runs real IOS. There are issues with that: router IOS only (kind of), little or time-consuming access to lab exercises. Simulators come with lab exercises, act like routers/switches, and have lots of labs. I'm working on a new Sim, so I'm biased - it has over 250 great CCNA-level labs. It will be out in the fall - the Cisco CCNA Network Simulator. I can't offer an unbiased opinion now that I have a stake, though!

Jim: I'm running 3640, 2505 and 2501 routers in my home lab, with three 2924 switches. Are the 2924s too old, and would you recommend the 2950 instead?

Wendell_Odom: Jim, the 2924s are old enough so that the command syntax differs from what you're likely to see on the exam. That said, Cisco de-emphasizes switch command syntax, instead asking you to interpret output more than worry about command syntax. Given the used prices for 2950s, if you have $300 to spend, I think it's worth it to buy one 2950 with the standard image. If you're working with $100-150, make do with the 2924s.

Winol: What do you think about Cisco 1603 as main router for CCNA Lab Wendell?

Wendell_Odom: Winol, I haven't looked too hard at the 1601 in the past, but my recollection is (take this with a grain of salt) that it'll do most everything you want for CCNA in a router. I think you'll miss a few items covered beyond either 12.3 or 12.4 IOS (mainline) - go to www.cisco.com/go/fn to look for such stuff with the feature navigator. From a price point perspective, I think the 2600s tend to be similarly priced today with maybe a little better longevity - but my memory's fuzzy there.

Moderator-Julie: Pre-submitted question: What are the typical things that users do wrong when creating home labs?

Wendell-Odom: I think they don't stop to consider what kinds of things they'll do with it once they get it. If the goal is a free-play space, the combination and number of devices is less important. If the goal is to use lab exercises from a class, book, Web site, etc, then that ought to drive the process.

Nathan: How important is having L3 switches in a home lab for CCNP?

Wendell_Odom: Nathan, it's my opinion, but for CCNP, it's not worth the money in a home lab. If you're going for the CCIE soon after, it probably is. Here's why: you can do most everything except the Layer 3 config with a 2950 with the standard image even. (One of my blog posts in my CCNP lab series hit this.) If you really want to configure it, you can get a switching Network Module for your inexpensive 3640, and the config (supposedly) is the same. I'd spend my money on 2950's today, or 2960's when the used price drops, and more routers, rather than an L3 switch.

Alfred: I have only covered CCNA 1 and 2. How should I approach CCNA 3 and 4?

Wendell_Odom: Well, you've got me there - that's more oriented towards the Network Academy - at least I think so from your question. In the past, 3 and 4 don't always equal the 2nd CCNA exam (ICND2 these days).

slandi: I am relatively new to the network admin field having some experience and I was wondering what is a nominal timeline for someone studying for the CCNA and having say 3-4 hours a day to commit to studying? Thank you.

Wendell_Odom: Slandi, it of course depends on from where you start. If you know nothing about any of the topics, and it's all self study, I'd guess it at about 150-200 hours of study. However, even if you know a third of it already, you could reduce it to 100 or less. That's a pretty general plus/minus 50% number, though.

joejoe: Can you recommend a CCNP online course vendor and a CCNP bootcamp vendor?

Wendell_Odom: www.skyline-ats.com. OK, end of commercial! Seriously, I'm affiliated with a learning partner (Skyline-ATS), so I can't be unbiased. The Cisco Web site lists all the learning partners. CCNP classes probably run regularly in the top 20-25 sized cities in the U.S.

ken: Has Cisco showed you any info about the new Voice and Security disciplines of the CCNA?

Wendell_Odom: Actually, I was writing the CCNA Voice book until I had to give it up due to other priorities. Short version for Voice/Security is that the coverage in each is similar, but not 100% overlap, with the most basic stuff in CCVP and CCSP. Cisco's posted some stuff. I'll have a guest blogger for the next week, and he's one of the CCNA Security book authors (Cisco Press) - watch for that. It'll start tomorrow.

PatriaEWR1: Do you recommend any vital sources for reading in detail how-to's -- like IP routing, IP NAT - Advanced, OSPF, EIGRP, security, not only on the routers but on the switches and other vital equipment, etc.?

Wendell_Odom: Boy, that's a fastball - my books! See www.ciscopress.com/wendellodom. Seriously, I did strive to put a lot more cookbook stuff in there this time around about how to configure various features. The CP books with "Self Study" in the title (there are several) are book versions of the courses. They can be good for how-to processes for various config topics.

johng: What are your thoughts on GNS3 (Dynamips) emulator that runs on the Cisco IOS? Thanks for all your support and guidance!

Wendell_Odom: Well, I think it's absolutely wonderful. Lots of Cisco internals even use it. It's a great tool. I think for those through the CCNA process can really benefit, since you have all the skills to really understand how to make it fly by that time.

ken: Do you think certs carry as much weight as they used to and what certs are showing the most demand now?

Wendell_Odom: I do think the Cisco certs value have diminished some over time. Seven, eight years ago, CCNA got you the interview. Today, you need at least some progress towards the next cert (maybe another CCNA or two today, or a few exams towards CCNP) to get that interview slot. As far as demand goes, I know Network World has articles on it from time to time. (Editor's note: See IT certification pay continues to drop - but some faster than others. Plus, visit the IT Careers page for all recent articles on certifications and training.)

Vito_Corleone: Wendell, my question has nothing to do with labs or training, gasp, LOL. Do you think the new CCNA certs will be valuable? The CCENT hasn't really done a whole lot for people.

Wendell_Odom: Vito, I'm scared to answer, given your name. ;-) Seriously, I think the new CCNA certs will be valuable. I think Cisco missed an opportunity with CCENT. Had they made CCENT the pre-req for the new CCNA's, rather than the old-CCNA, then that would've added value to CCENT. I think CCENT has minor value as an end to itself, but not for folks who want to work on Cisco stuff every day.

Moderator-Julie: While Wendell is working on more questions from you, here is another pre-submitted question and answer: Cisco has announced new CCNA certifications. Do you think these certs are a good idea? Are they necessary? How would they fit into the general cert scheme?

Wendell_Odom: I think these new CCNA certs make a nice fit. I think the sweet spot is for the generalist - I foresee a whole class of folks who instead of going for CCNP, CCSP, CCVP, etc, go for a quad-CCNA, and get all four of them. For those who want to be more specialized, it's a way to get another cert by passing an exam on material similar to what was formerly in the CCxP tracks.

Abdulmalik: Hello, Wendell. I have worked in the networking field for a number of years but I have no certifications. Do you suggest that I go to a bootcamp or just try my luck at the CCNA/CCNP exams?

Wendell_Odom: I think going for CCNA, given your experience, is the way to go. If you know at least a third of the stuff, that's a good dividing line. Sounds like you're more in the state of knowing more than half, and maybe missing stuff you haven't needed to think about. CCNP is more of a silo – e.g., if you're a campus guy, try BCMSN self-study, but take a class for BSCI. But, if the boss will pay for all of the classes, then go for it.

Jeff_Lieskovsky: Once you know Cisco, how hard would it be to work on Juniper Network equipment?

Wendell_Odom: Piece of cake - but that's from what I hear. I've not used Juniper. If you want to ask someone who's used both a lot, go to Cisco Subnet, and look for Jeff Doyle's blog - tell him Wendell told you to bug him about it! Seriously, he'll give you a balanced and experienced answer.

James: Wendell, any comments on the new CCDE certification? Especially compared with CCIE?

Wendell_Odom: Cool -- way cool -- too cool. I spent some time with the "practical" demo (don't call it a lab), and I think they're getting it right. The testing environment appears to have included enough controls to make scoring objective, while allowing for the inherent subjectivity of design. They still have some execution to finish, but I was in a room at Networkers with a lot of old folks like me, and the old 10-year-plus CCIE crowd was generally very impressed.

Alfred: I am a little confused when distinguishing between the Networking Academy, or taking an independent approach to the CCNA. I am new to the networking field and want to make sure I'm pointed the right way.

Wendell_Odom: The Networking Academy has four semesters of course material, and finishing that, you should have learned the materials covered on CCNA. When you wrote in your earlier question that you had "only covered CCNA 1 and 2" not 3 and 4, I thought you were taking the Academy courses. If not, CCNA requires either one CCNA 640-802 exam, or two exams (ICND1 (640-822 and ICND2 640-816). You can self study to take the exams, take classes, etc. If you want a class, Cisco has "authorized" curriculum and partners. For self study, go to www.ciscopress.com, and click on CCNA self-study resources – or even post me something on my Network World blog.

Moderator-Julie: Here's another pre-submitted question: Besides Cisco certs, what other networking or security certs would you recommend?

Wendell_Odom: Well, I tend to live in the Cisco world, so take this with a grain of salt. I think that the SNIA storage certs tend to have some good pull these days, and maybe CWNP wireless certs. It certainly seems that SSCP has a pretty good rep.

joejoe: What's the best way to obtain a CCNP after CCNA?

Wendell_Odom: I think CCNP has opportunities for saving $$ by self study and prudently taking a course or two. If your job makes you spend time on routers, or switches, or security, etc, you can pick an exam or two that's probably quicker to pass by reading/practicing rather than taking a course. For the topics for which you get little hands-on at work, take the courses. If you do well with immersion - I think that works better in general for younger folks - a bootcamp can get you a long way in a week. But in the end, "best" probably depends on your skill set coming in and your current job.

Alfred: How should I prepare for a certification? Where should I start?

Wendell_Odom: The best place to start, in my opinion, is to go to www.cisco.com/learnnetspace. That's a learning community from Cisco, covering CCNA, CCNP, and others. It has lots of introductory material, study aids, advice, and a place to ask questions. I'd spend a few hours just poking around there. Once you start to get your head around what the particular cert's about, then you can start looking for resources - study guides, lab gear, videos, etc.

Jeff_Lieskovsky: Would someone with any cert start out with A+ then move to Network+ or just moved into the CCNA at the start?

Wendell_Odom: I've looked at Network+ enough to see that there's some overlap. Certainly, having Network+ helps prepare you for CCNA. Frankly, though, CCNA has become much tougher cert over the years. It started out as covering one five-day course's worth of material, and now covers two five-day course's worth. I know plenty of experienced folks who've made lower scores on the CCNA exams than on the CCNP exams. (I know there are more factors there - that's anecdotal.) But I think the two-exam path to CCNA (ICND1 exam, then the ICND2 exam) is a great path to start, bypassing Network+. Particularly if you want a job with more than 20% of it on network stuff, go ahead and jump into CCNA with the two-exam path would be my advice.

Moderator-Julie: Pre-submitted question: Under what circumstances should someone enroll in a class to study for a hard cert as opposed to self-study with books?

Wendell_Odom: Interesting question. I think that if you had two certs to get, and one was harder for you than the other, and only had $$ for one class, take the class on the harder cert. However, generally speaking, I tell people that if you measure your current knowledge versus what's required for a cert, and you know less than a third, then taking the class may be more time efficient. If you're past the one-third mark, it starts to get to be as time efficient to do self-study. That's just Wendell's reading of how the wind's blowing, though, nothing scientific there.

Wendell_Odom: Well, the moderators told me to do a quick promo before the end of the chat. The new CCNA Network Simulator I'm working on a new simulator, CCNA 640-802 Network Simulator (Practical Studies). will be out this fall. After that, I'm not sure what the next project will be - maybe some time off!

jchin: I need to re-certify my CCNA. What are the major differences between the old CCNA Exam (640-801) from three years ago and the new CCNA Exam (640-802)?

Wendell_Odom: Less OSI. Less navigation trivia. IPv6, deeper on OSPF and EIGRP (e.g., authentication), more on concepts with security and wireless. It didn't lose a lot (your old resources probably still apply), but they've done much better at testing all CLI stuff using Sim and Simlet questions.

joejoe: How do you feel about brain dumps? Some argue Cisco makes the exams so difficult brain dumps are justified.

Wendell_Odom: Feel? I think brain dumps should be avoided at all costs. Personally, it bugs me that people would purposefully use brain dumps to get ready for the test. I wasn't a fan of "word" (aka copies of old exams) in college, either. Didn't seem fair or right. If the reasoning is that the exam is too hard (and I don't think they are), then we ought to be begging Cisco for better resources to prepare. Maybe I should dig harder when creating my own products so that people prefer to use them, rather than use brain dumps.

Winol: Will the CCNA really open the doors of networking jobs? I mean is it really easy to get a job as a CCNA?

Wendell_Odom: Winol, To be honest, I don't think getting CCNA is going to get you a job, at least in the U.S. Getting CCNA, plus skills/certs in other areas, is important to landing the job as the IT generalist for a medium sized company - someone who's the server guy, the voice guy, the network guy, and the storage guy. I think that for a network-centric job, i.e., 50% plus is network-oriented, you'll need CCNA plus experience, or at least good progress towards CCNP/CCVP etc.

Moderator-Julie: Our time is up! Thank you all for coming and thank you, Wendell for being out guest.

Join us for these upcoming chats:

2 - 3 p.m. ET, Wednesday, July 30 Implementing WAN acceleration with Jim Metzler

2 - 3 p.m. ET, Tuesday, July 22 Network Access Control Face-Off: Joel Snyder versus Richard Stiennon (very cool -- two high level security pros will argue the pros/cons of NAC).

As always, no registration is necessary for chats. Just login at www.networkworld.com/chat/ at the appointed time. Feel free to post a question in advance, too.

Wendell_Odom Thanks ya'll! See you in the blog.

If you enjoyed this chat, you might want to check out other chats about Ciscohttp://www.networkworld.com/chat/archive.html

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Cisco Networking Simplified with Neil Anderson

LAN switch security: What hackers know about your switches with Christopher Paggen

Wendell Odom: Everything you need to know about Cisco certifications

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