Building a CCNA lab, Part 1

So you decided to pursue a Cisco cert, and you're just getting started. If you have to go the self-study route, one of your early tasks will be to find/scrounge/buy some gear so you can practice all the features covered on the exams. The problem is that when you're starting to prepare for an exam, you may not know enough about the technology to make good decisions about what to buy - and by the time you know enough to confidently purchase the lab, you've gone well past the date by which you would have wanted to have a lab handy for practicing. (See what your peers are pursuing this year on last Monday's post.)

Well, I promised to spend more time on practical helps for passing Cisco cert exams this year, so I intend to do a series on how to build a lab for some of the more popular certs. I'll start with CCNA and CCENT, and probably look at either CCNP or CCVP following that. (I'm willing to take requests.)

Briefly, a few disclaimers. I'll make some observations about what could and should work, with caveats. However, I may miss something, so the advice comes with a disclaimer that these are just opinions, and your results may vary. OK, on to the details!

I'll address the following aspects of your choices with the lab over the next several posts, as follows:

  • Router hardware options and choices
  • Router IOS options and choices
  • LAN switch options
  • Comparing lab packages

For routers, you've got several options, but assuming that cost is a major factor, you could look at 2500 series routers, 2600's, and 1800's, listed in oldest/cheapest to newest/most expensive. Today I'll look at 2500's, and then get to the 2600's and 1800's next time. Regardless of model, you'll want your CCNA prep routers to have (at least) 2 serial interfaces, and at least 1 Ethernet interface or some flavor.

2500's have been around since dirt, and for a long time have been one of the most popular model series for building home CCNA prep labs. The pros are that many models have 2 serial interfaces and one Ethernet (10Mbps) interface, which meets most of today's needs for interfaces. In fact, the 2501 model is relatively popular on Ebay even today. The most important pro for 2500s for exam prep today is the low cost - I just checked Ebay, and you can find some with "buy it now" prices for US$20 or less - making it a ridiculously-cheap option. While they won't support every IOS feature you'd want to see, you can try out most of the router commands related to both CCENT and CCNA, assuming you have the right IOS version and feature set.

On the con side, 2500's are so old that Cisco stopped selling it in the 1990's, and they are not supported anymore - meaning that Cisco doesn't bother offering the latest IOS images for the 2500 series. (However, you can get IOS 12.3 mainline, which is current enough for CCNA - more on that when I hit the IOS topic in a later post.) If you're buying routers expecting to use them for other certs down the road, 2500's maybe simply be too old to consider. Also, the 2500 series Ethernet interfaces are 10 Mbps Ethernet, with no support for LAN trunking. The physical Ethernet interfaces use a DB-15 connector - requiring an external transceiver (buy it now prices around 10 bucks on Ebay.)

So, if you want cheap lab to just try things on routers, ignoring switches, and cheap is the absolute first priority, just to get real-hands on with the core router commands for CCENT and CCNA, you could buy:

2  2501's (2 serial, 1Ethernet)

2  Ethernet external transceivers

2  crossover serial cables

2  power cables (frequently included with the router)

2  crossover Ethernet cables (or straight-through if you have switches available)

1  console cable and connector

The most common topology for this gear would look something like this:

Based on a quick look at Ebay, you could score all these for roughly US$100, and be ready to learn. You could get by with 1 serial cable, and with one Ethernet cable and 1 PC as well. However, before rushing out to buy, stay tuned for my next post, where I'll compare this option to using 2600's and 1800's in my next post, so stay tuned!

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