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Building A Cisco CCNA / CCNP Router Lab:

A Beginner's Guide

By Chris Bryant, CCIE #12933

CCNA and CCNP candidates alike should be practicing on real Cisco routers and switches as often as possible. There is no simulator that gives you real-world practice for your Cisco CCNA and CCNP exams that's as good as working with the real thing. No piece of software works exactly like a Cisco router or switch. To truly learn Cisco CCNA and CCNP skills, you've got to work with real Cisco routers and switches in your own Cisco lab, or by renting remote access to a pod of Cisco routers.

The first reaction to the "build your own Cisco lab" suggestion was "It costs too much." That argument has long been dead, because you can now put together a Cisco lab of used Cisco routers and switches that cost a fraction of what brand-new equipment costs.

Don't be afraid of the word "used" when it comes to Cisco routers and switches. Cisco routers are among the most robust networking devices you'll ever use, and when you buy from a reputable vendor, you should get some kind of guarantee that the router or switch will run for a certain number of days with no problem. Over the last five years, I've spent well over $25,000 on used Cisco routers and switches and have only one router finally die on me. I've got a Cisco 4000 router running in one of my labs right now that has been serving as a frame relay switch for well over six years with no problems at all.

A recent argument is that you've got to buy expensive Cisco routers for your lab, that you must have "the latest and the greatest". While it's a good idea to have a recent IOS version running on the routers, Cisco 2500 routers are perfectly serviceable in a home lab.

Spend A Little, Earn A Lot - Your CCNA Certification

Your CCNA certification training is all about learning the basics. If you enable OSPF on a $100 router and a $500 router, they're going to work exactly the same if the IOS version is the same. It's the IOS version that really matters for CCNA training and CCNP study, not how recent the router is.

Look at it this way -- you're really just renting Cisco routers and switches. Let's say you spend $500 on a home lab, earn your CCNA certification, and then decide to sell the lab. Let's say you get $350 for it by selling it on eBay or back to the vendor you bought it from. You basically rented your own Cisco lab for $150 - a pretty good deal!

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Here are some other common questions that CCNA and CCNP certification candidates ask about putting together their own Cisco lab:


 Why do I need real Cisco routers instead of a simulator? 

No simulator can show you what happens when a cable is disconnected or one is put in the wrong location. A vital part of your CCNA training and CCNP certification exam study is troubleshooting, and it's hard to learn how to troubleshoot a "simulated router". You also have to get used to dealing with an unexpected result - I hate to break it to you, but Cisco routers and switches don't always work the way the books say they do. : )

 How many Cisco routers do I need? 

While we can always use more Cisco routers in our lab, you can actually get some good routing practice in with just two routers connected via a switch and via their serial interfaces. (You'll need a DTE/DCE cable for directly connecting routers at their serial interfaces.)


 Do I need a Cisco switch?

A Cisco 2950 switch is particularly affordable these days; any IOS-based switch is a major plus to your Cisco lab.


Which Cisco routers should I buy?

It truly depends on your budget, but anything from the 2500 and 2600 Cisco family is a great choice. If you plan to have a frame relay switch in your Cisco lab, make sure to get a router with at least four serial interfaces - you'll be glad you did. Plan ahead for ISDN practice as well. If you plan on buying an ISDN simulator, make sure you purchase routers with BRI ports. If you plan on renting access to a remote Cisco CCNA or CCNP rack for ISDN practice, you can skip the BRI ports.


Also, if you plan on practicing router-on-a-stick, you'll need a router with a Fast Ethernet port.


There are few "right" or "wrong" answers to this question, but if you purchase a Cisco switch, make sure it has an IOS, since IOS-based switches are the switches currently tested on the CCNA certification exam.


For the CCNP, check the exam requirements carefully before spending money on a home Cisco lab - make sure the IOS and memory are sufficient to run the features you need to practice with, such as ISIS, IPv6, and multicasting.


When considering what routers and switches to buy for your Cisco lab, whether it's for the CCNA or CCNP certification exams, remember that you're really just renting the lab. When it's all said and done, you have the CCNA certification and/or CCNP certification and the confidence that comes with working with real Cisco routers and switches. That's confidence that no amount of money - or router simulators - can buy.


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To your success,

Chris Bryant

CCIE #12933



Copyright 2006 The Bryant Advantage. All Rights Reserved.

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