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Cisco Certification - Building Your Own Home Lab

Part I

CCNAs and CCNA candidates hear it all the time: "Get some hands-on experience". From my personal experience climbing the Cisco certification ladder, I can tell you firsthand that there is no learning like hands-on learning. No simulator in the world is going to give you the experience you will get cabling and configuring your own routers.

Whenever I mention this to one of my students, they always say it costs too much. The truth is, it is cheaper now to build your own CCNA and CCNP lab than it has ever been. The secret? Used routers.

The word 'used' turns off a lot of people; not many of us buy used computers or used servers. Cisco routers, though, are robust; I personally own a Cisco 4000 router that I use as a Frame Relay switch in my lab that I've had for about four years, and I've never had a problem with it.

The good news for current CCNA and CCNP candidates interested in building their own labs is that used Cisco equipment has never been more plentiful or cheaper. eBay is a good way to get an idea of what's out there and what the prices are, but you don't have to assemble your lab one piece at a time. Many eBay vendors who sell used Cisco equipment sell ready-made CCNA and CCNP labs for one price, including cables.

I asked one major vendor of CCNA and CCNP labs, www.ciscokits.com, what the most common questions are regarding building your own home lab. Here's what they had to say:

Why do I need real routers instead of a simulator?

You need a physical router as the simulators just don't have the ability to give you the 'hands on' you need to see what happens when you disconnect a cable or put a cable in the wrong location. You will come to find quite quickly that mistakes you make on Router 1 are affecting Router 5 all because you did not screw in a cable properly. No simulator can simulate that.

How many routers do I need?

Two routers really are required to see if anything works. If you have a very limited budget, you can receive value from only purchasing a single router over working with a simulator. However, you will not be able to see the main thing we are trying to accomplish. The propagation of route tables! The only way you can see if your configurations work, is to have at least two routers. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you purchase a dual router kit that comes with all the accessories you need. Otherwise you can spend days trying to find all the little extra pieces you need to get your lab up and running.

Do I need a switch?

Well, it is nice to have. However, with only about 2 questions on the test dedicated to 'hands on' switch knowledge, if you have to skimp on something, skimp on the switch.

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