Image of Jeremy L. Gaddis, CCNA, CCNP (and Cortney, in case you were wondering)

CCNA Lab Equipment

by Jeremy L. Gaddis

Hardware or Software?

That is the question, and it’s one that is often debated.

Let me say this and get it out of the way: I believe, very strongly, that you need to devote some “hands on” time with real Cisco gear before you even begin to think about taking the CCNA exams.

During the course of your study, you will no doubt find someone who has passed the CCNA without ever touching a real piece of Cisco networking equipment.

Recall, however, what Cisco says about the CCNA exam:

Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) validates the ability to install, configure, operate, and troubleshoot medium-size route and switched networks, including implementation and verification of connections to remote sites in a WAN.

How can you be possibly be certified to “install, configure, operate, and troubleshoot” a real network if you’ve never even touched a piece of the equipment!?  In my opinion, you can’t!

Building a CCNA Lab

With that in mind, what kind of equipment do you need for your lab?

The last time I checked, the official recommendations for Cisco Network Academy labs was a minimum of three Cisco 1841 routers and three Cisco Catalyst 2960 switches. If you were building a lab for home and buying new equipment following these specifications, you’d quickly go broke!

Luckily, there’s a great “used gear” market out there. Others are constantly buying, upgrading, and selling their home labs as their certification goals change or are achieved. Since early 2008, I myself have built one home lab, sold it all, built a whole new home lab, and sold part of that.

If you do an eBay search for “Cisco”, you’ll likely find hundreds of used routers and switches up for sale. eBay is a great place to find reasonably priced Cisco equipment for your home lab, but make absolutely certain that you read Jeremy Stretch’s Tips for Buying Lab Gear on eBay before you spend a dime.

What Not to Buy

Before we get started on the details, let me quickly point out some equipment that you should avoid.

First, avoid any gear with “XL” in the model name. This would mostly be switches like the Cisco 2900XL and 3500XL series. These will work, yes, but they are OLD. I have literally thrown these things in the dumpster. You can get them real cheap (for good reason), but for just a few bucks more you can get switches that will serve you much better.

Next, avoid any 830, 870, or 1600 series routers. Again, this equipment is old and you can get much more value for your dollar.

Note: If you’re new to the Cisco world, you probably won’t have any idea whether a certain piece of equipment is a good deal or not. All of us have been there at some point and are usually happy to help out. Feel free to ask me or make a post on the Networking Forum soliciting advice. (You’ll find details about the Networking Forum on the CCNA Sites and Tools page.)

The Basics

With that out of the way, let’s discuss what you should be looking for.

One thing to think about is your future plans. Do you intend to obtain the CCNA and stop there? Or do you plan to continue on towards the CCNP or perhaps even the CCIE certifications?

If you simply intend to earn the CCNA and go no future, your needs will be very modest. Look for good deals on 2600XM series routers (note that there are also non-XM models) with lots of flash memory and RAM. You’ll need that to run the latest version of the Cisco IOS software possible.

At a minimum, you’ll want three routers. This will allow you to connect them in a “triangle” and see the effects of dynamic routing protocols such as RIP, EIGRP, and OSPF.

What about switches? You should be looking for at least two Cisco Catalyst 2950 series switches. These come in 12-port and 24-port models (and a few have a couple of extra Gigabit ports) and support nearly everything that will be covered on your CCNA exams.

The basics I mentioned are just that: the basics. If you really can’t scrap up the money for even that, at least get one router and one switch. You won’t be able to do a whole lot, but you will be able to see the boot process, run password recovery, play with configuration registers, and other things that you just can’t do in a simulator.

Is There a CCNP or CCIE in Your Future?

If you think that there’s a possibility that you may pursue either the CCNP or CCIE certifications after earning your CCNA, we need to make a minor adjustment or two.

First, pick up at least one Cisco Catalyst 3550 series switches. These are one type of what are referred to as “layer three switches” — in a nutshell, they are switches that can also route. You’ll need them when you begin studying for the switching portion of the CCNP exams, so you might as well get them now. The 3550s can do everything the 2950s can do, and then some.

If you initially buy 2950s and then decide that you want to “move up” to 3550s, that’s fine too. You can sell the 2950s to someone else who is just starting out, then put that money towards some 3550s.

The same 2600XM series routers will work for CCNP too. You may want to look into getting a couple of 3640 series routers as they support a few extra features and have more flexibility (with regard to the available “expansion slots” and network modules). I have and use both 2600XMs and 3640s in my lab.

Luckily, as I mentioned before, there exists a huge “gray market” for Cisco gear. If you find later that you need to “upgrade” your home lab, you can easily sell your existing routers and switches and put the funds towards gear that’s a little more “high end”.

My Cisco Lab

I have a mix of Cisco 2600XM and 3640 routers and Catalyst 2950 switches that I use when writing content for this site. There are a total of five routers and three switches that I use, in addition to a Cisco 3620 router (with two NM-4A/S network modules) configured as a frame-relay switch and a Cisco 2511 console server that saves me from swapping cables around all the time.

There’s more equipment laying around my home office that I may occasionally hook up if I really need to, but that’s pretty much it. If you can build a similar home lab, you’ll have everything you need to successfully practice all the topics covered on the CCNA exams. Most of the equipment I have is several years old, proving that you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to build a lab that will serve you well.

If You Really Can’t Afford Any Equipment

It’s unfortunate, but I hear quite often from people who simply don’t have the extra money to spend on real equipment. Many times they are unemployed or underemployed and are pursuing certification in order to find a better job or earn a higher salary.

If you absolutely can’t afford anything at all (remember, even one low-end router and switch will be extremely helpful to you), there are still some options.

You may have a friend or two who is in a similar situation. Perhaps you can “chip in” to purchase some equipment and share it. As an added benefit, you can study together and help each other out!

Depending on where you are geographically located, there may be to find a Cisco User Group in your area. Many times they hold their own classes to help other members attain their certification goals and some of these folks may even allow you to borrow their equipment or share it with you. Make sure to soak up all of their knowledge that you can as well!

There are several companies that rent out time on their own “racks”. You’ll find that most of these are “CCIE racks” and contain anywhere from six to nine high-end routers and (usually) four high-end switches. These racks will contain everything you need to practice the labs on this site (and more!), but unfortunately they can be quite expensive. As I write this, one popular company is renting out eight-hour sessions on their CCIE racks for $35 USD.

There are other companies that rent out “CCNA racks” which contain less equipment and, as a result, cost much less. You can find some of them using Google, but since I have never used any of them personally I cannot make any claims as to whether they are worth the money.

If none of these options are available for you, it’s still your lucky day. Jeremy Stretch, the man behind the awesome Packet Life website (which you’ll want to bookmark), has compiled an amazing collection of networking equipment (mostly by paying for it out of his own pocket) into the community lab and made it available for anyone to use for free.

I’ve met Jeremy in person and he’s an awesome guy and providing a huge service to those seeking to expand their knowledge. Sessions on the community lab are in high demand (as you might have guessed) and “subject to availability”, so don’t think you’ll be able to use it for hours every day.

If you do decide to make use of the Community Lab, be absolutely certain that you completely read through the Community Lab FAQ and make sure you understand the rules.

If you break the rules, don’t be surprised when you find that you can no longer make reservations or access the lab. I’ve seen him block abusers several times. Above all, remember that you’re being allowed to borrow to someone else’s stuff and that he can take that privilege away anytime he wants.

Summary

It is my personal belief that the best way to solidify your knowledge and skills in preparation of the CCNA exam is by spending as much “hands on” time as possible with real equipment. Thanks to the gray market, used Cisco routers and switches are available for very reasonable prices.

If none of the above options are suitable, there are simulators available. I’ve compiled a list of CCNA simulators with details on each. If real Cisco equipment isn’t in your future, simulators are the next best thing. The two you’ll be most interested in are Dynamips/GNS3 and Cisco IOU.