Hardware or Software?
I’ve written before about how I think you should build a real Cisco lab and have plenty of “hands on” time before you even think about taking the CCNA exams, but the unfortunate reality is that a home lab simply isn’t an option for many people.
Fortunately, if you fit into that group, there are a number of simulators (and emulators) available either for free or at a reasonable cost.
“Cisco Packet Tracer is a powerful network simulation program that allows students to experiment with network behavior and ask “what if” questions. As an integral part of the Networking Academy comprehensive learning experience, Packet Tracer provides simulation, visualization, authoring, assessment, and collaboration capabilities and facilitates the teaching and learning of complex technology concepts.”
If you’re enrolled in Cisco Network Academy, you’ll spend plenty of time using Packet Tracer. Packet Tracer is Cisco’s own simulator (designed specifically for Network Academy students). It’s available to “all Networking Academy instructors, students, and alumni” for free from the NetAcad site. It comes with a wide variety of virtual labs to work through to help solidify networking theory.
CCNA Network Simulator
One of the CCNA books that I recommend is the CCNA Official Exam Certification Library by Wendell Odom. Also available is the CCNA Official Exam Certification Library, Simulator Edition that includes a simulator which “lets you experience realistic network device response as you work through more than 3,000 hands-on tasks in three different types of labs (skill builders, configuration scenarios, and troubleshooting scenarios). Each lab includes detailed instructions, topology diagrams, hints, full answers, and complete explanations.”
Cisco Learning Labs (a.k.a. Cisco IOU)
Cisco Learning Labs go beyond the Cisco simulator Packet Tracer by enabling virtual access to actual CCNA, CCNP, and CCIP practice lab bundles that are powered by Cisco IOS Software on UNIX. For the first time, Cisco labs are available for both routing and core switching features, giving you the practical experience that is desired to boost your knowledge and confidence before taking your Cisco certification exam.
I’ve dedicated a page just to the Cisco Learning Labs and Cisco IOU software. You’ll definitely want to check out IOU, especially if you’re handy with Linux.
Dynamips is a software application that as written to emulate Cisco routers. It runs on all popular computing platforms and emulates 1700, 2600, 3600, 3700, and 7200 series routers by directly booting the same IOS software that runs on the routers themselves.
I’ve also dedicated a page just to Dynamips and a complimentary application called GNS3.
If you’re don’t have access to real Cisco equipment and aren’t able to build a Cisco lab, you’ll definitely want to look into one or more of the applications I’ve listed here. My personal favorite is Cisco IOU but that requires a bit of Linux “know how” (if you’re handy with a terminal, you should be fine). If your Linux skills are lacking a bit, then definitely check out Dynamips. It runs on Windows, OS X, and Linux.