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HOWTO: Gain Hands-on Experience for Your CCNA

The bottom line is that in order to succeed on your Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) exam, you need to have some practical experience with Cisco hardware under your belt. However, this truth presents a "chicken and egg" situation for many candidates; that is, you typically need an industry job to gain hands-on experience with Cisco routers and switches, but you need the CCNA to get the job in the first place! Read on, friends...

Even if you do already work in the IT industry, the very last place you want to "play" with Cisco router and switch equipment is on production hardware. Banish the thought!

Sure, you could theoretically purchase one or more Cisco routers and switches from, say, eBay. However, this simply is not a practical option for most candidates. The reason for the impracticality is that while having a single router is wonderful, this isn't going to give you the flexibility you require to know how routers (note the plural) work in business. Add switches to the mix and we are talking about a lot of money.

Therefore, I recommend that you look into purchasing a license for good router/switch simulation software. I'll also discuss router/switch emulation in this article as well.

The chief difference between a router simulator and a router emulator is that a  router simulator is a mock-up, or (dare I say it) a software simulation, of Cisco hardware and their IOS software.

You don't owe Cisco any licensing money when you use a simulator because the simulator is simply a Windows application that mimics the behavior of real Cisco equipment. That is, there is no Cisco hardware or software in play anywhere in the application.

There exist two main players in the Cisco simulator arena:

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have worked with almost all of the folks at Boson in the past, and maintain a casual association with them to this day. On the other hand, to date I have had no direct contact with the people at RouterSim.

Regardless of how this might sound to you, I formally recommend Boson's product over Lammle's. Believe me: I am a current CCNA, I have several years' experience maintaining live Cisco hardware, and I have evaluated both products extensively.

In my opinion, NetSim has much more "fit and finish" than does RouterSim. NetSim also offers a more robust IOS command set and greater overall flexibility and ease-of-use.

I get the impression (completely unsubstantiated; this is my personal opinion) that Mr. Lammle and his compatriots have so many active projects running concurrently that RouterSim does not receive the lion's share of their attention. It shows, in my estimation.

On the other hand, I can verify that (a) Boson has a team of crack CCIEs on staff; and (b) they put a great deal of "tender loving care" into their product. Cisco evidently agrees with my notions, because you'll find that many Cisco Press certification titles include a trial version of NetSim bundled with their books.

Now, what about emulation? Whereas simulators represent a software mock-up of proprietary hardware and software, emulators attempt to mimic, bit-for-bit, Cisco hardware behavior. Therefore, the idea is that you can run the real Cisco Internetwork Operating System (IOS) on an emulator and the IOS "believes" that it is running on actual Cisco equipment.

The leading product in the router emulation space is called DynaMIPS; there is also a graphical front-end for DynaMIPS available called DynaGen. Both of these are open-source projects.

Because DynaMIPS is an emulator, it actually runs Cisco IOS images. Therefore, using DynaMIPS provides the closest approximation possible to working in a "production" Cisco environment without actually doing so.

However, be aware (repeat: BE AWARE) that you must be licensed for any Cisco IOS images that you want to load into DynaMIPS. I would never condone software piracy in any way, shape, or measure.

I hope that you CCNA candidates out there might have picked up some useful information from this post. Best of luck to you!

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