How to Build a Cisco Certification Lab in Three Parts

Along my journey from CCNA to CCIE, I had to go through the task of periodically building lab environments to give me hands-on experience.  This was especially critical in the CCIE Lab, which involved multiple devices, protocols, and tasks to complete. When I first began teaching CCNA courses, I came up with the idea of creating a scaled down version of a lab exam to assist with hands-on learning.

Everyone learns a little differently, but the general methods of learning are:

  • Visual: Involves the use of the eyes, including diagrams, reading, and printed materials
  • Auditory: Involves the use of the ears including lectures, sounds, and related materials
  • Kinesthetic: Involves the use of real-time hands-on learning

Everyone can learn using kinesthetic methods, but typically people favor either visual or auditory as a primary learning style. As a result, using either visual or auditory materials with hands-on learning creates a very strong and compelling learning model. This is yet another reason that I place a great emphasis on labs scenarios for technical training.

There are two primary phases to creating a lab for study purposes. The first is design, and the other is the actual physical assembly of the components. In some cases you may be able to create a multiple-use environment from the ground up, but starting with some idea of the goal in mind is a better idea.

Phase I: Design

The purpose of any design process is to create a specific type of outcome, usually related to goals. Knowing what technology and/or certification you want to get practice with can help decide how many resources you might need to assemble. For example, a CCNA-level lab may only require a handful of routers and one switch, where a Cisco Unified Communications Lab may require phones, servers, switches, routers, and so on. For our purposes, let’s just concentrate on a CCENT/CCNA level lab environment.

Creating anything turns out better with a design or blueprint, which is the exact terminology that Cisco uses when outlining their exams. Simplifying the contents of the CCNA (640-802), the requirements include:

  • VLAN, Trunks,  and Spanning Tree
  • Frame-Relay WAN
  • RIPV2, OSPF, and EIGRP Routing
  • IPV6
  • WLAN (administration only)
  • Access-Lists

Fortunately, even many older Cisco routers and switches are capable of supporting the requirements listed above, from IOS version 12.3 and later (my recommendation, 12.4 is far better). Even more to the point, the switching component(s) can involve less expensive Layer 2 platforms and be limited to just one or two. Translating this into specific requirements, the equipment list might look like this:

  • 4 Routers (2600 or above, with Trunking Support)
  • 1-2 Switches (2900XL, 2950, or newer)
  • 1 Frame Relay switch (can be a module in one of the routers)
  • 1 ASA-5505 (optional, for access)

In the next post I’ll walk you through the building process.

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  1. kelly Reply

    what about using cisco packet tracer to simulate your lab environment

  2. Joe Rinehart Reply

    You absolutely can, I created these types of labs to be usable on live equipment, GNS3 and Packet Tracer. I have been able to reproduce them in all three environments.

    – Joe

  3. Patrick Reply

    Having a home lab is a very helpful tool as you work on the Cisco tracks. If you are having trouble remembering or understanding a new concept with the visual or auditory learning methods, then you can surely help that process by adding in a kinesthetic aspect.

    Joe, I am having trouble reproducing layer 2 switching and frame relay in GNS3. Do you have any tips or aid tools on getting the IOS’s to load on switches in GNS3? The virtual environments full scalability and mobility would be nice to have.

  4. Joe Rinehart Reply

    First, you bring up a great point that I often point out, namely that there are there basic learning styles, with one typically being dominant:

    1. Visual: Learning by reading, observing, or other medium by virtue of the eyes.
    2. Auditory: Learning by hearing/listening, by lecture or other medium by virtue of the ears.
    3. Kinesthetic: Learning by doing.

    Everyone is capable of learning kinesthetically, but usually visual or auditory methods take prominence. Combining one’s primary style with a kinesthetic method is a great way to truly master a subject.

    Second, there are two parts to your question, namely frame-relay switching and LAN switching emulation. The first is simpler to answer so I will start there. In your GNS3 topology window, you drag the icon labeled “Frame Relay switch” to the center screen and either double-click or right click and choose Configure. At that point you will have an opportunity to build as many ports and DLCI’s as you need for the switch, and then create a serial connection to the switch. I have a sample topology that I can send you if you like.

    The second emulation is a bit more tricky, since Cisco switches rely on hardware ASIC’s (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) to perform switching tasks. You can either create an external connection to an actual switch (there are many tutorials online regarding how to do this), or you can use GNS3 to insert an Etherswitch Module into one of the routers and use that for your switch emulation.

    Make sense?

    – Joe