A common question many students have as they start their Cisco journey is whether or not they need to have a home lab. This is actually a great question and if you ask 10 different people you will probably get 10 different answers. But I will try to give you my perspective on it as a veteran of the IT field and also as a hiring manager at a Fortune 500 company.
First you can never go wrong in investing in yourself and your career. Second, if you really want to be proficient at routing and switching you are going to have to get your hands dirty actually doing what you are learning through reading your CCNA Study Guide or watching CCENT or CCNA based CBT videos. So the answer to the question should you have your own Cisco home lab for your certification studies? Absolutely!
Now some people will say that you can get certified using GNS3 or PacketTracer. I won’t debate that they are some tools that can be used. But what we are talking about here is actually preparing you to get a job so you can work on Cisco routers and Cisco switches day to day and get paid for it! Passing the exam is only step one.
Without digressing too far, my personal opinion on GNS3 or PacketTracer is they are good in two different scenarios. The first being that you do not have any budget for a lab. If that is the case, that is fine. You can use a those tools to help prepare. But then I have to wonder how will you afford the $295 exam fee to take the CCNA certification exam? As if you are tight on cash, you can put together a low end kit that will give you invaluable hands-on experience and cover probably 80% of the exam for a few hundred dollars. Aren’t you worth that?
The second scenario they are good for is more along the lines for the experienced CCNP or CCIE candidate. They already have the basic hands on experience and they may need to simply recreate one scenario which would be very expensive. In those sort of cases a router simulator is fine.
However, for the aspiring CCENT or CCNA candidate, let me ask you a question. If you were a hiring manager and you are interviewing 5 different associates for your level one network operations position. They all have their CCNA certification. One of them obtained their CCNA by brain dumps (yes, as hiring managers we can tell by asking you a few simple questions if you used a brain dump site to pass your exam or if you really know the material), so he is out. Two others took the one week instructor led class which is in essence a CCNA boot camp. Again, we know they throw tons of information at you and you do get some good hands on, but they use a bunch of memorization techniques and teach to pass the exam; not necessarily to drill the information into your head for you to retain the information long term. So I would not rule them out, but I would really ask them a lot of technical questions to see what they retained as most of the time it is very little. The next two people self-studied the materials. One did it using a simulator like GNS3 or PacketTracer and the other did it by building their own home lab.
They both spent about 3 months reviewing the material. They both did all the same labs and know the material inside and out. But where you will see the value of the kit is when you ask the two about real world scenarios like why will a WIC-1DSU-T1 work in my 2610XM router but it does not seem to be recognized in our Cisco 1841 router as according to Cisco’s website the card will work in either. That is where as you are putting you lab together you will find out things like the 2610XM router supports the WIC-1DSU-T1 v1 module and the ISR 1841 router supports the WIC-1DSU-T1 v2 module. So there are tons of example of scenarios like that or if have a 1841 256/64 router that goes down and you have two replacements that are available; a 2801 router and a 2811 router. You are running IOS 15.1 Advanced IP Services so you will need to have upgraded DRAM in the router but both the 2801 and 2811 routers came with the stock amount of memory. What do you do? Well, since you have experience with real routers from your home lab, you will know that the 1841 and the 2801 routers use the same DRAM but the 2811 does not. So you will pick the 2801 router as your quick fix and transfer the memory from the 1841 to the 2801 and you are golden! Something tells me you would not know any of that from a simulator.
Finally, as a hiring manager we are always looking for the next star employee. We are looking for people who are self-motivated and willing to invest in themselves. Not those we have to hand hold. So buy building your own lab, you show a potential employer that you are willing to take the steps to better yourself, invest in yourself and those are the types of associates that are willing to go the extra mile during the day to day activities you will encounter in work. So during your interview, take the opportunity to speak to how you took the initiative to build your own lab. How you felt it was a good investment and talk about what you learned by spending time in your CCNA lab. These are the things that will set you apart from all the other potential job candidates! Best of luck in your Cisco career!
If you are wondering how to build a CCENT or a CCNA home lab. Check out these CertificationKits CCENT & CCNA Lab Suggestions and Kits.