One of the most difficult things in passing the CCNA exam is understanding what kind of equipment you need to build your own test lab. There are so many different models of switches and routers that you will quickly feel lost trying to make sense of all this, so I decided to write this post to avoid everyone the hassle ;)

I decided to divide this article in four main sections:

  1. Do you need a physical lab?
  2. How many physical devices should you use?
  3. What devices should you actually buy?
  4. What I decided to go for

Section three will be split into two subsections, one on switches and one on routers.

Do you need a physical lab?

For CCNA purposes, I suspect the answer is “no, you don’t need a physical lab”. I have managed to pass ICND1 (the first half of CCNA, for those of you who might not be familiar with the exam) using just Cisco Packet Tracer. However, I did miss the ability to work on the hardware every now and then, especially when dealing with serial connections, which I was not very familiar with.

I am sure you can pass the CCNA just studying with a virtual lab, but I decided to go for a physical lab this time to get some real hands-on experience before moving on and using tools such as GNS3.

In looking online for information about this topic, it seemed to me that most people were thinking that building a physical lab would become necessary once you proceed in the Cisco certification path, but they recommended staying virtual when you start. Honestly, I think these people have it backwards: to me, it makes more sense to start out physical, get some real world experience, and then move to a virtualized environment once you already know your stuff. Otherwise, you risk missing on lots of little details and you risk abstracting too much from the real world, which is something that I fear is going to bite you when you actually walk into a server room for the first time.

TL;DR: you probably could get by without buying some physical equipment, but if you have some money to invest, I personally think it would be worth playing with real gear.

How many physical devices should you use?

I have read a lot of different opinions about this. Honestly, they all kind of make sense, but the bottom line to this is simple: get as many as you can. This is a list of the most common topologies.

A single device

Some people recommend buying at least one router or one switch. I agree that having one device would be better than having none, so if you cannot afford a full lab but would still like to play with some real hardware, get at least one router or one switch.

Of course, you won’t be able to implement concepts like VLAN trunking or OSPF, but you will get an idea of what it means to deal with real Cisco equipment when it comes to configuring a single device.

One switch and one router

Now you can play with inter-VLAN routing, but anything related to IP route propagation will be out of the question.

Two switches and one router

Here you can also play with spanning tree and some VTP, but once again, no serious routing.

This is a very popular combination on Ebay (I suspect because the price of such a lab can usually be kept very low), but if you can only afford three devices, I would personally go with the next option rather than with this one (i.e. one switch and two routers).

One switch and two routers

More popular than the previous option, this one makes more sense to me. You are losing the ability to play with advanced switching concepts, but you can start applying some “advanced” routing topics such as static routes and OSPF.

This is a good compromise, I think, that allows you to play with a bunch of different concepts without breaking the bank buying real equipment.

If your focus is routing rather than switching (perhaps because you are already a switching guru), you could also think about replacing the switch with a third router, to get the benefits mentioned in the next topology (one switch and three routers).

Two switches and two routers

A very good middle ground, I don’t think I have anything more to say about this. With this topology you will be able to do most things and you are only going to miss some advanced scenarios.

Three switches and three routers

This is the best of the best for your CCNA study. With three switches and three routers you can do pretty much every lab recommended for the CCNA.

If you are serious about building a lab, and perhaps you want to move on and get some other Cisco certifications in the future, this is an option that might be worth considering in spite of the extra price.

What devices should you actually buy?

This is another million dollar question. There are so many Cisco devices that get regularly recommended online for labbing purposes that it’s very easy to get confused.

If you are anything like me, you would start looking for information about this and spend so much time doing it that you will start going in circles and coming back to devices you have already read about, and on and on.

This is a list of the most common equipment used for Cisco labbing, so you can hopefully make some sense of all of this.

Switches

There are generally 3 or 4 models of switch you want to consider for a CCNA lab: the 2950, the 2960, the 3550 or the 3750.

I won’t mention anything about the number of ports as that is largely irrelevant in this context, get the ones that one prefer.

TL;DR: if you only plan on doing CCNA, get the 2960. If you plan on moving on with the CCNP or CCIE, get at least a 3550.

Cisco Catalyst 2950

Cisco_Catalyst_2950_Switch.jpg

The cheapest switch option, available with both a Standard and Enhanced software image. The Enhanced image allows you to implement QoS and security filtering, but as far as my understanding goes, there shouldn’t be other major differences between the two.

Cisco Catalyst 2960

Cisco_Catalyst_2960_Switch.jpg

Not many differences from the 2950, but this is the cheap switch that gets recommended the most, probably because prices have become so low now.

They come either with a LAN Lite or a LAN Base software image. The differences are similar to the Standard and Enhanced images in the 2950, get the LAN Base one if you can.

Ultimately, there shouldn’t be many differences between the Catalyst 2960 and the 2950, but since the prices are so low now, definitely get the 2960 if you can find a good deal.

Cisco Catalyst 3550

Cisco_Catalyst_3550_Switch.jpg

We are talking about a totally different level of switch here if you want to up your game, as the 3550 is a L3 switch. You will not need a L3 switch to pass your CCNA, but I see this option recommended a lot if you plan on going further with your Cisco certification career. A L3 switch will be necessary for the CCNP, so if you know you are not going to stop at the CCNA, definitely consider these right now.

Cisco Catalyst 3750

Cisco_Catalyst_3750_Switch.jpg

I know what you might be thinking now: if the 3550 is already overkill for CCNA, why are you mentioning the 3750 here? Two reasons.

The first one is that, by looking for used Cisco equipment on Ebay, I managed to often find very good deals on the 3750s, which brought the price close to the one of a used 3550. At this point, if they are the same price, why not?

Second: it is my understanding that, while the 3550 supports PoE, it only supports a Cisco-proprietary implementation of it, so it might not work with other non-Cisco devices. The 3750, on the other hand, supports 802.3af which should make it compatible with a broader range of devices.

One little note about PoE: not all 3750’s support PoE, so don’t just go and buy one blindly if you need this feature.

Routers

There are quite a few recommendations when it comes to routers for a CCNA lab, but the most common ones are: the 2621XM, the 1841, the 2801 and the 2811.

TL;DR: if you want to only take your CCNA, get the 1841. If you want to move on with the CCNP/CCIE or if you want to go down the Voice track, get at least the 2801.

Cisco 2621XM

Cisco_2621xm_Router.jpg

Dual 10/100 router. Apparently it would work very well for a CCNA lab but I have found it quite difficult to get good deals of these, as many sellers seem to be phasing these out and offering 1841s instead.

Cisco 1841

Cisco_1841_Router.jpg

Another very popular option. Try to get the 256/64 option as this would support IOS 15.1, while the 128/32 option only supports IOS 12.4.

Cisco 2801

Cisco_2801_Router.jpg

Very similar to the 1841 but with two differences:

  1. It has four interface slots versus the two found on the 1841 (which might or might not be useful)
  2. It supports voice, while the 1841 does not.

Therefore, if you want to go down the Voice path, you should definitely get this.

Cisco 2811

Cisco_2811_Router.jpg

An improvement over the 2811, more available interface slots and it also supports Voice, and is usually recommended for the Voice track.

What I decided to go for

My CCNA lab. From top to bottom: 3750 switch, 2 3550 switches and 3 2811 routers

 

Personally, I chose to go for 3 routers and 3 switches:

  • 3 2811 routers
  • 2 3550 switches
  • 1 3750 switch

The reason for this choice is that I am curious about the Voice track and I have been thinking about it for some time now, so this combination should support all the features necessary to get started with the Voice track.

In addition to this, this setup should be good to be reused for an eventual CCNP.

Conclusions and summary

Ultimately, most of the confusion when it comes to building a CCNA lab, in my opinion, comes from one of two things:

  1. Not knowing how many devices to buy
  2. Not knowing which devices to buy

For point number 1, I have come to this conclusion myself: a good middle ground would be going for 2 switches and 2 routers. If you want to be able to do absolutely everything preparing for the CCNA, upgrade to 3 switches and 3 routers.

For point number 2, the situation is a little bit more complex, especially if you want to take other Cisco certifications and would like to make sure to have some hardware that can be reused rather than finding out in a few months that some device is not useful for what you will be studying then.

If you plan on taking the CCNA alone, you will be fine with 2621XM or 1841 routers and either 2950 or 2960 switches.

If, on the other hand, you plan on moving on to CCNP/CCIE or the Voice path, you should consider upgrading to 2801 or 2811 routers and either 3550 or 3750 switches.

This is what I have personally found out while thinking about building my own CCNA lab. How does your lab look like and what devices are you using to study?

Resources and additional reading