A common question we get from CCNA students is “Do I really need a CCNA Lab to pass the exam?”. This is a great question and you can slice and dice the answer in a few different ways. I will answer this from my own personal experience as an instructor who has delivered the CCNA course multiple times and also as a manager to an IT department that had over 35 LAN admins reporting to me doing everything from first level desktop support, to Citrix, VMWare and Cisco routing, switching, wireless and VPN support.
So to answer the question if you really need a lab to help you pass the exam really depends on your experience with Cisco equipment and technologies. For someone who has an extensive Cisco background and have administered Cisco routers and switches for years and this is your primary daily responsibility; you may not need to have your own lab. But even that is debatable. We have a lot of admins in our network operations center that are only there to monitor the switches, routers and links for failures and other alerts. So are those admins really going into the devices and making configuration changes daily? No, so that type of admin may not actually be getting the experience that would be needed to help prepare them for the CCNA exam. They may also be doing physical router or switch swaps under the guidance of a senior network engineer who is the one who really did the configuration of the device.
So again they may not be getting the hands-on that they really need on a repetitive basis to cement the command syntax and level at which they are executed. For instance as you may know there are certain OSPF commands that are executed at the global configuration mode such as a process ID and you will enter some other OSPF commands at the interface level. So what you will see on the exam is where they may show to you the command to set bandwidth metrics but the answers will be displayed both at a global and interface level. Now you will have to pick not only the correct syntax of the command but also the correct level it should be applied at. That is one of the ways Cisco tries to trip you up. So by having the ability to practice all the commands over and over and over is super valuable. As you will get to the point where you can say in your head that you will want to create an EIGRP environment using an AS of 10 and you will be able to in your head you will be able to instinctively be able to configure all the routers, know that you have to set the AS on each device and know how to configure each interface without even referring to a book or configuration!
So how will you get to that point in your studies? It will be by repetitive practice in your home CCNA lab following the lab manual that you have. But what about simulators? Aren’t they good enough? Well, here is my thought on simulators…If you have no other options due to budget or such will a simulator work? Yes, it will do a lot of what real routers and real switches can do. Will it do all of what real routers and switches can do? Absolutely not!
From a learning perspective, simulators do not allow you to make many of the common mistakes you will make the first few times you touch a router or switch model that a simulator will auto-correct or not allow you to do. So how do you get that sort of experience with a simulator? You just can’t. That is why a real lab adds so much to your CCNA studies. So how about a real world example that you might come across? Sure. Let’s say you have a Cisco 2620XM router and a Cisco 1841 router which you are trying to configure the T1 interface on. You have done this time and time again in a simulator and it always works flawlessly. But with this *#@^! )%# real equipment you can’t get the stupid thing to work. So after about 6 hours of trying to figure it out, kicking the dog and yelling at the kids and your spouse you decide to take a break. You end up calling your buddy who has been mentoring you and he quickly asks you to read the model number of the card off to him. You tell him you have a WIC-1DSU-T1 for both and you have tried switching the card, slots, etc and you just can’t get them to work. Then he calmly tells you that the 1841 model requires the version 2 flavor of that card for the 1841; so you need one WIC-1DSU-T1 and one WIC-1DSU-T1 v2. So once you get one, magically the two can communicate and everything is good again in the world. Another quick example is you have all your routers connected together but for some reason you keep losing the links between RouterA and RouterB. Why is that? Well you have to do some investigation. You see the interface is down and the line protocol is down. Now it depends on if you have a Ethernet link or a Serial link to your approach there (and I won’t do into all the nitty gritty details), but let’s just say that the simulator does not react the same way that real routers and switches do and that is the point. We want you to really learn the content to not only pass your exam, but also to have the real world skills to keep a job. As those students who cheat by looking for a brain dump site or such may be able to bluff their way through the hiring process, but will stumble when they are actually asked to install and configure a module in the 2911 router.
Wow, so we covered a lot so far. But to illustrate another point that I lightly touched on above, you do not want to get through the hiring process and then when the network operations manager asks you to install a module and configure a router for production to freeze up. If you have never seen a real router or worked on one you might feel a bit intimidated by it. So this is another great reason to have your own CCNA lab so you can practice these things and gain confidence for real world tasks you will have to do when you are hired to perform network administrative tasks.
Finally as a talking point during your interview, it is always great to take the opportunity to tell the hiring manager how you built your own home lab. Step him through the various labs you completed and how you eventually ended up integrating the components from your lab into your home network. As a hiring manager I am always looking for motivated associates who I do not have to babysit. Those who take the initiative to build their own lab are the ideal candidates I like to hire. It shows their desire to further their education and that they are willing to invest in themselves. Those are the best kind of associates to have in your organization as those willing to invest in themselves are the ones that are going to be your future network administrators as they grow in their career.
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