Whether you are pursuing a networking certification or just developing your skills, a good home network lab can really help boost your network engineer resume.
But building home network labs isn't easy or cheap.
"It's a lot of work putting a lab together," said Brandon Carroll (CCIE #23837), an instructor with Cisco learning partner Ascolta. "The money is a huge factor. You can get some of [Cisco's] older stuff. You can buy kits for CCIE labs on eBay or on some exchange sites. But if you want to get equipment that's current, it's really expensive."
What you need in home network labs
The basic building blocks of home network labs will depend on which skills and/or certifications an aspiring engineer is aiming for, as well as which vendor's equipment is needed.
"You need something that's going to give you console access so you don't need to move the console cable all the time. And you need a server for the console," Carroll said. "For basic routing and switching, you need at minimum a [Cisco Integrated Services Router] 1800 series, if we're talking in terms of Cisco. [However], the [ISR] 2800s are going to give you a lot more of an ability to add cards to it as you grow out the lab, so you can add WAN interfaces and voice interfaces. You're probably going to want some switches, the [Cisco Catalyst] 3560s if you want to keep current with technology. They're a little older but probably cheaper, and they'll get most of the job done.
Router emulators can also form an essential part of a home network lab, but vendors don't make them easy to get. The Cisco IOS emulator Dynamips and the Juniper JUNOS emulator Olive are both well known, but they aren't officially supported by their respective vendors. There appears to be no legal way to get access to the source code needed to build one of these emulators, yet they exist. Carroll said startup Arista Networks is the only networking vendor he knows of that provides a free version of its operating system, EOS.
Emulators can also be a problem because of software bugs, according to freelance network engineer Jeremy Stretch. "The worst thing for me is seeing someone doing something correctly in the lab with Dynamips, then they run into a bug and think they're doing something wrong when it's really just the software," he said.
Network engineers who are pursuing advanced network certifications like the CCIE might consider slightly outdated equipment to save money, said consultant Scott Morris (CCIE #4713), who over the last 12 years has built one of the biggest home network labs around, with four full racks of Cisco and Juniper routers and switches.
Lower-end, older Cisco routers have about 80% of the features that one needs to learn for the lab portion of the CCIE certification. Morris said an engineer could rent some lab time from a training company to learn the other 20% of what he needs to know.
How to afford home network lab gear
Most networking pros will fill their home network labs with used equipment from sites like eBay – but they must study the market or they could get duped.
For one thing, equipment prices can vary by vendor, according to Devin Akin, chief Wi-Fi Architect at Aerohive Networks. Cisco is the highest-volume vendor, so there will always be plenty of older Cisco gear in the used market. Newer equipment with the latest features will be more pricy, and equipment from smaller vendors will be harder to come by and probably more expensive as a result.
When looking at the used market, network pros should beware of people who charge inflated prices, Morris said.
"You can find a whole lot of ASA [Cisco Adaptive Security Appliance] 5510s on [eBay]," he said. "A lot of people will put jacked out prices on them so it makes it look like everyone is getting high prices. Make sure you check around to see what items have actually sold for. Look for completed auctions and what the final selling prices are. You'll find that a lot of people who want $4,000 for an ASA 5510 aren't even selling them. Don't be afraid to contact the seller and ask for a lower price. The worst they can do is laugh at you."
A large bulk purchase of equipment can also result in relatively lower prices if you have the capital on hand and know how to work some subsequent deals, Morris said. For instance, he fitted his lab for a slew of Juniper routers and switches by buying a package of used equipment from a seller who didn't want to break up the sale. He spent $100,000 up front on the gear, then he turned around and sold off pieces that he didn't need. In the end, he just about broke even, getting a rack of Juniper gear nearly free of charge.
Network engineers can also work their connections to find equipment that might otherwise be tossed out, Akin said. He built his first home network lab years ago using a bunch of Cisco 2500 routers that his then employer, BellSouth, was throwing away.
"The routers were slower than Christmas, and they didn't want them," he said. "So I asked if I could have them. I had a whole rack of them, and I could simulate big environments even though it was slow."
Another time, he heard from a friend at a local university who was ripping out a Cisco network and replacing it with a Foundry network. He convinced the school to give him some of the equipment in exchange for a promise that he would donate it to charity after he was done.
Shared network labs are an option if you can find one
For those who want to build a network engineer resume without spending a lot of money on a home network lab, generous friends and benefactors are another option.
Jeremy Stretch shares his home network lab with just about everyone. He's set up a very popular community lab through his blog PacketLife. The lab consists of a mix of six Cisco 1800 and 2800 series routers, four Cisco Catalyst 3550 and 3560 switches, and a pair of ASA 5505 firewalls.
"It started out when I wanted to create a lab for myself to pursue a CCIE," Stretch said. "Initially, it cost $5,000 for the hardware, and it seemed a waste to have it sit there for the 23 hours a day I was not using it. So I looked for ways to make it available. It wasn't until I contacted OpenGear, who donated a console server, that I got it online."
Stretch wrote a scheduling application and an authentication gateway and opened up his lab to the public. In any given week, users from all over the world book time to access the lab via SSH or Telnet. He doesn't charge money for access to the lab, but he does accept donations to help pay for new equipment. Recently, he received enough donations to buy a new Catalyst 3560 to replace one of the older 3550s.
Sharing his lab gives Stretch "a sense of giving back to the community," he said. "I got an email from one guy a couple of weeks ago who was apologetic about missing his reservation. I found out it was because he didn't have any power. He was in Iraq, and he was emailing me from a laptop that was running on battery power. He was so happy to be able to have this lab, which he simply couldn't get in Iraq. It was cool to see how far-reaching it's been."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor