Generally vendors limit firmware access to customers who have active support contracts for their routers and switches. That leaves other engineers who want to develop their networking software skills outside of a production environment with very few options.
So these engineers have relied on emulation software like Dynamips for Cisco IOS and Olive for Juniper Junos. But both vendors either discourage the use or ignore the existence of these emulators. What's more, these emulators lack the features and functionality of a true Junos or IOS image, so they can only take an engineer so far in skills development.
"Dynamips has been of immeasurable benefit to the community, helping many thousands of current and future networkers achieve Cisco certifications and hone their skills," said network engineer Jeremy Stretch, who maintains a popular shared network lab. "But the platform and technologies it can support are quickly growing outdated. What we need are legitimate virtual lab products supported by companies like Cisco and Juniper offered directly to individuals."
In the meantime, “it's nice to see that, after years of watching the community rely so heavily on Dynamips and Olive, Cisco and Juniper are finally starting to acknowledge that there's a real demand for virtual training products,” Stretch said.
Until now the only alternative to emulators was building a network lab in your house with actual vendor hardware. This is expensive, time consuming and sometimes logistically insane.
"To take a CCIE exam requires three to four racks of equipment," said Mike Spanbauer, principal analyst with Current Analysis. "Most guys I talk to have two choices: Buy it all and put it together yourself or go to boot camp where they have all the equipment, which is itself a significant expense. Three racks in a house? I don't think my power panel could take it."
Cloud-based network labs are a first step
Cisco Learning Labs allows customers to buy time on software-based labs (25 hours of lab time for each 90-day subscription bundle) that are preconfigured specifically to meet the requirements of various certifications. The labs run IOS on UNIX (IOU) simulator software that Cisco has reportedly used internally for years.
Junosphere gives customers cloud-based network lab access to virtual instances of Junos, allowing engineers to build whatever topologies they need for testing and learning. Juniper charges $5 per virtual instance of Junos per day inside Junosphere. The Junos images run as virtual machines on servers in a Juniper data center.
"The big difference [between Junosphere and Olive] is that [Junosphere is] not actually an emulator. It's real Junos," said Judy Beningson, general manager and vice president of Juniper's Junosphere business unit. "It's compatible with the Junos that we ship on our hardware. It really takes it up a level from just doing a CLI emulation to really see what will happen when you configure a node and create a topology."
When engineers need more than cloud-based network labs
Cloud-based network labs are a good start, Stretch said, but network engineers need the ability to run an IOS or Junos image locally.
"I want a product that I can run on my workstation or server at home to build and manipulate virtual routers and switches with production-grade software as I please—just as I do today with Dynamips," Stretch said. "It will take significant investment and development effort on the part of vendors to get there, and I can appreciate that, but the benefits to both the vendors and the industry as a whole is more than worth it."
What's more, many believe that network lab access should be available to engineers other than students and those working toward vendor certification.
Currently Cisco is positioning Cisco Learning Labs as a product for engineers who are working within the company's various certification tracks. Juniper is initially marketing Junosphere as a network lab environment for universities that teach network engineering courses.
Neither vendor has directly said why they don't offer more open access to their software, but intellectual property concerns are probably at the top of the list, said Spanbauer.
"If you have the code portable, it's assured that it will be taken apart and it will be hacked. It's a concern of course with Internet routing," he said.
Network engineer Greg Ferro, a blogger at EtherealMind.com, said the software is already out there to some extent. "Olive already runs Junos. Everyone has a copy of the software already. What's the big secret?"
Ferro, who has petitioned for networking vendors to offer educational licensing for their firmware, said vendors simply lack the financial motivation to make their software more available to customers. The training divisions within Cisco and Juniper are offering cloud-based network lab services because they can make money from them. The enterprise side of the vendors lacks any motivation to get their software into the hands of prospective customers.
"What it comes down to is that the only department that can build a mandate is the training department," Ferro said. "And the only way they can justify the cost is to make money out of it. So they stick it in the cloud and bill for it. I think it's a budget problem. Who is going to pay for packaging and support? So it falls between the cracks and nobody does anything except the training department who can build a mandate."
Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor.