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Cisco Modeling Labs, a network simulator with real IOS router images

Cisco Modeling Labs is a network simulator that uses real IOS images. Engineers can design, test and troubleshoot networks in software.

Cisco released a software-based networking lab that allows engineers to design and test networks virtually before deploying them in the real world.

Unlike illicit IOS emulators of the past, like Dynamips, Cisco Modeling Labs is a network simulator that uses real images of Cisco's IOS operating system. The lab provides a virtual environment where engineers can model and simulate networks using virtual images of Cisco operating systems IOS, IOS-XR and IOS-XE. Engineers can deploy the lab on a local server and connect to it via a client application. Cisco is promoting the lab as an environment for designing new networks and troubleshooting existing ones.

"In the world of servers, [systems] engineers have the luxury of being able to run a virtual machine on a server or even a laptop and test out different scenarios," said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst for ZK Research, based in Westminster, Mass. "You don't really have that in networking."

Given the historic lack of a network simulator based on real-world network hardware, most engineers have to build a physical network in a lab to test configurations and experiment with new topologies. But their employers are often unable to afford the capital and operational expense of maintaining such a lab, Kerravala said.

In recent years, Cisco and Juniper have offered cloud-based networking labs, but engineers had to pay by the hour for access. With Cisco Modeling Labs, engineers can deploy the software in-house and use it as much as they want. Engineers can purchase one-, two- and three-year subscriptions based on the number of virtual nodes they want to use in their simulations. A base subscription includes 15 nodes, and engineers can purchase expansion packs.

Cisco Modeling Labs: A local network simulator

When configuring routers on a wide area network, engineers have limited options for visualizing the overall architecture. And if they want to add a new routing protocol to the network, they lack the tools for projecting how that protocol will behave on the network. With Cisco Modeling Labs, engineers can configure a virtual network and simulate how those configurations will work in the real world.

"Network engineers are used to connecting router by router. And there are some tools that show connectivity," said Nour Abu Sheikh, product manager at Cisco. "But how do I look at it from a protocol perspective to help me better visualize and look at the solution from end to end? How can I model traffic patterns in this new solution?"

In a demo for SearchNetworking, Sheikh showed how an engineer can drag and drop routers into a simulated network and point and click their way to a network topology, turning different interfaces, protocols and features on and off rapidly to simulate how these configurations will behave. Engineers can export configurations from the lab to the production network once they are sure the design is ready.

Engineers can also import configurations from a production network to the lab when they want to troubleshoot real-world problems, Sheikh said. And Cisco Modeling Labs can interoperate with third-party products. Engineers can insert virtual images of other networking technologies -- such as a Brocade Vyatta virtual router or a Cumulus Linux switch operating system -- into the software lab. Or, engineers can also connect Cisco's lab to a physical lab containing third-party routers and other devices, Sheikh said.

Cisco is initially offering router simulation in the modeling lab, but plans to add its entire network software portfolio over time. Cisco Modeling Labs is available now.

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