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Sharpening your network skills -- Hands-on wins hands-down

When studying networking, theory and practice should go hand-in-hand.

Would you let a doctor who had only studied books, attended classes, and dissected cadavers operate on you? Of course not. "Theory and practice need to go side-by-side," said Bernd Grohmann, CTO for Alentis, an online business-to-business marketplace uniting ASP buyers with ASP sellers ( "In addition to a solid, up-to-date theoretical background, you expect hands-on experience, and a lot of practice. Ultimately you look for the same in a network professional."

In today's fast-paced IT world, though, there isn't enough time or staff to provide one-on-one mentoring. So to avoid risk to the production network, many companies have turned to simulation training. "If the subject is hardware related, I personally don't believe simulation is a good option," Grohmann continued. "It's better to work with the real hardware in a good simulated 'environment.'"

Today, real-time, hands-on training using real hardware and software in "live" network scenarios is available over the Internet. "Using this self-paced model, network professionals can experiment without the fear of crashing a production network," said Greg Long, founder and General Manager for Mentor Technologies (, a company that provides $3 million worth of the latest Cisco routers, switches, voice networks, and servers for "students" to play with. "And if the system does crash, you can press the 'Reset' button and start over."

A Cisco partner, Mentor Technologies offers a full range of on-line labs that prepare network professionals for the CCNA, CCNP, and CCIE certification tests. In addition, the company recently released modules for Windows 2000 and NT technology.

"Some people will take a lab on a need-to-know basis so they can solve a real-world problem the next day," Long continued. "Most people begin by trying to solve the problem on their own. If they're stumped, they can request some ideas about an approach or they can ask for a step-by-step walkthrough."

Individuals can purchase most one-hour labs for $65 each. Companies can purchase licenses, allowing individuals to take classes and trainers to incorporate hands-on practice into classroom instruction.

Linda Gail Christie is a contributing editor based in Tulsa, OK.
This was last published in November 2000

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