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SolutionBase: NetSim network simulator software works great for certification practice and review

Boson's NetSim network simulator comes cheap, yet still offers many features that a CCNA or CCNP candidate can use to pass those tests. This review points out some of the special features that make NetSim such a good buy.

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Boson has been developing simulator software for about four years, and the current release of its NetSim product shows that the investment in time and money was well spent. Boson's NetSim has one of the widest selections of simulated equipment aside from Gambit's Cisco simulator. And for the price, no one else offers anything close to NetSim's features. My following review of NetSim explains all the simulation software features you get for a miserly $150 to $250.

NetSim versions

There are two versions of NetSim. There is a current version called Cisco CCNA Network Simulator v5.00, which is also packaged and sold by Cisco Systems as part of its CCNA training material. This CCNA version is $150 and offers a credit to the full version if you decide to upgrade at a later date. In late July 2004, there will be a new CCNP version released called Boson NetSim for CCNP v6.00. This version will have the full feature set that allows coverage of the CCNP track and will support, to a degree, the CCIE track. The big difference between the two versions is the advanced commands (such as routing protocol BGP) will be supported and enabled in the CCNP version. Boson is also offering upgrades to anyone with V5.x of its NetSim product to the new version 6.

The following are sample labs included with NetSim version 5.00:

  • Introductory labs such as using debug, the Command Line Interface (CLI), and configuring the router
  • Moderately complex labs such as ARP, static routes, protocols, and PPP with CHAP
  • VLSM labs to practice your TCP/IP subnet skills
  • VLAN labs such as configuring VLANs and routing between VLANs
  • VTP labs to explain and demonstrate what VTP is and how to configure it
  • Loopback labs
  • Routing Protocol labs including RIP, IGRP, and OSPF (BGP in the CCNP)
  • IPX labs
  • Frame Relay labs
  • Access List labs, both Standard lists and Extended lists
  • ISDN labs
  • Labs needed to meet the Cisco CCNA and ICND requirements

System requirements

The system requirements for NetSim are pretty light considering what is going on in the background. The basic requirements are:

  • Windows 98, Me, NT4, 2000, XP (non-server product)
  • 20 MB of disk space
  • 64 MB of RAM
  • 800 x 600 screen resolution
  • Active Internet connection (for registration)

My testing was conducted on Windows 98, Windows 2000, and Windows XP Pro operating systems. While 98 will work with NetSim, it is slow in regards to response time. The platforms used were an older PIII 800 with 576 MB of RAM and a new P4 2.8-GHz with 512 MB of RAM. NetSim does require Microsoft MDAC 2.8 to be installed, so you might have to download the components from the Microsoft Windows support Web site.

Using the NetSim interface

There are several ways to use either the CCNA or the CCNP NetSim product. One way is to work through the various labs that are included. The second way is to design your own labs and network configurations. Another unique feature of the NetSim product is that you can also use third-party telnet clients. These clients include TeraTerm, Absolute Telnet, Telnet 2000, TinyTerm, among others. In Figure A, you can see TeraTerm being used as the telnet application. This method can be very helpful since TeraTerm can be configured to log the entire session, so you can go back and study everything you did, step by step.

Figure A

You can use TeraTerm as a telnet client to work in NetSim.

In Figure B, you see the complete NetSim workspace with a Network map loaded showing two 3600 series routers and a 3500 switch. You can also see the two open telnet sessions.

Figure B

This screen shows the Expert mode where the majority of users will be the most comfortable.

NetSim features

There is a feature of NetSim that sets it apart from virtually all of the other simulators with the exception of Gambit's MIMIC and eRouter. NetSim uses a technology called Virtual Packets that creates packets to be routed and switched within the simulated network. This feature allows NetSim to build a virtual routing table for each protocol and gives flexibility to the CCNA far beyond the standard simulator fare.


Note

Virtual Packets requires opening up loopback address 127.0.0.1 on personal firewalls such as ZoneAlarm and allowing Telnet Port 23 access to the loopback network. I used Kerio's Personal Firewall on one of the test systems and, once I configured NetSim as a Trusted Network, no problems arose. The printed manual gives instructions for configuring Norton Personal Firewall and ZoneAlarm.


Some other notable features include:

  • The ability to use canned labs or to build your own and save them for future use.
  • The option to load in real router configurations, which is handy because you can save the configurations without having to save the entire lab. When you mock up a solution for a real world problem you can load the saved configurations into your equipment.
  • When you are in a telnet session, you can use the hot key combination of CTRL-Q and bring up a terminal server so you can quickly shift among all the different devices.
  • When you configure a device like a 3600 series router, you can pick and choose which cards will be put into what slot. The hardware configuration is dynamic, so you can match existing hardware or work with different configurations.
  • When using the CLI of the router or switch, the newest version of NetSim has corrected a known issue whereby the ^ symbol did not match up with the error on the command line.
  • Unlike some other products, this product is not vendor specific where you can only use certain labs or books.

Upcoming features

One of the benefits of being a technical writer is that software developers like to tell me what they are working on next. In the case of NetSim's development team, they are busy to say the least. Take a quick look at some of the features due out in the coming months for NetSim:

  • Boson NetSim Lab Compiler – This will allow teachers to write and compile their own labs into the NetSim framework. These labs can be distributed to the students or posted to a Web site for downloads. This would also open things up for something like a "CCNP Challenge" where you could post your own lab and people would come up with a solution in a timed manner.
  • Packet Logger – This is a network sniffer that allows you to detect packets on the NetSim network. This feature will open up a lot of possibilities from the networking perspective into how packets work. This is a very exciting development and should be out in September 2004.
  • There is also a new classroom management package that allows the instructor to remotely access the student's lab and help troubleshoot the student's problems.

Final thoughts

During my testing of NetSim, neither the CCNA or CCNP products locked up or crashed the test systems. The Windows XP system I used is a complete mess of applications and, if anything has a chance of crashing, it will on this system. However, NetSim loaded up fine and worked without a fuss.

For the price, the NetSim product is offering a tremendous amount of value to the CCNA and CCNP candidate. And with some of the new features that have been added, it becomes a network designer tool where you can make a change to a network before you actually touch a console. The included labs are high quality and cover everything that a candidate needs to know to pass the CCNA and CCNP certification tests. With the exception of my Windows 98 client, the responsiveness of NetSim has also been improved from previous versions. With the new features coming out shortly, I would recommend NetSim for any network engineer, whether that engineer is working on a Cisco certification or just needs a tool to help manage and troubleshoot existing networks.

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