Cisco offers the Cisco Network Assistant (CNA), a free tool
that helps you configure Cisco devices in Cisco’s line of products for small to
midsize businesses (SMBs). While you may think that a tool targeted at SMBs may
not necessarily apply to you, keep in mind that what Cisco terms as “small
to midsize” can actually be a pretty large enterprise, at least in my
opinion.

This tool is free, and you can download it from Cisco’s Web
site
. CNA supports everything from small to midsize routers, Catalyst
switches up to 6500 series, PIX firewalls, IP Phones, and wireless access points.
According to Cisco, CNA is ideal for businesses with up to 250 users.

However, I don’t really understand how the number of users
on your network determines which router configuration tool you need to use. (Perhaps
if you have more than 250 users, Cisco suspects you have a large network
management budget and would rather sell you a tool.)

For my organization’s network of 1,200 users and 70 sites, the
CNA tool fits very well. In fact, the tool supports many more high-end Cisco
devices than we’ll actually need anytime soon.

In some ways, CNA has taken the place of the Cisco
ConfigMaker, a free tool you can download from
Cisco’s Web site
. Cisco has officially discontinued ConfigMaker and no
longer supports it or has plans to upgrade it.

ConfigMaker was a very handy tool—and still is if it
supports the devices you use. In fact, one TechRepublic member told me how much
he likes and still uses it, which actually prompted my research on this topic.

ConfigMaker still works great for configuring the basic
features on the most common Cisco routers out there, typically the 2600 and
3600 lines. The downside to ConfigMaker is that it can only create static
configurations (based on what you tell it) and download them to the routers.

Click the Figure A
thumbnail for a sample screenshot of ConfigMaker.

Figure A

But as time passed, users began to expect more from a
network management tool than what ConfigMaker had to offer. They wanted to be
able to get real-time information from the router about its status and
interfaces. They wanted the software to create the proper configuration—based
on the router’s current configuration—and apply that configuration immediately.

And this is where CNA starts to shine in comparison to ConfigMaker.
ConfigMaker’s biggest limitation is that it doesn’t support any new Cisco
devices, and that’s why it will become less and less useful over time.

After using ConfigMaker for some time, I’ll admit that I
didn’t have very high expectations for what CNA had to offer. However, I was actually
very impressed with CNA. It offers amazing functionality for a free tool.

In my case, I wanted to configure a Cisco 3550 switch, which
ConfigMaker doesn’t support. While I knew I could use the command line, I was
curious to see which GUI tools were available. Click the Figure B thumbnail to see the basic Web interface I encountered when
going to the switch.

Figure B

Clicking the Web Console link takes you to the 3550 Device
Manager, which is very nice for a Web-based management interface. (Cisco has
enhanced this interface greatly over past versions.) Click the Figure C thumbnail to see a sample screenshot of the Cisco 3550 Device Manager.

Figure C

In addition to the Device Manager, I can use CNA as a
management alternative. Click the Figure
D
thumbnail to see an example of what CNA looks like when using it to
manage a 3550 switch.

Figure D

CNA offers many features and wizards, and it provides much
more real-time information when compared to ConfigMaker. For example, click the
Figure E thumbnail to see a real-time
performance graph of port utilization.

Figure E

David Davis has worked
in the IT industry for 12 years and holds several certifications, including
CCIE, MCSE+I, CISSP, CCNA, CCDA, and CCNP. He currently manages a group of
systems/network administrators for a privately owned retail company and
performs networking/systems consulting on a part-time basis.