Make configuration a snap with the Cisco Network Assistant

Are you familiar with the Cisco Network Assistant (CNA), a free tool that helps you configure Cisco devices? David Davis introduces you to this handy tool and compares it to its predecessor, the Cisco ConfigMaker.

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.