When it comes to building a test network, you always want to make sure you’re getting the most for your money. I recently wrote a column explaining how you can easily build a low-cost test network to obtain hands-on experience while pursuing certification. Many TechRepublic members responded with questions, tips, and other advice. Their edited comments, and answers to their questions, appear below.
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For great customer service, call Gateway
While Gateway has placed increasing emphasis on the consumer market in recent years, TechRepublic member RWahl said that the company is an excellent source for corporate equipment.

“In my opinion, one of the best [vendors] I’ve dealt with is Gateway. When machines are ordered, they arrive in good shape and, more importantly, on time. In addition, their customer service is exemplary.”

What happens if a Gateway component fails?

“Just call their customer service line,” RWahl said. “The person you talk with is always knowledgeable and friendly and committed to helping you solve the problem. If you find that a replacement part is needed, they send it right away. The help desk staff is required to tell you that a part can take three to five business days to arrive, but in my experience, it’s usually to you the next day. They also provide the shipping label to send the failed part back, at no charge to you.”

Can you ask for more than that?

Can you make do with a single vendor?
Often, an organization’s size makes it inevitable that multiple vendors must be used. You have one vendor for desktop systems, another for routers, yet another for servers, and countless others for software, cabling, and other equipment.

Sometimes, though (and especially if you’re just setting up a network for practicing certification objectives), a single vendor can meet all your needs.

Timotheus said, “Instead of deciding to focus on a single producer, we focused on a single distributor. Our choice was Compulink Research.”

Is he happy with his choice? You bet. Instead of having to worry about maintaining records for repair and customer service personnel at several different vendors, Timotheus has only to place a single call to Compulink. That’s particularly valuable to Timotheus, since his organization is located in Russia.

Should you save money purchasing no-name brands?
If you’re preparing to purchase systems for a test network, you won’t want your certification studying interrupted due to faulty motherboards, bad hard drives, or other temperamental components. This is especially true if you ever press your test network equipment into production service.

MQAdams, who maintains networks and systems for universities, said he’s used a variety of products “from the obscure all the way to IBM,” but he now professes a brand loyalty that’s driven by necessity: “Due to the hundreds of machines that I must single-handedly maintain, computers that give problems cannot be tolerated. I now buy only Dell.”

Of course, Dell equipment typically costs more than many other brands. But, the old axiom that you get what you pay for often proves true. That’s why you keep hearing it.

Many other members wrote in to boast of superior service and equipment they received from local vendors. While it may take time, and a few lunches, to develop a relationship with a local reseller or computer services firm, the rewards can be handsome.

Must you buy new?
I once met a financial services agent who refused to purchase a new car. Instead, he’d buy upscale used cars. Thus, I often found him driving a three-year-old Lexus for the same price as a new, fully loaded Chevy. Of course, he never had any trouble with the Lexus.

You might find the same strategy works for you, too. Although, instead of searching used car lots for a sleek IS 300, try surfing the Web for reconditioned computer systems. You can even try auction sites. One TechRepublic member, Antoine, mentioned hitting Egghead and eBay for such units.

Component specifics
I received many questions regarding which components are best. For example, is Linksys a good choice for fulfilling DSL routing options? Why use removable drives instead of dual-booting? Why use an Ethernet hub or switch instead of simply using a crossover cable to connect two machines? Which keyboard/video/mouse (KVM) switches are best?

The first question is a little more difficult to answer than the others, but I can speak from personal experience. I’ve found the Linksys Etherfast Cable/DSL Router to be one of the greatest peripherals I’ve ever purchased (and I purchased it at full freight entirely unsolicited by the vendor).

If I’d used a crossover cable instead of purchasing the Linksys router/firewall/gateway/switch four-in-one unit, I couldn’t have easily added a third computer system when I purchased it late last year. Further, I wouldn’t have been encouraged to gain the first-hand experience I now have working with network address translation (NAT). I also wouldn’t have relative assurance that my home network is safe from intruders, while still enjoying broadband Internet access. And a hub or switch provides the ability to add additional machines and devices to your network in the future.

I prefer multiple drives and using removable drive bays over dual-booting for several reasons. I purchase cheap hard drives, which means they’re usually 6 GB or smaller. It’s easy to fill them up quickly using just a single operating system. I’ve also seen Linux plaster itself over Windows files, and vice versa.

You’re using this network to prepare yourself for certification or systems testing, which probably means unanticipated things will happen. Thus, it’s best to keep test data segregated on different drives. Plus, I’m a fan of the fdisk method of recovering from perplexing Windows and other OS issues.

Installed Linux with Gnome instead of KDE? Don’t worry about trying to find each and every required file and dependency. Have a corrupt registry? Just fdisk the drive and start over.

I can reinstall the OS easily, allowing systems to be returned to normal operation more quickly than if I tried to find and fix every minute registry entry or Linux file that was missing or corrupt.

I’ve long been in the habit of storing data files on a separate partition or drive. Whether you dual-boot or swap drives for each OS, you should always keep your data files separate from your OS when you are working a test network.
If you haven’t installed a second hard drive in a test system, consider purchasing a 4-GB hard drive on eBay or another auction site. For a small fee, you can enjoy 4 GB or more of nothing but storage (and backup) space. Simply configure the hard drive as a slave, mount it in your machine, and use it for storing everything from patches, utilities, and documents to other files you create and download from the Internet.
It’s critical to have first-rate KVM switches. There’s nothing worse than spending more for a fancy mouse or monitor only to find the KVM switch doesn’t support the device’s full functionality.

Be sure to purchase video cables that are well shielded. Ensure that the KVM is compatible with the operating systems you’ll be using. Also verify that the KVM supports the brand and model of the mouse you’ll be using.

I’ve always purchased Belkin KVMs, both at home and in the office. However, I don’t buy Belkin cables. Instead, I buy Microwarehouse and CDW house brands. I haven’t experienced any trouble with these bargain cables.

Several members also commented that the minimum requirements I recommended were too high. While no members claimed it was overkill, a few commented that less overhead is required to run Windows 2000. They’re right. However, I wouldn’t want you purchasing equipment now that becomes obsolete when Windows XP is released later this year. Therefore, I believe the minimums stated in my previous article are the best to use.

Eckel’s take
Don’t forget the purpose of a test network is to give you hands-on experience learning new systems and software. You’re bound to run into configuration issues, and the troubleshooting experience you’ll gain will only help you become a better engineer, administrator, or technician.

I did receive one e-mail from a TechRepublic member that said he didn’t find the article’s test network information helpful. He’s earned MCT, MCP, MCP+I, MCSE, A+, CNA 3, and CNA 4 certifications. But, he did add an important point.

“Amen to building networks and getting hands on,” BHales said. “I have run into many problems that I never would have if I went to a class. These problems give us invaluable experience that can’t be gotten out of the books.”

He recommended beginners read the column. “It didn’t help me, but your message has been invaluable.”
What kind of machines and components are you going to use? We look forward to getting your input and hearing your experiences regarding this great topic. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.