If you’re interested in pursuing a Cisco certification or you’re hoping to land an IT job that includes managing Cisco networking equipment, you must get hands-on experience with Cisco equipment. It’s as simple as that.

This experience is easy to obtain for network administrators and engineers who configure Cisco routers on a daily basis, but if you’re not in that sort of position, obtaining hands-on experience can be challenging, to say the least. For example, most people don’t have access to a rack of test routers and switches at their job. Most of us can’t afford to purchase thousands of dollars of Cisco equipment as part of our certification pursuit. You may be fortunate enough to have your employer send you to a Cisco class, but after the class is over, how do you reinforce what you’ve learned and practice for your certification exam on real Cisco equipment?

That’s where online Cisco rack rental providers come in. Over the last few years, many Internet-based companies have begun to fill this niche market. Most of these services cater to CCIE candidates, since they are the most demanding in terms of equipment required to prepare for their exams, and they tend to have a budget set aside for hands-on learning. With all of the competition in the Cisco rack rental business, the prices for these services have dropped to rock-bottom levels. I have put together a comparison chart that you can download that looks at the prices of the various vendors.

Comparing the features
Besides the price of Cisco rack rental vendors, you should also consider the customer service of the company, the features and configuration of the rack, and the value-added services that the company provides.

When you are using a rack service, you may have a problem or question with the rack at some point. Most rack rental services provide, at minimum, an e-mail address to contact. Even better, some services provide a pager number or a phone number to call. While the company will not help you with your studies (at least not without an extra charge), it should help you with the basic rack connections. For example, you might think there is a hardware problem with a cable or have trouble connecting to a router or switch on the rack.

Certain providers will have better documentation on using their racks. And various providers offer remote, network-accessible power units that all the rack devices are connected to, thus allowing you to remotely power the routers and switches off and on if you run into trouble—without waiting for someone to call you back. Some companies provide better service than others. I have used some, but not all, of the rack services listed in my comparison chart, so I did not compare service levels. Besides, service levels can be erratic and experiences are subjective.

You should also take into consideration the features and configuration of the rack. This is especially important for customers pursing more advanced certs, like the CCIE. These customers will require more pieces of equipment (like 10 routers instead of three) in the rack and more expensive communications devices (like an ATM switch or two Enterprise switches). For such candidates, it’s critical to select the rack that not only fits the labs they are practicing but also has the required equipment.

Of course, the higher cost of this equipment will raise the price of the rental fee of the rack. You should ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this rack have the models of routers and switches I want to practice on?
  • Are these devices running the right version of the Cisco IOS to do what I need to do?
  • Are these devices connected in a way that will allow me to do the practice labs or configurations I want to attempt?

Most racks offer a lab device list, version list, and connection diagram to help you answer these questions. If you are unsure about these things, you should e-mail the company that is offering the service.

As for value-added services that a company may provide, I point to the practice labs or exercises you want to do on the rack. For a CCNA or CCNP candidate, nearly all the rack services in my list will be adequate. However, you may have some labs from a book or a class that use specific routers or switches with, for example, interfaces called certain things or numbered certain ways. If you have a rack with differently numbered or named interfaces, this may be confusing and possibly frustrating.

This is the same for CCIE candidates who may have purchased some more advanced labs from a different vendor or obtained them from a class. Some racks will be configured to run certain labs from published books or labs sold on the Internet. Some racks offer quick configurations to do Lab X published by Company Y. You can use these configurations to cut and paste in a base configuration, which will save you time and energy. Rack rental companies may also provide their own custom labs to be performed on their own equipment. This is nice since it can offer you an additional challenge, although the company will most likely charge you for these custom labs.

Price tag
As always, price is an important part of choosing a service like this. Some providers will give volume discounts if you buy multiple blocks of time. Other providers offer their services at discounted rates for auction on eBay. However you buy your rack time, you should look closely at the amount you’re purchasing. For instance, if someone is selling 12 hours for $50 or six hours for $45, the $50 choice is clearly the better deal, even though it is more expensive (assuming you can use 12 hours of rack time). If you are like me, whatever you are planning on doing will always take longer than you expected, so having 12 hours instead of six will probably be a good choice.

In my downloadable comparison chart, I list a number of Cisco rack rental service providers available on the Internet today. This is not a complete list, by any means, as new providers are popping up every day. However, this list certainly contains the established providers, as well as some of the newcomers.

Using Cisco rack rental service providers like these helped me to achieve my CCIE certification more economically by saving me the money I would have had to invest in the equipment. In addition, many of these providers offer excellent custom practice labs for a variety of Cisco certifications.