Cisco hardware is expensive, but fortunately it's no longer a required expense. Simulation labs offer low-cost opportunities to test Cisco skills. Here's a look at the top three contenders.
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Making the leap into the world of Cisco routers and switches is easier when you're certified, as certification is one of the best ways to learn the ins and outs of any technology. Many IT professionals looking to build their Cisco skills start with the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) accreditation, and many move on to the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) exam. Before you begin, however, you need a lab. So you start pricing hardware and, once you pick yourself up off the floor from the prices, you start to ask: Isn't there a better and cheaper way?
You bet there is, and it's called software simulation. Software simulation is a very complex and powerful business. Everything from crash analysis to the effects of aging can be calculated by software simulations. The idea of simulating a few routers and switches shouldn't be a big deal, right? Not exactly. It takes a lot of effort to write a simulator that does more than just compare a typed-in command and obtain a predetermined result. Some of the Cisco simulators I've seen are just this type of application. They're not very flexible once you try to do anything outside the defined scope of a "lab."
This article is the first in a series of four. Here, we'll have an overview of what I consider the top three Cisco specific simulators: Boson's NetSim, eRouter from DTI, and MIMIC from Gambit Communications. In upcoming articles, we'll get into the nuts and bolts of how each simulator works.
Why use a simulator?
For some situations, simulators aren't always the best solution. For example, you can't practice replacing memory in a router unless you have a router. Nor can you practice the art of connecting real cables or experience the joys of a dead port. So why would you want to use a simulator instead of a rack of routers and switches? Well, aside from the whining of all the fans, the heat, the space requirements, and the cost, simulators are much more portable. For example, while sitting in an airport waiting for a late flight, you can practice that new router configuration command sequence that you need to know before you walk into the testing lab.
Who are the players?
One of the better-known names in the world of Cisco router simulators is Boson, which designed NetSim. NetSim is one of the most comprehensive simulators for the prospective CCNA and, to a degree, the CCNP candidate. The simulator has support for more than 40 devices, a range of protocols such as EIGRP, RIP1 and 2, and OSPF, and, unlike many others, support for IPX RIP. Boson offers three types of switches: the 1900, 2900, and the Cat 5000. (There is recent, basic support for the 3550 switch, and there are promises that the 3550 will be expanded upon.) One of the highlights of the current release of NetSim for the potential certification candidate is the support of ISDN, which negates the need to purchase an ISDN simulator at a cost of several hundred dollars just for the one box.
A lesser-known simulator, eRouter, is sold by DTI Publishing. eRouter is also packaged with the Smart Certify Cisco training material. Along with the simulation of multiple pieces of hardware, this simulator's claim to fame is that it can actually route real packets. The eRouter package supports more than 1,000 commands, offers 47 labs, and provides a complete ISDN simulation. An interesting feature is that when you choose the lab, you can also have the software preconfigure the simulated hardware for that lab so you don't waste time getting all the links up. This is a nice feature to have when you want to spend your time studying—not typing in preconfigured lab commands.
Another simulator, MIMIC from Gambit Communications, is also a network load tester. This simulator is easily the most sophisticated of the three tested. MIMIC was not designed originally as a Cisco training aid; it came from the network simulation world, where you can mock up and actually simulate a real running network complete with traffic loading and custom rules. There's an additional toolkit that adds SNMP v1-3 support and more simulated hardware out of the box, and allows you to record a current network so you can simulate it later via the software. MIMIC is also based on Java, which makes it portable between platforms depending on the package purchased. Gambit has taken its MIMIC technology and trimmed it down to put together two Cisco-specific training packages: the Cisco BCI Lab and the Cisco Virtual Lab.
What the simulators offer
Each of the three simulators offers both emulated hardware and canned labs, and each will let you design your own labs, but in different ways. Only MIMIC will allow you to put a simulated network load in place. There's a variation in the number of commands supported and the types of protocols supported. For example, eRouter has two Cisco 1900 switches and six routers. It also supports only two routing protocols: RIP and IGRP. By contrast, Boson's NetSim supports routers ranging from Cisco 800 to 4500, as well as Cisco 1912, 2950, 5002, and 3550 switches. Boson also supports RIP, IGRP, EGRP, and OSPF, and it offers some of the most sophisticated labs, such as:
● CCNA ICND stand-alone and sequential
● CCIE one-day lab
MIMIC has a different approach that's not apparent at first glance. For example, the MIMIC Enterprise virtual lab starts with a Cisco 7513, Cisco 5505, HP Procurve, Cisco 2524, and a Cisco AP1200 wireless access point. MIMIC also provides six Windows XP workstations.
As I mentioned, MIMIC supports more than just Cisco devices. Gambit offers two labs (BSCI and Cisco) that are more reasonably priced than the Enterprise product. The Cisco lab is perhaps the more versatile of the two with 11 devices. The virtual lab has a 2501, 2524, 4500, and 7531 router, along with a 2916 and 3548 switch and five workstations.
MIMIC is unique because you can change the user interface to match your needs. MIMIC also is the only simulator of the three that fully supports the routing protocol BGP. (Note: Boson's NetSim does support a basic version of BGP.) And along with the extras, such as Network Recorder, Discovery Wizard, Topology Wizard, and the libraries of other vendors such as Nortel, Extreme, and Lucent, MIMIC is a very powerful and flexible virtual network laboratory.
The tables below compare the three vendor packages. Table A shows the number of switches and routers, and the types of protocols supported by the three vendors.
|High-level comparison of simulators|
In Table B, you see what types of switches each of the vendors support. While MIMIC supports virtually any hardware in its Enterprise product, I'm comparing its Cisco certification product only to create a level playing field. You can also see from the table that some of the vendors are very limited in what they support.
|Types of switches supported|
Boson's NetSim has only recently started to support the 3550 switch. This support will be substantially enhanced in the near future.
Table C shows which routers are supported by each vendor. Again, some vendors are very limited, while others offer quite the assortment. Most interesting is Boson, which brings to the table a wide choice of router families and types. This multirouter family support brings a lot of added value to the potential CCNA who will be working toward a CCNP.
|Types of routers supported|
Which one do I need?
Cisco simulators come in many different styles, sizes, and of course, prices. Some simulators are expensive but can do quite a bit more than the basic router/switch simulation. However, even the most expensive is still cheaper than buying a rack of routers and switches. There are those who will argue that a rack is always better, and several months ago, I would have been in this camp. But as with most technology, things improve as time marches on.
For the basic Cisco certification patch, any of the products mentioned above will work. However, there are big differences in lab features among each product. The upcoming product reviews will cover the lab features of each simulator in greater detail to give you a better idea of which simulator is right for you.