To get hands on experience with the real Cisco routers and switches, you can buy CCNA lab kits at affordable rates from Amazon or eBay.
The best thing about practicing with the real routers and switches is that you will get the feel of working with the actual hardware. However, if you are not necessarily preparing for an exam, simulators like GNS3 and Packet Tracer could still help you sufficiently practice without having to spend too much money on the real hardware. Moreover, these simulators are very easy to handle and practice. You can simply take your laptop with yourself and exercise the network topologies anywhere you want. Additionally, Packet Tracer’s mobile version is also available on the play store for downloads.
Readymade Cisco lab kits from e-commerce websites like Amazon and eBay are also available for you to buy. Or you can buy individual routers and switches of different models and develop a lab of your own. Although developing a kit like this would cost you a good amount of money. But if you are seriously looking to create your own lab then you can try getting cheap hardware from recycling IT shops and stores. And eventually, once you are finished with your practice you can sell your kit to someone i.e. when it is no longer required.
Now, let’s discuss about some of the pros and cons of practicing in a simulated environment compared to the physical lab kits. To begin with, laptops are easy to carry anywhere we go so it’s a very convenient alternative to practice irrespective of our location. However, we cannot carry lab kits as per our convenience. Secondly, lab kits require us to have a dedicated space large enough to keep all our networking devices, making that place look like an electronics store. Needless to say, this is not required when we practice in a simulation software environment using just our laptop machine.
Additionally, a number of networking devices in the lab kit can bump up our power bill which is not the case with simulation software. As mentioned earlier, you are also required to invest a good amount of money to buy a complete lab kit whereas the simulation software is available for free.
Another major downside of lab kits is that we cannot create bigger topologies that include a large number of network devices because there is always a physical limit to the resources or devices that we can simultaneously use. It’s not feasible to own every piece of hardware we need for practice. However, in a simulated environment we can create topologies that possess a large number of devices with ease.
Creating topologies with a lab kit could be time consuming because we have to visualize the topologies and do wiring according to it. It can be a very tedious task. Contrary to lab kits, topologies look very neat in a simulation because we can place various devices according to our need using the drag and drop functionality. And wiring is comparatively a lot easier in the simulation software.
We’ve discussed some of the cons of lab kits but it doesn’t mean they aren’t any worth. Now, let’s talk about some of the pros of lab kits:
Firstly, a lab kit gives us feel of the real world configuration and troubleshooting of the computer hardware. Network engineers encounter many different types of issues and challenges that do not occur in simulation software. For example, a number of generic hardware related issues or faults. And we can observe those different hardware indicators only on the real devices. Moreover, we are able to get better familiarity with the network devices, models and types using only real hardware; and visualize how different modules are compatible with different routers and switches.
From my personal experience I would say that the lab kits are mostly useful for budding professionals who wish to prepare for their CCIE examination in the near future. As CCIE paper comprises of a very vigorous curriculum in which the examinees have to configure and troubleshoot actual networking devices. Therefore, using a lab kit will help them prepare for the advanced Cisco certifications like CCIE. Plus, there are other alternatives like renting a lab kit (real or virtual) for a certain period of time if you don’t want to own one.