Whether you are studying for a certification exam, wanting to retain a skill set, or just trying something out, a lab environment can be incredibly helpful. This is nothing new and many people will give this recommendation, I just feel strongly enough about it to echo the advice. There is just something about learning by doing that really helps it stick, and repetition is key.
So, you want to be able to “lab things up”, now what? I’m sure you can find many debates on the internet about whether physical gear is necessary or if virtual labs are “good enough”. Here comes my favorite answer, “it depends”. As with anything, you need to start with requirements. What exactly are you trying to do? My requirements have generally been certification study and having the ability to quickly test something or prove a concept. Personally (at least at this point in my life), I’m not a fan of having a bunch of gear at home (bring on the heckling). For my CCENT/CCNA studies, Cisco’s Packet Tracer application got me most of the way there. I only remember one or two concepts that I used real gear for because the concepts were outside of the scope of Packet Tracer. For my requirements now, I have been using Cisco VIRL. You get to run Cisco images on virtual gear, and that has been plenty for me. I can either build labs from scratch, or have VIRL automatically build the basic configurations (such as L3 interfaces and dynamic routing) and I can focus on specific concepts. Again, for you, it’s all about knowing what you are trying to accomplish and picking the best options (physical or virtual) to meet those needs. If you ever need a little motivation around this, I recommend checking out:
Du’An Lightfoot – @labeveryday on Twitter – Passionate network engineer and an incredible community influence.