Config Lab Storm’s Purpose Revealed: Study for the New Exams!
If you look back in the history of this blog and the related CCENT Skills Blog, I have been posting Config Labs regularly for about six months. Why? I had the new exams and new books in mind the whole time. This posts tells you more about what these Config Labs are, what’s coming in the rest of 2016, and why these can be a big help for anyone studying for CCENT and CCNA.
The Challenge of Doing Lab Exercises
Everyone preparing for the CCENT and CCNA R&S certification needs to practice using the CLI labs. Traditionally, that need for hands-on practice has presented a couple of challenges for beginners like those of us studying for CCENT and CCNA R&S:
- The options for building a lab environment require some knowledge of used gear, or skills with using virtualization tools, or more budget
- Even if you have a lab environment, most beginners need guidance about what to do in lab so that they learn the commands.
For instance, you could buy used routers and switches, but knowing what to buy when you have not yet learned the technology is tough. And the CCNA exam content (reasonably) does not require that you learn the depths of the product line, particularly the older products that would be cheaper today when purchased used online.
Another challenge is what you should do on the lab gear once you have it. Even if you bought some useful lab gear, what would you do with it? You could just repeat the same examples you found in the books, for instance, but it would be nice to have additional lab exercises. Or, you could use a virtualization tool like Cisco’s VIRL, which lets you run instances of router and switch IOS. But again, what do you do in lab?
Our Traditional Solution: Pearson Network Simulator
About seven years back, we set about to help solve this challenge for CCENT and CCNA R&S candidates. The solution is the Pearson Network Simulator product, which simulates the router and switch CLI. The current version has around 400 lab exercises, with several styles of labs built to help you build to greater skills levels as you move through your study. You do not have to choose and buy used gear, and you have tons of labs to guide you through your learning.
As usual, the updated Simulators will be out later that the exam release, given the length of time it takes to update the code. The old Simulator products (for the ICND1 100-101, ICND2 200-101, and CCNA 200-120 exams) still cover roughly 70-80% of the CLI content in the new exams. And there is a free upgrade path: buy the Sim for the old exams, upgrade to the new when it’s out.
Why mention the Sim at all? Well, in the past, we’ve basically taken a two-option approach to what we expect most people who read the book to do:
- Buy the Pearson Network Simulator (usually a little less than $100 actual price online for the CCNA R&S version), to get the lab environment and the lab exercises
- You are on your own: Choose your own options for labs and for lab exercises
A New Middle Option: Config Labs
I tend to spend my idle time thinking about how to help people learn about networking. Over the years, I’ve pondered about how CCENT and CCNA prep requires you to master the process to configure several features that require multiple configuration commands. That means you have to be able to recall the related configuration commands, as well as being able to create the correct syntax for each command.
As one solution, about four years ago I started adding lab exercises to my CCENT and CCNA blogs. But we already had a simulator product with tons of labs – so why add lab exercises to the blog? These labs (now called Config Labs on the blog sites) were designed with these requirements in mind:
Learn Configuration Sets: These labs set about to help you master sets of related commands, that is, groups of commands that you would configure at the same time to implement a particular feature.
Review Configuration in Idle Moments: The labs can be done in your idle moments. The scope of each lab attempts to stick to a goal of 5-10 minutes to do the lab if (a) you have already read about the topic and (b) you’re just writing or typing your answer. (We updated the blogs to use a responsive template just so the labs could be more easily done in your idle time from your phone, for instance.)
No Lab Gear Requirement: The primary learning happens by choosing the commands and syntax, not by typing them in a CLI. You can answer each lab on paper or by typing in a text editor. That is, you do not have to have any real gear, virtualization software, simulators, and so on.
VIRL-aligned when possible: Cisco’s router/switch virtualization product for personal use (VIRL) can provide a lab environment on which to run some of these Config Labs. More than half of the Config Labs can be done with VIRL, and the lab exercises come with the associated VIRL file to load the initial state (topology and configuration) for each lab.
Blog Config Labs are Organized for Use with Book Elements
The labs are not just a bunch of random labs about what was on my mind one day. The topics are a planned feature, on the topics from the new ICND1 and ICND2 Cert Guide books, eventually covering every configuration topic worthy of a configuration checklist element in the books.
Historically, the Config Labs in the blogs started out four years ago as just a nice extra for those who happened to be studying for CCNA and were reading my blog. I picked the topics not randomly, but just trying to give people interesting and useful study help.
What you see today is the result of some planning starting about mid-year in 2015, about a year before the new 2016 editions of the books came out. I decided to get serious about these labs and invest some time and resources into creating a lot more of these labs. Any of you that follow my blogs will have been noticing a long series of new Config Labs being posted over the last six months (and there will be even more for a few months after the books come out in 2016.)
As a result of this work, the blogs now include a lab exercise feature that can be used along with the new Cert Guide books for the new CCENT and CCNA. The blogs organize the Config Labs in three ways, two of which are designed for those wanting to use these labs as part of the study plan described in the book: (Note that the below links are for the CCENT blog.)
- See all Config Lab Posts: Navigate to Hands On… Config Lab
- See all study content by 100-105 Book Chapter: Navigate to: 100-105 Chapter… Chapter 8 (or any chapter you see)
- See all study content by 100-105 Book Part: Navigate to: 100-105 Part… Part 2 (or any Part you see)
In case the above makes little sense to you if you do not have the books… The books tell you to plan to spend time reviewing at the end of each chapter and part (a book part holds multiple chapters). So, for those using my books, you will most likely be thinking in terms like “hey I just finished chapter X, and I am doing chapter review – let me look for Config Labs for chapter X”. For perspective, Figure 2 repeats a figure from the book that shows the organization of the 36 chapters and 9 parts in the ICND1 100-105 Cert Guide.
Figure 2: Organization of the ICND1 100-105 Cert Guide
For the CCNA Skills Blog (about ICND2 content), use the same basic choices and navigation.
Use Config Labs with VIRL
Cisco’s VIRL acts as a hypervisor to let you run virtual IOS routers, IOS layer 2 switches, along with several other Cisco operating systems. So it can be a useful tool for learning CCENT and CCNA R&S skills. So for those who might happen to purchase an annual VIRL license while still studying for CCENT and CCNA, I decided to VIRL-enable the Config Labs.
Basically, VIRL allows an easy method to package and share a topology (device types, cables, interface numbers) along with the initial device configuration into a single portable file (with file type .VIRL). You can use VIRL, build a topology, create configurations, save it, and then email the .VIRL file to a friend. Once they follow the steps to use that .VIRL file (which are simple), they have the same topology and configuration that you had.
All the Config Labs I posted to the blogs in the last year or so have a posted .VIRL file near the end of the lab, at least if the lab can be done with VIRL. If you have VIRL, feel free to take advantage, and save yourself some of the legwork if you want to do the lab in VIRL.
New Labs on New Topics for the New Exams!
Finally, if you’re reading this post in May 2016 when I originally posted it, be aware: There are lots more labs to be posted. Here’s the plan: In the weeks following the May 17th 2016 announcement of the new CCNA exams, I will be posting new Config Labs on topics new to the exams. Once those are all posted, I have some more Config Labs about some of the old topics. It should take me until probably August or September 2016 before the labs are rolled out.
Just to give you a taste, here are a few of the topics of the upcoming Labs. First, in the CCENT Blog:
- Data and Voice VLANs
…And in the CCNA Blog:
- IPv6 ACLs
- Local SPAN
- L3 EtherChannel