Get the right used Cisco router gear for your Cisco home lab

Cisco home lab routers

One of the biggest challenges for people getting into the Cisco world is knowing how to learn the equipment and the systems without completely breaking the bank.

Many entry-level people in IT simply don’t have a lot of money available to spend on an extensive Cisco lab, and not everyone has an employer with suitable lab equipment. This article focuses on affordable options for routers if you can’t afford a basic lab, and don’t have access to extensive labs to fulfill their every need.

There are a number of routers to choose from that exist within the open market; some are better deals than others depending on who the seller is and how much experience they have. Unfortunately, many of the people who sell used Cisco equipment are also looking more to make money from the venture and not help those attempting to increase their knowledge. This leaves an opportunity for those companies with the required talent (preferably Cisco certified people on staff) to offer equipment that is reasonable and fulfills the requirements of the current and future certifications.

While it’s not possible for this article to list out every possible combination of good networking equipment for a lab, I will outline some of the current pricing and highlight the better deals that exist as of the writing of this article.

Frame relay

While frame relay as a technology is rather old, it’s still used in many environments and offers an easy to implement small-scale, WAN experience for those entering the field. To simulate frame relay in a Cisco lab, the easiest way (and typically cheapest) is to buy a good old 2500 series serial router; these devices offer 2 or 8 serial connections (DB60) that can be used to connect to Frame Relay end devices (more modern routers).

The two Ethernet models that exist in decent supply on eBay are the 2520 (2 port) and the 2522 (8 port). The 2520 goes for around $30 and offers 2 DB60 serial ports which can be connected to Frame Relay end devices; the 2522 goes for around $150 (supply not meeting demand) and offers 8 DB60 serial ports which can also be connected to frame relay end devices.

The 2520 or 2522 in this configuration would serve as a Frame Relay Switch (which is typically in the Telco Cloud) with all connected devices being the frame relay clients.

Keep in mind that when using one of these devices as a frame relay switch, the physical cabling should be oriented so that the DCE side is on this device, NOT on the end device.

Cisco 2500 series wireframe

Cisco 2500 series

Images courtesy of Cisco

Another option which some people can take advantage of, is using modular serial cards that are available to fit in most of the general purpose routers discussed below; just plug in one or more of these cards and most routers will support frame relay switching (use the frame-relay switching command).

For general purpose

Here is where the rubber meets the road, and in this case where the cash meets the shredder. There are a some available options for general purpose routers within a lab. The general features required for the CCNA Routing and Switching level exams are rather generic and exist in most router platforms; the question is whether you plan to take the next step or not (specialty CCNA options like Voice, Security, Video and others). If this is the case the decision is really based on what support you need for those paths. For example, is a voice enabled router required?

To get a start, this article will go through a couple of the more popular options that exist now, and don’t completely break the bank.

2600XM Series

The 2610xm and the 2620xm have for a long time been a staple in the lab of many network engineers; they’re reasonably priced and offer reasonable performance for most of the different features that are asked of them at the CCNA, and most of the material at the CCNP level. The only problem with these devices is that they don’t support IOS 15 which will become the main IOS used with the new round of CCNA revisions.

However, most of the common features have not changed much or not changed at all. If money is your chief concern, use them primarily as general purpose routers. As of this writing, the 2610xm and 2620xm are going for around $50 on eBay.

Beware: Depending on the IOS, it may be larger than 128 Meg which is the default on many used routers. The upgrade to 256 Meg is not as simple as buying memory because it may need a ROMMON upgrade. I had to do this on my own routers, but it’s an extra cost if you don’t know it’s coming.

1800 Series

The 1800 series is a step up in terms of modern equipment and provides support for IOS 15. The 1800 platform in general matches up better with the earlier 1700 series devices in terms of direct features. The 1811 and 1812 are still in service and supported. They both offer 8 switch ports, IEEE 802.11G Wi-Fi, and FE WAN interfaces (think of these like a WAN interface on a Linksys device). The main difference between the two is that the 1811 has an analog modem and the 1812 has an ISDN backup, which may or may not be useful (they are not covered in any great detail anymore, in terms of certifications). The 1811 and 1812 both go for around $150 on eBay as of this writing.

The other and possibly better option in this series is the 1841; this device is modular as opposed to the fixed configurations of the 1811 and 1812. However, the 1841 is End-of-Life (software maintenance will go through October 2014), which is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

A key advantage to keep in mind is that it makes the device cheaper, generally around $100 on eBay, but a number of interface cards can be plugged into the 1841. It has 2 fixed Fast Ethernet interfaces, two HWIC slots which support both WIC and VWIC (data only) cards, but it does not support voice (the 2600xm do, but with older software) or Power over Ethernet (PoE).

2800 Series

For a few years, the 2800 series have been the sought after devices in private labs because of flexibility; but for many it’s outside a small budget. With the introduction of the newest 1900, 2900, and 3900 series devices the costs of 2800 series devices have come down considerably. This series of routers will most likely be the routers of choice for those with a moderate budget but who are still looking for reasonably new feature support.

The 2801 is 1RU, has two fixed Fast Ethernet slots and four interface card slots: two supporting HWIC, WIC, VIC and VWIC cards, one supporting WIC, VIC and VWIC cards and one supporting VIC and VWIC cards. The 2801 does support IOS 15, has two internal DSP (PVDM) and encryption (AIM) slots and sells for around $100 on eBay.

The 2811 is 1RU, has two fixed Fast Ethernet slots and four interface card slots all of which support HWIC, WIC, VIC and VWIC cards and one slot that supports NM and NME cards. It supports IOS 15, has two internal DSP (PVDM) and encryption (AIM) slots and sells for around $175 on eBay.

The 2821 is 2RU, has two fixed Gigabit Ethernet slots and four interface card slots, all of which support HWIC, WIC, VIC, and VWIC cards, one slot that supports NM, NME and NME-X cards and one Extended Voice (EVM) slot. It supports IOS 15, has three internal DSP (PVDM) and two internal encryption (AIM) slots and goes for around $120 on eBay (a steal). For those looking to get into voice networking, this should be one of the main options reviewed because the support for the EVM opens up a number of additional options for expanded voice labs.

The 2851 is 2RU, has two fixed Gigabit Ethernet slows and four interface card slots, all of which support HWIC, WIV, VIC, and VWIC cards, one slot that supports NM, NME, NME-X, NMD, and NME-XD cards and one Extended Voice (EVM) slot. It does support IOS 15, has three internal DSP (PVDM) and two internal encryption (AIM) slots and goes for around $165 on eBay.

Modules

There are a number of modules that can be inserted into these devices, but way too many to cover now. However, there are a couple of interfaces that can be used that are staples within a lab environment. The major module card used in almost all labs is a serial module; this is because it can be used to connect multiple devices with reasonably cheap cabling.

The two cards that are probably the most popular (or will be) are the WIC-2T and the HWIC-2T; the WIC-2T is the older version of the module but they both offer 2 serial interfaces (smart serial connection); the main difference is price and support, the WIC-2T is $20-25 on eBay, the HWIC-2T is $175.

The WIC-2T will work in all the devices discussed in this article, while the HWIC-2T is supported in all except the 2600xm’s. On top of it, the WIC-2T is NOT supported in the newer 1900, 2900 and 3900 series (ISR G2) of devices, but the HWIC-2T is. Since these newest models from Cisco are probably outside the affordable range of a typical self-study lab, this really is not an issue and the price difference is significant.

Note: One thing that needs to not be overlooked is that some of the older equipment (including the frame relay routers .that were discussed earlier), use a DB60 connector on their serial interfaces, while the newer serial interfaces (including the WIC-2T and the HWIC-2T) use Cisco’s smart serial connector. There are several different sellers that can be found that sell these cables, so make sure that when using cables to connect from one router directly to another router that a serial crossover cable is used (this is shown when the cable has a DTE end and a DCE end). For my lab I use cables from Diablo Cable which are offered at an affordable price from Amazon.

Console

Finally we have console routers. Technically this is not required because it is possible to physically move the console cable from device to device.
The problem is that it’s a pain, and not all that efficient; a console device can be used to plug into every device in the lab and a student can console into every device through a common Telnet or SSH session.

The two mainstays of the Cisco console router community have been the 2509 and the 2511 routers. Both have long been End-of-Life and Support, but they don’t need an updated IOS version as all they are used for is console access (basic routing and serial capabilities). The 2509 (8 ports) is going for around $150 on eBay and the 2511 (16 ports) is going for around $200. Regardless of which one you use, they both have the CAB-OCTAL-ASYNC (8 port) cable, which can be found from various places (including eBay, Amazon and Monoprice) for around $20.

However, there are some newer options which are becoming more cost efficient compared to these old guys.

There are two cards that seem to fit the requirements well, however they both are modules and need a host device; these modules include the HWIC-8A and the HWIC-16A. Oddly enough, as of this writing, the HWIC-16A (16 ports) is cheaper at $150 on eBay and the HWIC-8A (8 ports) is $200 on eBay. The major difference (other than the obvious port count) is that the HWIC-8A can be used in 1841 and 1941 routers, while the HWIC-16A requires at least a 2800 series device. Both the HWIC-8A and HWIC-16A use the CAB-HD8-ASYNC cable which can be found at a couple of locations as well (although not as many as the CAB-OCTAL-ASYNC cable), for around $40.

Looking at a lot of options

There are certainly many of options available out there, especially when looking for the right routers to select. We’ve highlighted some of the most used options as well as the options that make the most sense at current market prices. Hopefully this will help those looking around and enable them to make a better decision and/or push them in the right direction.

Now that you’re working with a home lab, it’s time for some Cisco CCNP routing practice. Sign up for a free 3-day trial to get access to TrainSignal’s entire training library.

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