Labbing: Networking Edition

I promised I’d get a bit more technical with these blog posts. Can’t have a person in tech with a blog or YouTube channel without mentioning a homelab now can we?! I love homelabs as it’s where we build and sharpen our IT skillset before and during any IT role. As my previous posts, you all know I have dabbled in other vendors so I’ll include a few.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, let me preface this beforehand: Whatever route you go whether it’s fully hardware, virtual, a mix, renting/paying for access to a virtual or hardware lab, there is no right or wrong answer. Once upon a time ago, hardware was your only solution. Now virtualization makes everything much easier is a very popular method as everything has been getting virtualized.

Hardware vs. Software: The great debate
Thankfully due to today’s technological advances, virtualization has taken the market by storm. It’s now easier more than ever to just pay for licensing in order to virtualize an entire lab environment in the comfort of your own home whether you go the Cloud-hosting route or the hardware-hosting route at home. Hardware will always be the best. You just don’t get that same satisfying knowledge-to-action click in your mind when connecting your first patch cables or fiber patch cables. Installing cards, SFPs, PSUs, making a Cisco router or switch enter ROMMON, or even rack-mounting your first switch, router, or server in a rack.

I practice what I preach so I’ll sit here and tell you: I have both! I have a 4-post “skeleton” or open rack in my home office/gameroom. Half of the rack is my lab starting with my Dell PowerEdge R630 (1U) homelab server running VMware ESXi at the bottom with 2U above for future additions of more ESXi hosts if I don’t go beefy NUCs so I can lab more VMware technologies like spinning up my own vCenter environment, utilizing vMotion, etc. Here’s my lab server’s specs so you can see a general guideline if you’re going to virtualize in your home:

  • CPU – 2x Intel Xeon e5-2690v4 @ 2.60GHz 14 Cores
    • More cores = Improved vCPU utilization for your VMs
    • In the great words of Taylor, if you’re concerned about compute performance, you want your CPUs to be quick. 2.5GHz+ should be your starting point. If you don’t care about compute performance, you can capitalize on more cores than the speeds
  • RAM – 128GB of RAM
    • More RAM the better and I plan on maxing out my server down the road before adding more hosts
    • If you’re going down the SP path spinning up XR 9K nodes, you’re going to want way more RAM for these resource-hungry nodes
    • Same can be said if you’re spinning up a huge topology for whatever purpose
    • Of course the more virtual nodes you spin up in your lab environment, the more your RAM utilization will spike so you can start low and add more RAM as you go, just be warned that server RAM can be pricey
  • Storage – HDD vs. SSD
    • I currently have a single 10K HDD and two SSDs. With the prices going down on SSDs, you can’t go wrong with slapping a bunch of SSDs on your host
    • You can start off with a single SSD and just slowly fill up your host’s drive bays as you expand
  • NICs
    • Aside from the iDRAC, Dell’s OOBM port I have two cards that came with the server
      • 10GB SFP x2
      • 10GB Copper x2
    • If your lab server came with 1GBE, that’s fine. Just depends on your usage and what you want out of it
  • OS/Hypervisor
    • I use VMware ESXi for the hypervisor and for a few reasons
      • VMware is widely used across several big name organizations and even smaller businesses. So chances are you’ll run into a ESXi/vSphere environment in your IT lifetime so it pays dividends to lab it up or at least practice spinning up a VM on your hypervisor of choice on your personal machine or lab server.
      • It’s practically industry standard if you don’t configure your lab host as a Bare Metal host with CML, GNS3, or EVE-NG
      • VMware has a suite of products that intrigues my Server side of interests including products I haven’t touched yet (NSX anyone?)

Then I have 10Us occupied with switches and routers:

  • 1 Cisco 5510 ASA
  • 4 Cisco 2811 Routers
  • 4 Cisco Catalyst 3750G Switches (1 PoE, 3-non PoE)
  • 1 Brocade ICX-7450 Switch

Then above that I have my home network equipment and a shelf with 2 Cisco 3702 WAPs for the homelab. On the back side of my rack, I have 2 CyberPower Network-switched PDUs where I can monitor consumption and toggle individual power outlets should I want to toggle power for any of my equipment, Prod or Lab.

Then there’s my virtual lab: The virtual lab environment I use is EVE-NG Pro. I went from Packet Tracer (Cisco’s Lab Emulator) in my Pre-CCNA days, then to GNS3, then to CML (license includes Cisco’s lab environment for the images), then to EVE-NG Pro. I have Cisco in there but also labs from other vendors which I’ll get into below. These days I primarily utilize my virtual lab that’s hosted on my homelab server.

Alternatively, you can upload and host GNS3, CML, or EVE-NG in the Cloud. It gets a bit tricky because virtualization upon virtualization. But it’s also a worthwhile solution to explore should you want to go that route and there are plenty of guides to do this regardless which public cloud provider you go.

Cisco Systems
I’ll always endorse paying for a Cisco CML (Cisco Modeling Labs) subscription. This is where you can legally and very easily obtain Cisco virtual images. Please note: SD-WAN images are NOT included, you’ll need to have entitlements to have these or go over to Cisco DevNet (Cisco if you’re reading this, it would be amazing if you somehow added these bad boys in there for those of us that want to lab SD-WAN).

Here’s a list of images that come with CML per Cisco:

  • IOSv and IOSvL2
  • NX-OSv and NX-OS 9Kv
  • IOS XRv and IOS XR 9Kv
  • IOS XE (CSR1000v)
  • ASAv

Cisco ISE, Cisco’s Network Access Control appliance you can get an evaluation demo for free on Cisco’s Support site. Latest version is 3.2 but the golden version is 3.1. As my current org’s new “ISE Man”, this is invaluable to have to spin up different configurations, patch install tests, and more importantly version upgrades. I went through testing in my home lab of upgrading 2.7 ISE nodes to 3.1 prior to submitting a change.

Juniper Networks
Juniper has their own internally managed lab environment where you can lab up pre-selected topologies. In addition, you can request demos and request virtual images to test out their products. Once approved, you can then import them into your virtual environment and lab away! If you take advantage of their Juniper Open Learning platform (which I highly recommend you do), it would be extremely advantageous to spin up a virtual Juniper lab as you follow along. I’m a big advocate for labbing as you’re learning and training. Juniper makes it extremely easy!

Aruba Networks
This one is a bit difficult but easy if you’re in a Aruba environment already as you can very easily get images via entitlements. Aruba Airheads is very good at empowering those learning their technology. To my knowledge, the only free image you can obtain is the Aruba OS-CX image. Here’s a breakdown of other products that can be virtualized and obtained with the right entitlements:

  • Aruba OS-CX virtual image (Aruba OS-CX switching platform)
  • Aruba ClearPass (Network Access Control)
  • Aruba Central (Latest management platform for everything)
  • Aruba AirWave (Management platform for Aruba switches and WAPs)
  • Aruba Mobility Controller (vWLC)

Helloooo Cloud!
Many of us network engineers or even server guys and gals evolve into cloud engineers or just simply add it to our skillset. Even I have obtained some cloud skills and will make an effort at getting some cloud certs under my belt at some point. There are several players in the Cloud realm but the big 3 are: Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, and Google Cloud Platform. All of them host their own trainings and even offer a $200 credit to sign up where you can very easily and quickly lab in the cloud. Word of caution: DON’T FORGET TO TURN OFF YOUR APPLIANCES!

I’ve seen that there are some cloud training providers that do host some trainings in the cloud. I’m not too well versed as to who’s who and who’s reliable for the money so I’m going to tentatively leave them out for now. I may update this section later down the road.

Helpful resources:

Cisco Modeling Labs – Personal

Cisco DevNet

Juniper Networks (Trials & Labs)

Aruba AirHeads

Labgopher (Where you can search pre-owned servers rather easily on eBay if you don’t go through a reseller)

Microsoft Azure

Amazon AWS

Google GCP



Closing thoughts
A wise and great man gave me some advice that came in the form of a question: “Manny, what’s the difference between a lab environment vs. a production environment?” The answer: “Nothing! They’re the same! BGP is still BGP. OSPF and other IGPs are still the same and function the same. Racking and stacking routers, switches, and even a server and slapping on ESXi is still the same!” Having a lab at home is an invaluable investment that pays dividends to your career by giving you experience. It also pays dividends for your job to house their own lab for testing, be it virtual or physical.

Labbing up anything provides you experience that you would normally gain in the job minus the pressure of real-world scenarios as in troubleshooting P1 incident. It also helps build confidence prior and during touching production equipment. Pair that with your learning and it makes you a force to be reckoned with.

Which adds to another point. There’s a reason why I don’t share any of the virtual labs I create when asked. It’s not that I don’t want to “share the wealth” but it’s more so I want others to receive that same “click” feeling when creating, configuring, and troubleshooting a topology. Sure it’s fun and somewhat easy troubleshooting someone else’s environment. But it’s even better when you are tasked with designing and building your own topology from the ground up. Or even labbing up a single technology or protocol. Yea that’s cool but now go ahead and start piecing everything together: Naming conventions, IP subnets (and why), interior and exterior routing protocols (and why), throwing in another appliance from another vendor and ensuring your protocols can work which creates another real world scenario, the list goes on.

Whichever route you go: hardware, virtual or mixed like me depends on you and your budget. There is no right or wrong answer as long as you’re learning and getting the results you want out of your learning journey. The beauty is you have options and the more technology develops, the easier it is to lab and learn!

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