Buying CCNA lab switches without going broke

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One of the biggest challenges for Cisco newbies working their way up the certification ladder is how to deal with learning the equipment and the Cisco systems without completely breaking the bank. Many people at the entry level simply don't have a lot (if any) of money available to spend on an extensive CCNA lab. If these people don't have an employer with a suitable lab they are left without that option entirely.

I want to focus on those that can afford a lab, but are unable to afford extensive labs to fulfill their every need. Let's take a look at the options for Cisco switches, and if you need a refresher on lab equipment read about choosing affordable routers.

Deciding on cost

Unlike the router side of a home lab, the switch side is typically limited to a couple of different options which makes building the switching side of a lab much easier. The first question that needs to be answered is, “What is the end goal?”

For example, is the purpose of the lab to only do CCNA-level tasks? This matters because it affects the number of features that need to be supported with the chosen switches. One common way to go about this is to purchase a few cheaper switches that provide most of the requirements of the CCNA-level tasks, and then add to the lab as the need arises and the level of study increases. This is more common because the lower-level switches are typically quite cheap.

Catalyst 2950

The Catalyst 2950 line is an older line of Cisco switches that provide a basic managed switch platform. They provide most (if not all) of the layer-two specific features that are needed to pass an associate level exam. The 2950 switch line was separated into two types of software: Standard and Enhanced.

The standard version offers all common layer-two functionality for basic operations, while the enhanced version provides additional support for Quality of Service (QoS) and Security filtering. Almost all of the Catalyst 2950 modes are End-of-Life (EOL) and End-of-Support (EOS), but still work perfectly fine with most features as most of them haven't changed for some time.

Some common versions of the 2950 line that are currently available on eBay include the WS-C2950-12 (12 FE ports) and WS-C2950-24 (24 FE ports) both which run the Standard version of software and have a starting price of about $25-30. Another common one that was found in a couple of listings was the WS-C2950G-48-EI (48 FE ports, two gigabit interface converter (GBIC) slots) and runs the Enhanced version of software with a starting price at about $30 (a few at $30 then going up to ~$65).

Catalyst 2960

The Catalyst 2960 line is a slightly newer version of Cisco switches that offer basic switching and some IP services features. While some of the models are EOL, most are still not EOS and some support IOS 15 as well which offers some of the newest feature support. The 2960 line was split into two categories as well: one labeled as LAN Lite and the other labeled as LAN Base. The LAN Lite line of switches was focused on small businesses and smaller branch offices, these switches were basic switching features similarly to the 2950 Standard software lines. The LAN Base line of switches was focused on entry-level to middle-level enterprise locations which typically require a higher level of switch feature support.

When it comes to building a lab the best bet is to find one of the LAN Base switch models as it will provide the best overall investment and usefulness.

One common switch that can easily be found on eBay (as of this writing) is the WS-C2960-24TT-L 2960 model switch. This switch offers 24 FE ports and two GE ports for easy connectivity and without the extra cost of GBICs or Small Form-Factor Pluggable (SFP) modules; this switch has a starting price of about $65-$70. Another nice thing about this model is that it is not EOL and because of this continues to be updated with the newest features.

Catalyst 3550

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="560"]Cisco Catlyst 3550 Image courtesy of Cisco[/caption]

The Catalyst 3550 line has been a very popular Cisco switch model for some time as it provides some support for layer 3 and some additional feature support. Traditionally this has been enough of a factor to prefer the 3550 over the 2960 line of switches. If the target is to get a switch that supports dynamic routing protocols then the 3550 is the minimum level switch that can be used as these are not supported on the 2960 line of devices. All of the Catalyst 3550 switches are EOL and EOS. Like the previous models, the 3550 line of switches was divided into two different levels of software: IP Base and IP Services.

When running IP Base (also referred to as SMI) software the 3550 is basically equivalent to a 2960 running IP Base software (with a few exceptions); however when running the IP Services (also referred to as EMI) software it would then support dynamic routing and several other IP specific features that are very limited in the IP Base software.

A common model seen on eBay of the 3550 line is the WS-C3550-24-SMI (24 FE ports, 2 GBIC ports); it currently has a starting price of around $75. It is important to note that even though this version of the switch is an SMI (IP Base) model, the upgrade to an EMI (IP Services) model only requires an IOS upgrade.

Catalyst 3560

The Catalyst 3660 line is another popular version of Cisco switch that is very commonly seen in home and enterprise labs. It is a very versatile lab with support for a number of different features including most of the features that will be needed to study for every certification up to the CCIE (assuming the IP Services (EMI) version of software is installed). Like the previous models, it is possible to find both IP Base (SMI) and IP Services (EMI) version of the 3560 line of switches. Upgrading between these two (on older 3560 models) is easy which also helps. Some newer models are reportedly being watched closely by Cisco with its newer software licensing initiatives.

There are a couple of high-level differences between the 3550 and 3560 lines running IP Services software, these include:

  • IPv6 Support
  • IPv6 Routing (OSPF, RIP, EIGRP)
  • IS-IS
  • Private VLANs
  • Support for a number of QoS features including AutoQoS (enhanced for video), Class-Based Shaping, Genetic Traffic Shaping, and Random Early Detection (RED).

To be thorough, the following list is a brief overview of some of the major feature differences between the 2960 and 3560 lines:

  • IP routing (OSPF, RIP, EIGRP, IS-IS)
  • IPv6 Routing (OSPFv3, EIGRP for IPv6, RIPng)
  • BGP
  • Private VLANs
  • IP SLA
  • HSRP
  • HSRP for IPV6

As of this writing, the Catalyst 3560 line continues to be used and sold from Cisco (albeit it with newer model numbers); while some of the cheaper models can be easily purchased on eBay may be EOL (most are not EOS), and can be upgraded to the newest version of the software available.

Two common models seen on the cheaper end of the spectrum on eBay include the WS-C3560-48TS-S starting around $215 (IP Base - Upgraded via software), and the WS-C3560-48TS-E starting around $350 (IP Services). Both of these models support IOS 15 and are both EOL but NOT EOS. Keep in mind, however, that the ‘S' version of this switch can be upgraded to the IP Services software which makes it equivalent to the ‘E' version of the switch.

Options at home

There are a number of options available when building a home lab, and as with the routers a lot depends greatly on the budget. Overall if your goal as a student is above the associate level of exams, your best bet is to look and invest in a 3560 model, obviously the newer the better as the newer models have faster processors and less time will be spent waiting on the equipment to boot or reload.

For those just getting into the field and with less capital to invest, the 2950 and 2960 models provide a number of different features required for the early studies and will provide an easy, cheap platform to learn and play with. Hopefully the information discussed in this article will enable you to more knowledgably shop and purchase equipment for home labs and on the way to a successful Cisco career.

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Sean Wilkins

Sean Wilkins is an accomplished networking consultant who has been in the IT field for more than 20 years, working with several large enterprises. He is a writer for infoDispersion and his educational accomplishments include: a Master’s of Science in Information Technology with a focus in Network Architecture and Design, and a Master’s of Science in Organizational Management. Sean holds certifications with Cisco (CCNP/CCDP), Microsoft (MCSE) and CompTIA (A+ and Network+).