As students are preparing for their CCENT (Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician) 100-101 or their CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) 200-120 exams, a majority of the successful students opt to build their own CCENT/CCNA home lab. I stress the word successful as there is a reason it is estimated that the Cisco CCNA exam has a failure rate of almost 50%. The Cisco certification exams are quite challenging which is why the Cisco certifications hold such prestige in the industry. That is not to say that some students can’t try to skim by and just barely pass the exam by memorizing much of the data or working with a simulator. The students that really excel and land a job are the ones with some hands on and real world experience on the Cisco routers and switches. Think about it…if you were a hiring manager, do you want someone who just has some book smarts or are you going to hire the person who took the initiative and invested in themselves and actually learned how the equipment works in the real world?
So that is where we come to this point in the article to help you pick what is the best switch for your CCENT or CCNA lab. Now that is really a tricky question as you can answer this quite a few different ways depending on your Cisco aspirations.
Cisco 2950 & 3560 Lab Switches
CCENT & CCNA Lab Only
For instance; will you just be sticking with CCENT and CCNA and you have no desire to move up the Cisco ladder? Well in that case you have three choices. The first being a standard 2950 running SI (Standard Image) IOS. The drawback of this switch is that it does not support all of the commands on the CCNA exam. The pro to this switch is it is the cheapest model that can run 95% of the exam commands.
The second choice you have is a 2950 model running EI (Enhanced Image) IOS. Examples are the 2950C, 2950T, 2950G, 2950-EI. These are a better than the Standard Image 2950 and they do support 99% of the possible CCNA exam questions. The other pro to this switch model is that they only cost about $10 more than the standard 2950. Thus they are a really good value for the money.
The third choice you have is the 2960 switch. This is the switch that is recommended by Cisco to prepare for the exam. So it obviously supports all of the exam commands and it will also run IOS 15!
If you intend on progressing on and diving into CCNA Security and the CCNP certifications, you will want to build your CCNA lab with an eye to the future. So since some of the commands that are not covered in the 2950 SI model are port security, you will definitely want to make sure you have 2950 EI switches or 2960 switches in your lab.
The CCNA Voice lab is best suited with a minimum of the 2950 EI or 2960 switches to simply do your traffic sculpting and base layer 2 features. But a nice little upgrade for a CCNA Voice lab is to have a PoE (Power over Ethernet) switch in your lab. This way you can power your IP Phone with the Ethernet cable versus having to use power cubes. This is not absolutely required, but is a nice real world solution. We will discuss the 3550 in a little more detail later which has a non-PoE version and a PoE version that is affordable. (note: the 2960 also has a PoE version, but is really expensive and not worth the extra money)
The CCNP labs will also require the EI IOS so have either two 2950 EI or 2960 switches earmarked for your CCNP lab. But the CCNP lab requires a total of four switches. Two of them being layer two like the 2950 EI switches or 2960s and two of them being layer three like the 3550, 3560 or 3750 switches. Now if you make all four of them layer three switches, it won’t hurt anything and it is a benefit. Especially if you get one of each type of switch, it will get you exposure to different models so you can see the nuance differences between them and you will be less intimidated by them when you see them in the real world. So the 3550 is a good low cost layer three switch that will run IOS 12.2. It comes in a PoE version and a non-PoE version for a reasonable cost. There are a few things like PVLANs and some traffic sculpting QoS commands that it does not support that are on the CCNP exam. So if possible the preferred switch for the CCNP labs is the 3560. This will support all the commands on the CCNP exam and it will also support IOS 15 as long as it is not the PoE version. The PoE version only supports IOS 12 due to the lobotomized flash on that model. So the next model available to us is the 3750 switch. This is a good low cost layer three switch but it is not as easily upgradable as the 3560. But it is a newer switch and something you are likely to see in the real world so you can’t really go wrong with it. However it will only support IOS 12, so if you are super hung up on IOS versions and you have to have IOS 15, go with the 3560 which is why I say it is a little easier to upgrade. Now there are 3750-E and 3750-X switches that support IOS 15, but they are just not cheap enough for most to consider in their CCNP labs.
Finally for your CCIE labs, the preferred switches are the 3560E, 3560X, 3750E or 3750X models. But again as mentioned before, they are a bit pricey. So an alternate solution is the non-PoE 3560 that will cover 95% of the exam concepts.
So hopefully that has helped you wrap your head around some of the common Cisco CCENT and CCNA switches that you may want to purchase with an eye to your future. As a side note, I will mention the following switches are paper weights due to having an older style operating system or a hybrid operating system. Please do not mix them up with similar model numbers as they are 1912, 1924, 2912, 2916, 2924, 2924M, 3512, 3524, 3548.