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Home Labs
The relevance of this page to you will depend on your experience level and the certification you are taking. Before we get into this topic, consider the following:
  • Studies show that most people have higher retention levels when learning with a hands-on approach.
  • Employers want to hire people with skills, not knowledge. Skills are developed by DOING, not reading.
  • Certifications are a means to validate your skills with a given product or technology.
These 3 statements present a pretty compelling argument for having some sort of hands-on training. Ideally, certification candidates will have real world experience working with the products that they are going to be tested on. If you lack real world experience, a home lab can be a great way to get hands on experience and really learn the material, rather than just memorizing a bunch of information.

The problem with this is that most people can't afford to set up a full-fledged corporate network in their house, even if they had the room for it. Fortunately, there are inexpensive ways to get a good home lab. The types of equipment and software you will need depends on the certification that you are working on. Below we will go through some of the various home lab configurations and show you how to minimize the cost.

Computer Equipment
If you are already working in the IT industry, your workplace might provide a good opportunity to play around with the computers that you need, particularly if your company has a test lab. If you do not have this type of access, then you may want to consider setting up a couple of computers at home for your lab. It used to be that you could easily build your own computer for much less than the cost of a prebuilt one, but things have really changed in the last couple of years, and in most cases, we think that you will find prebuilt computers a more cost effective method. Below are some places to get really good deals on prebuilt computers.
  • Check with medium to large companies in your area. When companies upgrade their equipment, the old computers are either recycled, sold, or given to charity. If you can find the right contact person in a company, they may be willing to either give or sell (at a very low rate) some of their old equipment.
  • Gateway - Offers computers for as low as $400.
  • Dell - Computers for as low as $400.
  • Dell Outlet - Refurbished Dell computers.
  • Dell Auction - Refurbished Dell computers for auction.
  • TechforLess - Refurbished equipment.
  • PriceWatch - Refurb/open box deals.
  • CraigsList - An excellent classified ad site.
And of course there is always Ebay.

If you are working on a hardware related exam such as CompTIA's A+, then building the computers is probably the route you want to take. There are several sites that offer very good deals on components. Here are a couple:
  • PriceWatch - This site lists deals and specials from tons of retailers.
  • CraigsList - An excellent classified ad site.
Virtual Networking
If you need to play around with multiple operating systems, you can always buy 1 PC and then dual boot it. The problem with this is that if you need to practice in a networked environment, this configuration doesn't help much. The solution to this problem is VMWare Workstation. For $189 you can create multiple virtual computers on one desktop. Most importantly, these virtual machines can be configured in a virtual network allowing you to create an entire network without having to purchase additional computers or network components. Put VMWare on a laptop and you have a mobile lab that you can use anywhere. Certification candidates that have used this software, swear by it!

Routers and Switches
This section is mainly for those pursuing Cisco certifications such as the CCNA or CCNP. Ideally, it would be nice to have a rack of routers at home to practice on, but this isn't practical or affordable for most people. Having said that, you can get some decent deals on routers the following sites:

  • RouterMall - Best prices on used routers.
  • UsedRouter - Offers used routers.
  • UsedRouters - Same as above, however, they seem to have a better selection and comparable prices.
  • Bizi - Refurbished routers. Not sure about the prices, because they are not posted on the site and you have to order a quote.
  • And of course, there is always
If buying routers is not an option for you, how about working with routers online? There are several sites that offer this service listed below: Keep in mind that the free options might not have a lot of available slots available. If you are on a schedule, you might have to purchase time from one of the pay sites.

The final option is to purchase router simulation software. Router sims are nice because the usually include a set of labs and you can go through these as many times as you want without worrying about being charged for the time. The downside is that they usually do not support all of the features of a real router, and some are better than others in this respect. Here are the options that we are aware of: Additional Links
Here are some additional links that discuss how to set up your home lab:

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