Labs – Master Skills by Hands-On Training

Labs – Master Skills by Hands-On Training

In any profession, hands-on experience is key to mastering key procedures and concepts. This is no truer than in IT. We have to be able to troubleshoot quickly, learn the latest and greatest in a short amount of time and be able to successfully work with the tools.  Some certifications even require a certain amount of hands-on time before you can sit to take the certification test. So how do you get this hands-on experience? Labs!

It is now, easier than ever to get a lab setup. You can use multiple types of technology to get your experience and then have a development area to test things before migrating to production. This can be done in your home, software on your work laptop/desktop or set up in an area at work that you connect to while there or offsite.

Physical Lab:

This is a lab that involves physical devices. You could have servers, computers, and networking equipment setup in an area, that you can either work in that area or set up so you can remote into the devices to do work. You could use this type of lab to learn many different types of technology. Need to learn servers? Pick up a cheap server, and set it up with an OS, and features.  Need to learn networking? Get a couple switches and a router, and learn cabling, Images, configuration, commands, etc.  Learn to take PC’s apart and add components to them for better performance.

Technology can be purchased cheap, on eBay or amazon. These places allow you to put together a set of lab equipment and also buy the peripherals needed to get you up and running. You can look through the documentation for the specific certification you want to get, to find out what you need to get.  You can also purchase labs directly from internet sources. They will sell you packages that come with “everything” you need to do the lab. These are usually higher priced than buying individual components, but it comes with the convenience of knowing you have everything you need.

Physical labs allow you to get real hands-on experience. You get to touch and plug in cables and periphs etc. This doesn’t mean that it is better than any other type of lab, it just gives you a different experience. You get the opportunity to plug and unplug, see what happens when a cable goes bad and you have to figure out what happened.

Virtual Environment:

There are many virtual environments that you can deploy to help you learn and create a lab. A virtual environment allows you to take one machine, which is called the host machine and create multiple guest machines. These guest machines are virtual, so if something breaks, or worse, you haven’t screwed up your main machine. This can be accomplished by multiple pieces of software.

VMWare Workstation: This software, allows you to take an ISO of an operating system, and create a machine.  This software is created by VMware. You can spin up any number of operating systems on VM workstation so that you can play with the ins and outs. You can use this for A+ certification, Microsoft  Certifications, and also Security certifications. You can create a large lab of multiple operating systems to get your hands on experience in. $250.00

Oracle VM Virtualbox: VirtualBox is similar to VMWare Workstation, only it is free. This product runs on the Gnu General Public license. Can be used Commercially or for home use. This tool can be used to create guest machines as well with a number of operating systems supported. You can use this tool just like VMWare Workstation for A+ certification, Microsoft Certifications, and security certifications.

VMWare Hypervisor: This program is a free tool from VMware. This tool allows you to create Virtual machines from a server. It allows you to host multiple machines, on a server and allocate Ram, CPU, and other features.  This tool has to be installed on a server to run efficiently. You can get servers cheap on Amazon that come with great storage space and CPU, ram specs. Once you have this installed, you can control your virtual machines all from one spot.


Emulators are software packages, that take the real software and run it in real time. These are used primarily to emulate software or hardware, to get hands on experience. One of the widely known emulators is GNS3. This tool is used to emulate Cisco routers. This tool can be installed for free, however, you will need a cisco IOS to get GNS3 to work.  You can then do anything on GNS3, that you can do with the physical piece of hardware.You can use GNS3 for Cisco certifications, Juniper certifications, and many other network types.  GNS3 also has lab manuals to help you figure out what to study, what tasks to do etc.


Simulators are different from emulators. Where emulators run the actual software that is on the hardware, simulators just simulate what would happen. These are still incredibly helpful, but in previous versions of simulators I have used, things didn’t work exactly like they should have on the system. You can find a large amount of simulators available though for certifications.

Cisco Virtual Internet Routing Lab: This simulates Routing and Switching with Cisco devices. This is directly from the maker! I haven’t used this tool before, so I can’t get full feedback on it, but it looks cool! It looks like it is a replacement to Cisco Packet Tracer, which was only available to Cisco academy students. This tool looks available to anyone. Due to this being a simulator, though, not every platform is available.  $199

Cisco Packet Tracer: one of the original simulators for networking put out by Cisco. This tool allows you to add devices, and start configuring and connecting together. The devices were all pre-installed to which you could use. You would be simulating the IOS and how everything would work. The tool was really handy if you didn’t want to schlep all the hardware with you. It ran in a nice sleek interface. It was only available however to Cisco Net Academy students. Right now it looks like you may be able to download from the Cisco site without being an academy student. This tool is used for Cisco Certifications.

Boson is another company that creates simulators. They have a simulator for network devices and other certifications. Boson has a level of simulator for each certification you want to achieve.

Rack Time:

There are also many providers, that will sell you rack time. This means, all you do is pay for time, and you can use their equipment remotely. Many of these labs, have the equipment you need to configure and troubleshoot for any certification exam. These are normally for network related certs. You use a terminal tool and remote via an IP they give you, and then you can configure the devices as needed. Many times you will be given a map, of the equipment, so you know what devices, and what their ips are. This then allows you to go through exam topics. Then when you are done, they are wiped automatically, and the next person uses them!

Now What?

You do not have to choose one type or the other. You essentially could use multiple times of labs to get done what you need for your learning. Remember, that learning does not have to be a certification. Maybe you want to learn a technology so that you are better prepared to roll it out at work. Maybe you are interested in a specific software package, and you want to learn that.  A lab also can be used just to test development work on, before migrating it to production.

Physical hardware can be used in conjunction with emulations. If you have hardware, you can get the operating system from it and then use the emulator or VM to work with the tools when you are anywhere. You are not limited to just where your hardware is.

After your choose your lab parts, it’s now time to work with them. When I was installing HyperVisor I needed all the help I could get! So start with the website where you get the tools and check for documents on installations and gotchas. If that doesn’t help you, go to the magical YouTube. I was able to find a 3-5 part video on installing Hypervisor, which helped me tremendously get it installed. It walked me bit by bit, till it was installed and ready to use! You can also use YouTube to find Lab instructions.


Ok, now I have my lab and it’s ready to use, now what?! Great Question! If you are studying for a certification specifically, follow their instructions. Run commands the books you are studying tell you to. configure devices the way they tell you to. Hook up cables, and see what happens. If you do not have a book yet, research what the best resource is to study. Also, look to see if there are lab books or manuals available that will walk you through each concept you need to know.

Every cert has a blueprint. The way to learn the topics, and what topics in an order. Fundamentals and then on up to build your knowledge. Use this blueprint to help guide you.  While you are labbing, keep track of what you have done, what you need to do, and what you had struggled with. Keep going back to the topics that you had struggled with, so you can master them. Keep a backup! This is very helpful if something crashes, or you need to look back over work.

Some applications that I like to use that can be used with any of the platforms:

PUTTY: This is a tool that is used to remote to devices. Mostly used for networking devices, it will open the command lines so you can configure and troubleshoot. The tool can use Telnet, SSH, and other remote functions.

TFTPd32: This tool allows you to create a TFTP server on your machine. You can then use this tool to remotely make backup files of configurations, or upgrade IOS’s. You run the tool, choose which NIC to be used as the TFTP server, and then run the commands from the devices to backup what you need or upgrade what needs updating.


I recognize the following Copyrights:

© 2017 Boson Holdings, LLC

© 2016 Cisco and/or its affiliates.

© CompTIA

© Oracle

© 2017 VMware, Inc

I hope this blog post on labs was beneficial for you. Let me know in the comments below what types of labs you would like to setup, or what lab you already setup. Did this post sway you in one direction or the other? If you would like to see other topics discussed, leave them in the comment section below, or click on the “Contact Us” Link above.

If you LOVE our content, subscribe so you will NEVER miss a post. Subscribe to our newsletter by entering your information below,. Notifications will come directly to your email, when posts go up!