Packet Tracer for No-Hardware Learning
Probably the most important thing about getting certified for Cisco, whether you're after a simple CCENT, or your going all the way up to CCIE, is to gain hands on experience. You can read the books over and over again, but when it's time to take the test, how will you perform when faced with a command line?

One method for gaining hands on learning is to buy used gear like the 2811 routers and Catalyst 2960 switches. But that takes real money and it can be challenging to find good deals sometimes.

Perhaps the better method is to simulate a Cisco lab! Cisco Net Academy provides an awesome tool called PacketTracer that will let you build and simulate real Cisco networks without having to use physical hardware. You can snag it for free (or at least a free version of it) by enrolling in Cisco NetCad (which is also free) and start playing with real Cisco CLI environments and simulating actual networks.

There's also a post in the Tutorials section with a few links to youtube tutorials on how to actually get started using Packet Tracer.

I just started playing with it this weekend and I've already got a good sized BGP network setup to act like a small ISP to provide wide spread internet connection to a large number of "users" (dummy pcs that can pretty much just ping other systems on the network). It's been pretty fun to see what all you can do with a large network without having to actually own a large network.

I'll try and come up with some cool challenges for anyone who's actually interested in this stuff.

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