Memorizing facts may get your foot in the door; however, you must also learn to work with actual equipment. While preparing you for real world situations, building a home lab can also help you learn the intricacies of working on physical devices.
Purchasing a Cisco router or switch can help you learn some of the basics; however, acquiring several devices will produce more advanced configurations. You could also download a free network simulator. GNS3 (http://www.gns3.net/) lets you practice router configuration without purchasing actual equipment.
For labs with eight or more devices I recommend a MasterSwitch Power Distribution Unit (PDU) and a Terminal Access Server. These pieces of equipment allow you to easily control the devices in your lab. The PDU turns equipment on/off remotely, and the Access Server connects to all of the devices so you can configure them with ease.
You can usually find a decent router or switch for under $100 on eBay. My home lab consists of ten devices (see below). This setup allows me to create many different topologies, and practice the skills necessary to pass numerous certification exams. I can reliably study for tests relating to Cisco Routing & Switching, Security, and Voice.
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