My Thoughts on IOU-For-Learning

This week, Learning@Cisco announced a new program designed to help those people out there that want a virtualized router platform upon which to study for the CCNA and CCNP.  While the idea behind an emulated IOS platform is one that has been desired for a long time, what Cisco released today isn’t quite what we’ve been clamoring for.  The new programs use the now-famous IOS on Unix (IOU) setup that has been used internally at Cisco for a while now and was made famous by Jeremy Gaddis in this post.  This is also the same platform that is used in the troubleshooting section of the CCIE Routing & Switching Lab.

The new program is completely hosted by Cisco.  All of your access to the IOU environment is done via web and SSH.  You, as the end user, have no access to the files that comprise IOU.  Since the emulator is presented as a component of a learning package, there is no opportunity to modify the topologies presented.  They are canned and align with the courseware you purchase.  This is great for people that are just starting out in the networking world that have no access to the proper gear to learn how to enable telnet sessions and address an interface.  By limiting the access you have to a topology, you get rid of some of the confusion that surrounds tools such as GNS3, namely the dearth of options that tend to confuse the first-time users.

I have a couple of problems with what Cisco’s released so far:

1.  IOU isn’t a true layer 2 emulator.  The software that comprises IOU is great at simulating IOS running on a router.  That’s because it’s essentially an IOS image that has been modified to run on a different “hardware” platform.  So long as all you are worried about is working with routers, IOU is a great resource.  However, if you really want to dive into the second layer of the OSI model, you’re going to come up short rather quickly.  Basic layer 2 configuration is fine for a CCENT/CCNA type of student, but by the time you reach the CCNP level of switching, you’re going to find the interface of IOU wholly unsuitable.  Since IOU emulates a router, it has to emulate switching as it would be on a router with an ESM switch module.  That means that anything that relies on an ASIC to function, such as QoS, is right out the window.  Which means that some of the more esoteric and hard-to-learn parts of using IOS on a switch remain off-limits.  I’ve been able to use 16-port switching modules in GNS3 to emulate switches for some of my studies, but I quickly reached the limits of this configuration with things like advanced spanning tree configuration or specialized tasks like Storm Control.  I think that Cisco needs to put a little more effort into providing an emulated environment for switching.  Finding a way to emulate the ASICs of the QoS functions would make those learning VoIP QoS on 3560/3750 switches much happier.

2.  There’s still no proof-of-concept for engineers.  As luck would have it, I have a small lab at $employer to test some of the things customers ask me about.  It’s been cobbled together with bits and pieces of cast off equipment over the years.  Where I run into trouble are those cases where the customer has a setup that I can’t quite reconstruct with the equipment I have.  What would be nice is a kind of emulation environment that allows me to reconstruct this setup quickly.  This is the perfect scenario for something like IOU.  Being able to quickly reconstruct a customer’s environment or duplicate your own environment for things like change control and internal testing would be a dynamite idea.  By utilizing a Cisco UCS cluster with the right topology files, I could have my WAN configuration duplicated and run several sample configs for maintenance window changes quickly with the capability to roll them back if something horrible breaks.  That’s where the true power of having an emulator lies for the advanced engineer.

3.  Strict control of IOU cuts out the “gray market”.  It’s no big shock that Cisco has taken the stance with the 360 Program that you’re either with us or you’re the “gray market”.  Vendors like Internetwork Expert (INE) and IPExpert have their own courseware and rack space designed to aid their students.  These racks use real routers and switches to allow students the ability to do practical studying.  However, these kinds of study aids are prohibitively expensive for a training provider to get into.  Now, imagine if you could fire up and virtual rack of routers and switches for your students at the touch of a button.  The barrier to entry becomes much lower to those companies wishing to get involved in the training market.  The possibility then exists that you could have some bad apples in the bunch that might dilute the training offered to students and put a black mark against your name.  By holding all the cards in the IOU discussion, Cisco ensures that the technology never leaves their house, so any training partners wishing to leverage the power behind the emulated IOS platform must abide by Cisco’s rules if they want to keep playing.  Cisco can then force training partners to use 360 materials or the equivalent for CCNP/CCNA/CCENT training.  That forces the non-Cisco approved partners out of the space sooner rather than later.

Tom’s Take

Cisco’s getting to the educational platform party ahead of some of the other network vendors, like HP and Juniper, but they’re doing it with baby steps.  High level engineers have been hoping for a truly unlimited emulator for testing things for quite a while now.  I think they’re still going to be waiting for a while to come.  This new learning program is leveraging IOU to replace aging programs like the Boson Network Simulator or the NetSim products.  By tailoring it toward the entry-to-mid learner, it allows them to work out the kinks in the presentation while still keeping control over the platform for the time being.  I’ve heard that they will expand this idea to encompass security offerings and one day the CCIE as well.  I think that the IOU Learning Platform will be integrated into the 360 program and will only be offered as a part of the materials that you receive from your subscription to it.  I seriously doubt that even a CCIE-level student will have unfettered access to IOU in their own lab, since the possibility of a non-crippled version of IOU being readily available creates too many complications for Cisco support.  It’s already fairly easy to get a copy of IOU if you know where to look.  Imagine what would happen if a copy from a CCIE candidate got out into the wild without fixed configurations or limitations that you face in the hosted CCNA version?  I applaud Cisco for the steps they’ve taken in the right direction for allowing students access to emulated educational software.  Now it’s time to observe what happens and meet the needs of those of us on the other end of the scale.

If you think that Cisco needs to offer a full IOS platform for educational purposes, please head over to Greg Ferro’s site and put your digital signature on the educational IOS petition.  The more signatures that are gathered, the more pressure that can be brought to bear on Cisco to show them the will of the engineer.

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