The Problem

Studying the “Software Defined Infrastructure” topics has been one of the more difficult aspects of preparing for the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab exam.

Not only do Cisco SD-WAN and Cisco SD Access require a fair amount of study to understand from a theoretical perspective, but they are also difficult to gain practical experience with. Unless a lab candidate happens to work for an employer that is trialling or using these technologies, then they are entirely dependent upon the offerings of Cisco dCloud or the DevNet Sandbox to gain experience with these technologies legitimately. While these solutions are okay, it is challenging to reserve a Cisco DNA Center instance as they’re either unavailable or booked out far into the future. Even if you were to find Cisco SD-WAN images floating about in the ethers of the Internet, you’re still left with two problems: Cisco SD Access and Cisco DNA Center.

At the time of writing, it is almost impossible to gain experience with Cisco DNA Center assessable items on the lab exam blueprint, unless you own a Cisco DNA Center Appliance AND physical hardware compatible with Cisco SD Access. To add to this frustration, if you look at the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure Equipment and Software List, Cisco has listed “Cisco DNA Center Release 1.3.1” under the virtual machines heading. To my knowledge, this virtual machine has not been made publicly available. Sure, some clever people have figured out how to get Cisco DNA Center running on third party computing equipment, but this remains an imperfect solution because of the staggering hardware requirements associated with this. Cisco DNA Spaces, a cloud-based alternative to the on-premise DNA Center Appliance, looked promising but it presently lacks feature parity.

This begs the question. How on earth am I going to prepare for these topics?


A Costly Solution

I bought a Cisco DNA Center Gen 2 Appliance and two Cisco Catalyst 9300 switches to practice the Cisco SD Access and DNA Center Appliance items on the CCIE EI lab exam.

Before you ask – yes, I am okay, and I am probably not insane.

So, why the hell did I do this considering that Cisco could release a DNAC VM into their next update of CML2 at any time?

Reason #1: Time

I have booked my first CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab attempt for April 7th 2021, and have a second lab attempt in mind for mid-July if I (more than likely) fail the first attempt. This leaves 6 months for Cisco to release VMs, which is something they really could have done at any point throughout 2020.

I more or less have a good idea as to how Cisco SD Access works, but I lack the experience working with Cisco DNA Center to complete any basic tasks with it. Talking to colleagues and industry professionals who work with the technology, I’ve been informed to expect to spend anywhere between 50-75 hours with Cisco DNA Center to achieve what the lab exam requires. Thankfully, CBT Nuggets has the “Implement an SD-Access Fabric with Cisco DNA Center Online Training” course developed by Keith Barker, Knox Hutchinson, and Jeff Kish. I will follow this course from end-to-end to get everything set up before I blitz through some Cisco Press and Cisco Learning Network materials. A huge shout out to Knox for taking the time to chat to me about how I can plan my Cisco DNA Center appliance installation to get up and running quickly.

Purchasing this equipment will also allow me to develop a full-scale, super-charged hybrid lab environment to practice all configuration and optimization tasks. I am curious to see just how far I can push CML2 over the coming 12 weeks.

Reason #2: Career Development

Software-defined networking products are going to be the norm whether we like it or not, particularly as vendors start to provide cloud-based controller options (read: Cisco DNA Spaces). For example, I currently manage one site whose network consists of over 500 switches. While we could continue managing this site manually, it’d be far easier to migrate to a controller-based solution.

I see this purchase as more of an investment of sorts. It will enable me to extend my knowledge of Cisco SD Access and Cisco DNA Center beyond what the CCIE lab exams require, which will increase my employability as businesses continue to embrace the technology. It is also worth mentioning that my CCIE Journey will not be concluding with the Enterprise Infrastructure certification. I already have a second Cisco Expert certification in mind that I would like to pursue, which will require becoming even more comfortable with Cisco DNA Center and its offerings.

Finally, ether-net is evolving a lot over the next 24 months, so understanding this technology will also help with other unannounced future initiatives that I am pursuing.

Reason #3: Increase Accessibility to the Technology

I want to explore how I could lease my lab environment to the serious CCIE EI lab exam candidate until Cisco makes it possible for everyone to study this technology at home.

This is more of an opportunity to provide a service to the CCIE EI community, which also has the added benefit of enabling me to recoup some of the costs associated with this purchase.

I cannot make any promises on when or if this will happen, as it will require a lot of work to set up, so be sure to keep an eye out on ether-net for any announcements.


What Now?

My physical hardware is currently in transit and is expected to arrive in the next week or two. Once I have received it, I’ll be racking, stacking, and throwing a lot of juice at equipment to finish the provisioning of Lab 2.0 – an amazing hybrid physical and virtual lab environment that contains a mixture of enterprise, cloud-managed, and industrial networking technology.

Then it’s on to the final gauntlet of preparing for my first CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab exam scheduled for April 7th in Sydney, Australia.