The Hunt for a Cisco ACI Lab

As an independent consultant one of the things I have to provide for myself are labs.

It’s a wonderful time for labs! Virtual capabilities and offerings make testing and modeling a clients network easier than ever.

Cisco DevNet offers “Always On” Sandbox devices that are always there if you need to test a “unit of automation”. Network to Code labs are also available on demand (at a small cost) and a huge time saver.

But Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) is a different animal altogether.

Cisco offers a simulator (hardware and VM) (check out the DevNet Always On APIC to see it in action) which is terrific for automation testing and configuration training but there is no data plane so testing routing, vpcs, trunks, and contracts is a non starter. For that you need the hardware…and so began my search for an ACI Lab for rent.

The compilation below is still a work in progress but I thought I would share my findings, so far, over the last 6 months.

First let’s set the context.

I was looking to rent a physical ACI lab (not a simulator) with the following requirements:

  • Gen2 or better hardware (to test ACL logging among other things) and ACI 4.0 or later
  • Accessible (Configurable) Layer 3 device or devices (to test L3 Outs)
  • Accessible (Configurable) Layer 2 device or devices (to test L2)
  • VMM integration (vCenter and ESXi Compute)
  • Pre configured test VMs
  • My own custom test VMs
  • A means of running Ansible and/or Python within the lab environment and cloning repositories

Going in, I didn’t have a timeframe in mind. I would take a 4 hour block of time or a week and that is still the case. I also realized that it was unlikely anything for rent would meet all of my requirements but that was the baseline I would use to assess the various offerings.

A lower cost option for just a few hours is handy for quick tests.  Having a lab for a week is very nice and gives you the latitude to test without the time pressure.

Out of 13 possible options, I’ve tried 4. Two were very good and I would use them again and 2 were the opposite.

Recommendations:

While the INE lab is a bit difficult to schedule (you have to plan ahead which isn’t compatible with my “immediate gratification” approach to things) it’s a terrific lab with configuration access to the L2/L3 devices which gives you good flexibility.  

NterOne also offers a terrific lab and I was able to schedule it within a week of when I called. The lab is superbly documented and designed so as to make it very easy to understand. I got two pods/tenants which gave me some good flexibility in terms of exporting and testing contracts etc. The L2 and L3 devices are read only and pre-configured so those are a little limiting.

Some observations:

  • So far, no one is running Gen2+ equipment.
  • Almost all of the designs I have seen have single link L2/L3s so its difficult to test vpcs (and you generally need access to the other device unless its been preconfigured for you).
  • All the labs were running ACI 4.x

Global Knowledge has some interesting offerings and I was very excited initially but even getting the simplest answer was impossible. Like many larger companies, if you try to deviate from the menu it does not go well. I moved on.

INE, NterOne, and Firefly all spent the time understanding my requirements and offering solutions. Sadly Firefly was way out of my price range.

On a final note, I would avoid My CCIE Rack and CCIE Rack Rentals which may actually use the same lab. Documentation is terrible and I’ve tried 3 or 4 times and have gotten in about 50% of the time. The first time, I didn’t realize I needed to rent both of their DC labs (one has ACI and the other gives you access to the L2/L3 devices). The last time I rented a lab (both labs) they just simply cancelled my labs and never responded to emails either before or after.  If you have money you would like to dispose of, send it here (Coral Restoration Foundation Curaçao) or some other worthy cause. A much better use of those funds I’d have to say.

If anyone has has good experience with an ACI Lab rental that I’ve not included here I would love to hear about it!

Kudos to INE and NterOne for great customer service and flexibility!  

Summary

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1. The INE Staff was open to allowing me to put some of my own repos and tools into the environment but when I scheduled the lab that became problematic.    INE was very honorable and let me have the lab in the non-customized way for the week without charge since they were not able to honor my customization request at that time!!

2. The Student Jump box can be customized which was very nice (I had access to my GitHub repos) and Python was available although it was Python 2.7.

3. Cost is not unreasonable but there is a minimum of

4. students so unless you have 3 like minded friends it becomes very expensive. 4 I’ve always been a big fan of Global Knowledge but my interactions with them were not positive.  I could not get even the most basic question answered (for example, did they have a money back guarantee or 30 day return policy since I was never able to get my more specific questions answered?  I figured if I had 30 days to see if the lab met my requirements then I could test it out and find out for myself.)

5.  Great customer service but the pricing was a non starter. $$$+ per day and it would have bene limited to business hours

6. When I first reached out with questions about their ACI lab they said it would not be available until late October (I assumed this year).  When I reached out in November, they didn’t even answer the question so clearly this is still al work in progress.

7. Worthy of further investigation


Details and Links

Cost Legend:

  • $ Less than $200
  • $$ Hundreds
  • $$$ Thousands

INE $$

CCIE Data Center – 850 Tokens/Week (Weekly rentals only) (1$ = 1 Token)

Excellent lab but very busy (because it’s very good) and so can be difficult to schedule.

NterOne $$

Excellent lab with good functionality at a reasonable price point.

Fast Lane $$$

Minimum of 4 Students @ $439/Student

Global Knowledge $$$

On Demand (12 Months)

Very poor customer support (my experience)

CloudMyLab

Lab not available yet. No timeframe given.

Octa Networks

More course focused but awaiting response.

Labs 4 Rent

INDIA: +91-9538 476 467  |  UAE: +971-589 703 499 | Email: info@labs4rent.com

No response to emails

FireFly $$$+ /day

Too expensive (for me)!

Rack Professionals

Needs further investigation

NH Networkers Home

+91-8088617460 / +91-8088617460

Needs further investigation

Micronics Training

They do not rent out their racks.

My CCIE Rack $

support@myccierack.com. Whatsapp number- 7840018186

Very poor experience

CCIE Rack Rentals $

support@ccierack.rentals WhatsApp : +918976927692

Very poor experience