Information Technology professionals cannot afford to become complacent regarding training. We must keep striving to understand technology lest we become obsolete in our roles. Besides keeping up with technology news and trends, IT pros should regularly practice their craft using labs. This also has the added benefit of providing IT pros a place to experiment safely outside of production environments. This brief post will cover some of the tools one can use to build their own virtual lab environment.


When it comes to networking, labbing is an absolute necessity whether you are studying for a professional certification like the CCNA or merely wanting a place to experiment. When I was studying for my CCENT, the first half of the CCNA, I used Cisco Packet Tracer to simulate a network. Packet Tracer is a free piece of software offered at the Cisco Networking Academy website. Users can place routers, switches, simulated computers, and simulated ISP clouds down on a canvas and connect them all up with copper, fiber, and serial connections. Additionally, the routers and switches can take several optional line cards that support various WAN technologies like ISDN and serial connections.

Although packet tracer worked well enough for the CCENT, I found I needed a more robust tool for the ICND2, the second half of the CCNA. I had issues with some of the more advanced router functions like PPP multilink, OSPF virtual-link, and eBGP. For this purpose, I utilized GNS3, a full network virtualization platform. Unlike Packet Tracer which merely emulates devices, GNS3 runs a virtualized version of actual Cisco IOS devices. What’s great about this is your GNS3 labs can bridge into real networks if you so wish.

When combined with VirtualBox or VMware player, desktop and server virtual machines (VMs) can also be incorporated into the topology and directly controlled from with GNS3. The GNS3 marketplace also has a vast number of virtualized appliances that can be downloaded and integrated into GNS3. Some of these appliances include products from firewall vendors, as well as things like NAC platforms. Switch virtualization is a bit limited, but it seems the developers are working on it. Whether one needs to study for an exam, or merely wants a dev environment for work projects, GNS3 is the go-to network simulator.



Need to brush up on your Linux skills? Want to learn how to stand up Active Directory Domain Services? Virtualization is the answer. Virtualization allows a computer to run many virtualized operating systems on top the base system. You can also take snapshots and checkpoints of VMs if you want to be able to revert to a past state. This is helpful when you are experimenting so that when you destroy a VM, you can return to a time when it was working.

There are many options for desktop-based virtualization, but the primary ones are VMware player, VirtualBox, Microsoft Hyper V, and KVM. The first two are available on all major platforms (Windows, macOS, Linux), but Hyper V is exclusive to Windows, and KVM is unique to Linux. One of the benefits of Hyper V is that it is a type 1 hypervisor, which has direct access to hardware, while the other platforms must request resources through the host operating system. KVM can operate as a type 1 hypervisor but also has some type 2 characteristics. In any case, type 2 hypervisors are usually easier to set up and are recommended for beginners. They can also be installed side by side, while type 1 hypervisors cannot co-exist with other hypervisors.

Hyper V – Ubuntu guest VM

Penetration Testing and Ethical Hacking

Although this area is not one I’ve trained much in, I have done some work with the tools that many ethical hackers utilize. Kali Linux is typically the starting point for anyone interested in this line of work. There are tools to pen test wireless networks, brute force hashed passwords, and deploy command and control malware to computers. A simple search for “Kali Linux Ethical Hacking course” will bring up hundreds of guides on how to utilize the platform.

Please note, these tools should never be used against production networks. They should only be used in an isolated lab environment for educational purposes. I do not endorse unlawfully using these tools.


Whatever your need for these tools might be, they are plentiful and completely free. So, start experimenting, you have nothing to lose.

Additional Resources

Cisco Packet Tracer


Install Hyper-V on Windows 10

Oracle VirtualBox

VMware Workstation Player

Kali Linux

Example of a free ethical hacking course


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