Network hardware is one of the most fundamental parts of a network. It's an element that, when configured in a network, serves as the foundation of the system.
Network hardware is something most professionals master early in their careers. But individuals just getting started in networking might have a more difficult time understanding how it all connects.
"Routers, switches and network appliances ... are the bread and butter of the network world," wrote Cisco Certified Support Technician CCST Networking 100-150 Official Cert Guide author Russ White. "Creating a network by connecting these things is more than plugging in a few cables and using the network."
Network professionals must use best practices, such as the use of network diagrams, proper device and cable management, and heating and cooling methods, to ensure the efficient configuration of these devices.
These approaches are likely second nature to experts, but beginners who need a deeper understanding of introductory network topics can take the entry-level Cisco Certified Support Technician (CCST) Networking exam, which Cisco added to its lineup in early 2023.
Unlike other Cisco certifications, CCST is unique because it can stand on its own. But network practitioners who want to progress their careers can also advance from CCST to Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and higher certification levels. The CCST exam tests candidates on some of the most important networking concepts like network infrastructure and network security.
In his book, White provides a beginner-friendly overview of topics found on the CCST Networking exam. Chapter 10, "Basic Network Hardware," focuses specifically on physical network components.
In this Q&A, White discusses the importance of hardware, important factors aspiring network practitioners should understand about hardware management and best practices for network pros and CCST exam test takers.
Editor's note: The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
In Chapter 10, you write, 'Laying out the physical and logical design of a network requires a great deal of thought and work.' What kind of work goes into that?
Russ White: A lot of different things. One of the typical things you run into is what's called circuit grooming, where you need to think about the physical layout of where things are going to go and how they're going to get there. Even within a data center, where do I put my top-of-rack switches? Are they physically at the top of rack or the end of row? Is one rack of switches for every three or four racks of servers? And that all [affects how you] add cables. There are all these different types of things you run into from a hardware perspective.
How necessary are network diagrams? What might happen if a network professional builds a network without knowing what the design is going to look like?
White: If a router fails, how is the network going to convert? Where's the traffic going to be rerouted? You don't know any of that unless you have network diagrams. You don't have any kind of sense of what's going on in the world until you have network diagrams. And then there are other things like being able to do the physical layout off of the logical [design].
What advice or best practices do you have about network hardware management?
White: The first thing is always going to be to make it easily replaceable. Hardware is a quasi-commodity. At that level, make it replaceable. Don't ever build anything around a particular chipset if you can avoid it or a particular chipset that has a particular feature set unless you really need it. Always think, 'What's this going to look like in five years?' Future orientation is the big deal with hardware because it should be modular, replaceable. It shouldn't matter whose name is on the front plate.
What do certification test takers typically find the most difficult to understand about network hardware?
White: Most people find the hardware piece to be fairly simple, other than all the connectors. The hard part is moving from hardware to software and the abstraction that entails -- being able to get in your head that these things are a logical world. They're based in the physical world, but they're not the same thing. There's an intermediate in there someplace and abstraction in there. That's really hard for people.
Why is network hardware still important even as networks move to virtualized and software-defined architectures?
White: It's still very important because all this stuff has to run someplace, and the hardware has to have the features to do what needs to be done. You want your hardware to be replaceable, but you have to realize hardware supports certain things.
For instance, at work right now, we use a lot of [Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE)] tunnels. Most of the chipsets there don't support GRE tunnels, so we're in a position now where we need to get rid of the GRE tunnels over time and rethink how we're tunneling. We have customers coming to us and saying, 'You're sending us GRE tunnels. None of the chipsets from any of our current vendors support GRE tunnels. Do something else,' so we have to rethink our architecture around that or at least what technologies we're using. The hardware makes a big difference.
We see the same thing in factory floors. Today, a lot of factory floors just have telephone cables. They don't have Cat5 or Cat6 [cables]. You can't rewire a 10,000- or 20,000-square-foot factory to support new cables. That's millions of dollars, and nobody's doing that work. Now, the [Metro] Ethernet Forum has versions of Ethernet that can run over telephone cables. Hardware really matters because you're still facing the physical limitations of the real world that you've got to run across.
Why did Cisco create CCST?
White: When Cisco approached me about writing this book, they said they'd been teaching the CCNA in high school for years, and they felt like it's too much. The other complaint people often have is that the CCNA and [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)] is very Cisco-specific. They wanted something a little bit less Cisco-specific that would make the career field of network engineering more interesting and more exciting. Rather than questions like, 'Show me how to configure a Cisco router,' it's 'What problems do networks solve? What is it about this career field that's interesting?'
Who should take the CCST exam?
White: It's good for any network engineer who feels like they missed the basics or don't have a complete view. Even if you're a senior network engineer or midlevel and your knowledge is like a pyramid and you think, 'Well, I'm up here working on segment routing or other fancy stuff, but I never really learned about satellite. Where would I go to learn about that?' The CCST is a good way to go back and see. Even the study materials are a good way to go back and see the full scope of the foundation of that pyramid.
And [it's also useful for] anyone who's just starting out. Say you've finished a CCNA and you're thinking about going on to the CCIE but you're feeling a little shaky about the whole field. Going back and taking the CCST exam might be a good way to pick up a lot of the things you're feeling shaky about.
About the author
Russ White is a well-known voice in computer networking, where he advocates for simplicity, privacy and the decentralized internet. He co-hosts The Hedge podcast and serves in a leadership role in the FR Routing open source community. White has created 48 software patents, 16 books and many hours of video training. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an MACM from Shepherds Theological Seminary and an MSIT from Capella University. White's most recent books are Cisco Certified Support Technician CCST Networking 100-150 Official Cert Guide, Computer Networking Problems and Solutions, and Unintended Dystopia.
Deanna Darah is associate site editor for TechTarget's Networking site. She began editing and writing at TechTarget after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 2021.