How to Setup Wireless Labs for Home Study: CWNA, CWNE
Continuous improvement and lifelong learning is the path of successful professionals. Learning new technologies while using your current skill set on the job is a great way to quicken your career progression and open the door to new opportunities. Many people find it difficult to learn new technologies adequately without hands-on time to practice with hardware and software solutions they are unfamiliar with.
Creating a home lab, working through defined lab scenarios, and consistently experimenting with new technologies will help you grow using these technologies and increase the value you can offer to your company and those you serve. Here are a few ways to get started with your home lab and grow your skills as a wireless engineer.
Home Lab Basics for the CWNA & CWNE
The key to starting a home lab for the CWNA or CWNE (or just experimentation) is to reproduce the same technical contexts you will find in the real world. This means two things:
Creating a real “corporate” network in your home, complete with the typical network services you would be interoperating with as a wireless engineer.
Finding and following specific wireless lab scenarios that you can try to gain skills and experience.
Creating Basic Wireless Home Lab Infrastructure
Building a CWNA or CWNE wireless home lab starts with emulating a production environment so you can practice with realistic scenarios that you will encounter in the field. A few examples of services you will find in typical business networks include: multiple VLANs and subnets, Routing protocols, layer 2-3 port channeling, RADIUS, DHCP, and DNS.
Creating this foundation of common network services will give you the flexibility you need to apply wireless protocols and services in the right context. It is not enough to understand wireless technology or protocol only. Uou typically must also integrate it with other key network services, or at least work with the responsible engineer for those services. Both of these scenarios are more easily navigated if you have experimented with the technology before.
Here are some examples of semi-affordable methods for implementing these technologies at home, to extend your lab:
Implement an enterprise network with Cisco, Ubiquiti Unifi, Cisco Meraki GO, or
other refurbished/second-hand networking equipment. Make sure whatever you purchase supports VLANs, multiple subnets, and assigning VLANs and trunks to ports.
Use a refurbished microserver or Intel NUC computer to act as a server. You can install the evaluation edition of Windows Server or Hyper-V server running VMs to create enterprise services infrastructure on a cheap, small, and power- efficient machine.
Use wireless access points that can work with your networking equipment and support technologies such as 802.1q, RADIUS, WP2 Enterprise Authentication, and multiple SSIDs.
Where to Find Wireless Lab Scenarios
The best way to use the home lab equipment you have put together is to find defined lab scenarios that you can follow to learn new technologies. Some great sources for these are:
Online communities for certification study and professional networking (Slack, Discord, and other channels).
CWNA and CWNP Study materials and guides.
Many of these sources are free and will give you full lists of technologies and steps to complete a specific end state or technology. You can then check your work against checklist items to make sure you have configured everything correctly. These are great sources for learning because they often match scenarios you will find working in the real world as a wireless engineer.
How to Build an Advanced Wireless Labs
The next step in experimenting with more advanced wireless technologies is to use equipment that can support more advanced protocols such as Quality of Service (QoS), Wireless security services (WIDS and WIPS), and mesh networking. These are just a few examples of protocols you should be looking for. The Cisco AIR- CAP3502i with a 5508 wireless controller is a great budget-friendly option for wireless lab experimentation.
These two items can be purchased for $195.00 and used together with your basic home lab infrastructure. This combination will cover just about any enterprise wireless lab scenario you can throw at it, all for a total cost of around $400.00 if you shop for deals. You may even be able to find these items for cheaper or free from local technology shops or businesses who are looking to get rid of some old equipment.
How to Build Point-to-Point and Mesh Wireless Labs
Another common need in wireless engineering that has become more popular in the last few years is point-to-point and mesh wireless networking. These deployment models are used to connect buildings, achieve internet connectivity in remote areas, and extend network connectivity across difficult terrain and urban areas.
Point-to-point and mesh networks do not work well for everyday office connectivity within buildings, but they can be used to connect outbuildings on a corporate property or provide guest or vendor wireless access on an outdoor patio. The skills needed to plan, deploy and maintain these networks are a bit different from the normal WLAN deployment models, so you should study the specifics of these types of networks. Here are some ways to get started with each.
How to Build Point-to-Point and Backhaul Wireless Networks
Point to Point, or sometimes called “Backhaul” wireless networks are used to send traffic for many clients originating from a wired or wireless network a long distance over radio. Common use cases for point-to-point networks are to connect two or more network segments across a large physical area where fiber or copper cabling is not available or not practical. For example, you might have two office buildings on a property where one is close to the road and has internet already.
The second, being farther from the road does not have internet or physical cabling but needs a data connection. You could mount a point-to-point radio on each of the rooftops, point them at each other, and configure a network to beam traffic back and forth. This type of link takes careful planning, as it is susceptible to adverse weather conditions, trees, the curvature of the earth, and many other factors. The easiest way to experiment with this type of network is just to try it.
I would highly recommend purchasing some used or refurbished point-to-point radios from a company like Ubiquiti. They make a device called the nano station, which is pretty inexpensive and can be used for links up to a mile long. All you need is two, and you can practice by connecting your shed to your home network.
Mesh networking is becoming very popular in consumer and business. Mesh networking combines the best of point-to-point and WLAN network architectures, providing wireless engineers with extremely flexible deployment models. A common use case for mesh wireless networks is for business office or retail spaces that require indoor and outdoor wireless, but where it is not possible or practical to route cabling to all locations where you would install wireless radios.
For example, you might already have a cable routed to the ceiling inside where you can mount a primary access point. If you have an outdoor space to cover where there is no cabling, you could install an outdoor wireless AP with mesh networking capabilities. Then, the outdoor device creates a mesh network with the indoor AP that is hard-wired, and clients can connect to the access networks of each radio with full roaming and networking support. These are great radios to work with, and it’s worth trying for yourself.
Because mesh networking can be more susceptible to latency and interference issues, it’s important to plan your channel and power usage, as well as the number of radios in a given space.
Again, Ubiquiti makes a great product for learning about mesh networking. You can experiment with two Unifi AP AC Mesh radios for about $200 new, less for refurbished or used models. Use these to try connecting the outdoor spaces of your home to the indoor network with wireless meshing, and focus on tuning power levels and channel numbers for better performance.
Creating a home lab for continued learning and wireless experimentation is a great way to boost your skill level and marketability as a wireless networking engineer. You can often build an inexpensive home lab for study and experimentation by finding equipment second-hand from local companies, or by purchasing from resellers or refurbishing companies online.
These are great points of entry for experimentation and learning and you will quickly find you can learn a lot with a minimal amount of equipment. The only limit to what you can learn and gain experience with is how much time you put in! Make sure to find well-defined lab scenarios online and work through them in your technology lab. You will find these skills invaluable during your work in the field.