Cisco 800 series Routers - the best routers to practice for your CCNA exam and learn the IOS

So many new or aspiring network administrators have asked me “what is the best router to use to learn the Cisco IOS?”, or “what is the best router to use to practice for your CCNA exam?”, or even, “what is the best router to use to connect your home or small business to the Internet?”. While there are certainly less expensive options that might try to fulfill all three of these needs, in my mind at least, there is one clear answer. That is the Cisco 800 series routers. In this article, we will take a look at what this router line can do and how it can fulfill all of these needs.

What is the scoop on Cisco 800 series routers?

The Cisco 800 series router lineup is the least expensive and least performance router that Cisco puts their name on (in their current product line up, that is). While Cisco does own Linksys, I am not counting line system routers in this discussion, other than to say that they are lacking the Cisco IOS and all the features that the IOS brings.

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I am certainly not selling Cisco routers so the point of this article is to only inform you about a product that just might fit your needs perfectly, as it did in my case. With that, let’s learn more about this Cisco 800 series product line…

As we all want to see a picture, let me show you what my Cisco 871W router looks like:

Here is what you need to know:

  • The 800 series routers run the Cisco IOS and have most of the latest and greatest features.
  • The 800 series comes in at least 13 different models with varying versions of the IOS on each so take some time looking at the Cisco 800 series model comparison chart before you make up your mind which one to buy.
  • There are 800 series routers that connect to all different types of WAN connections – Ethernet (such as to a cable model), ISDN, Serial (such as to a T1 circuit), and G.HDSL/ADSL directly.
  • On the LAN side, the 800 series routers support 802.11 b/g wireless and your Ethernet LAN.
  • Yes, the 800 series routers have a GUI interface (called the SDM, discussed below) but, candidly, if all you are going to configure the router with is the GUI interface then don’t waste your money – buy a Linksys instead. The real power of the 800 series router is the Cisco IOS CLI.
  • When it comes to security, Cisco 800 series routers support IPSEC VPN tunnels, VPN remote access, SSL VPN, Stateful firewall, and basic IPS (but make sure you get the right version of the IOS to go on your router – the IOS Advanced Security Image).
  • The street price for a Cisco 800 series routers ranges in price from about $250 to close to $1000. However, you can find these for less by shopping around on the Internet or even by buying one used on Ebay. As these are Cisco’s lower end routers, there are a lot of companies that sell them and a lot of competition on pricing.

So, all in all, the Cisco 800 series router packs a powerful punch.

What is the best router to use to practice for your CCNA exam?

Frequently, I help candidates who are preparing for the Cisco CCNA exam and hope to move on to the CCNP exams at some point. They need to get at least one router to practice their IOS configurations – both for the hands-on portion of the CCNA exam and just to become competent navigating the Cisco IOS.

While you could buy a used 2500 or 2600 series router from Ebay for less (or much less, in the case of the 2500 series), I have been recommending the 800 series primarily because the 800 series can run the latest and greatest version of the IOS code. To run a version of the IOS that is even remotely current on a 2600, you will need to upgrade it to the maximum amount of Flash and RAM. To do this, you will spend at least $100-$200 on top of what you already paid for the 2600. In the case of the 2500, the latest version of the IOS that any 2500 series router can run is 12.3.x and even then it is only the IP PLUS IOS. To run the IP PLUS with IPSEC/VPN and FIREWALL, you have to go down to IOS version 12.2.

The CCNA exam really isn’t that demanding when it comes to what the router needs but if you are going to buy a router to prep for the test, why not buy a router that you could actually use and has all the current features instead of one that.

What is the best router to use to learn the Cisco IOS?

To me, the answer to this is the same as above. If you want to learn the Cisco IOS are you going to choose a simulator or a router that can’t run the latest IOS or the latest features? No, you want to use a router that has the latest and greatest IOS and, most likely, get it at the lowest cost possible.

What is the best router to use to connect your home or small business to the Internet?

While the Cisco 800 series are more complex to configure when compared to a Linksys home/small business router, there is a reason for that. The reason is the number of higher-end features that are offered. Still, the 800 series does offer a decent graphical interface called SDM (deceivingly named, security device manager). Here are a few screenshots of my SDM console looks like:

As you can see, it is a GUI that is similar to a Linksys web-based interface. As the router can do a lot more than a Linksys router can, so can SDM. However, unlike Linksys routers, not everything can be done in the GUI interface. Eventually, you will have to go to the IOS CLI and learn how to use it.


In summary, the point of this article is to educate you on the best router to learn the Cisco IOS and use on small productions networks like your home or small office. The Cisco 800 series are the least expensive Cisco routers that run the full Cisco IOS. They also pack a ton of wireless, routing, and security features into a small package. While Cisco doesn’t need my help to sell routers, I am recommending the 800 series Cisco router to those of you out there where it makes a good fit.

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