I'm currently in the process of getting a CCNA certification (well, beginning to, anyway) and I'm starting to think about what kind of setup I should have to experiment with and observe network communications. Packet Tracer is useful, but it isn't meant to be a replacement for actual routers and switches anyway. So I'm looking for something that will give me hands-on experience with networking -- something I can experiment with long into the dead of night, rather than being restricted to the routers at school.
The problem is that I don't know how to do this effectively without spending a ton of money. There are a few things I know I'm going to want to experiment with -- IOS being one of them -- but I'm sure there are quite a few others I'm not even aware of yet. I would be very grateful if someone could steer me in the right direction with advice about what kind of network devices I should get, and anything else I might need to know about for this kind of project.
Oh, and it would be even more helpful if the setup would cost less than $500. I don't have a lot of money to spare.

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You can simulate a router using your PC with some server or professional version of windows or using Linux, while putting more than one lan card (10$ each) in the PC.

Better if you can find almost 3 PCs, old, cheap (max 100$), to do it. And of course 2 small switches (30$ each)

Then tou can play in the concepts of IP networks, sublans, VPNs, Firewalls, routers, bridges using the starndard utilities provided with the OS.

When the conceps are clear is easier to lern a language (like Cico IOS) ) to do it.

Hope this helps
Hope this helps

That actually works perfectly, because I happen to have a bunch of old dell computers lying around. Thank you very much for your advice.

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