Sunday, December 2, 2012 CCIE Voice Rack Rental Service Review

   It's Sunday morning 10a.m.. I'm at my work since 7a.m. for another lab session using the INE's Rack service (or maybe not :-/ ). That means I woke up at 6a.m. instead being at the warmness of my home relaxing as normal people do. I'm here... Again... My every day life has changed since September (after the Bootcamp that is) doing these sessions every day in order to be prepared. Maybe you're wondering why am I blogging then instead of configuring my lab. Well... I think you understand where this post is going. I'll try to be honest and make a review for the service that INE provides adding a score from 1 to 5. I'll also share my thought on what you should do when it comes to rack rental. I'm close to the end now just 2 weeks before my first attempt for the lab exam. I'll cover some points in this post and I'll follow up with another post after the exam. Read after the break.

   When I was considering my options on what to do with the equipment for my lab back on April I had the two obvious choices. a) To buy/borrow every piece of hardware that would be used with INE's lab workbooks. At that point it wasn't possible for me to buy all this hardware. Not that I can afford it now or in the near future. The cost is huge if you think that we need 5 MCS servers (or one BIG server with loads of memory, CPU and disks to support 5 VMware servers simultaneously), 3 ISRs for every branch site of the topology, 1 ISR for PSTN GW, WIC cards for E1/T1 interfaces and simulating a frame relay (point-to-point) WAN environment, 2-3 switches that support the blueprint technologies so we're talking about 3650 at least, 1 modular switch, CUE module, plus 6 hardware phones. No it was not possible to buy all these. I couldn't borrow either. We just didn't have all the hardware at my company. Time was running. Needed something fast. I  couldn't wait for several weeks to gather all this hardware.
   And then there's another thing. Why should I configure all this, losing my time and having to troubleshoot if something went wrong? So I preferred the second option b) which was to rent a rack from INE. As you've might already known from my previous posts, I've purchased the INE Bootcamp and it came along with All Access Pass, Workbooks and finally 1500 tokens for rack use. I needed 30 tokens for every 8,5 hours of a lab session. So this would provide me with 50 lab sessions. No troubleshooting, almost zero configuration, ready to use. Perfect!

   They've created a very nice and useful guide for the rack, with many options about the way you can connect remotely. There's also a video uploaded to their web site. Basically there are two ways to connect. a) using a router, a switch and hardware phones, doing a L2VPN to INE. b) Using software VPN clients and controlling the remote phone devices with Variphy software. I've chosen the first one. I was able to borrow the phones, the router and two switches for that purpose from our warehouse. You can read THIS post I've written for more details.
Scheduling and Availability
INE enhanced their rack rental scheduling mechanism on 14th of April. Read about this here.

   I'm going to be direct. This is... awful! I don't know where to start. The web interface? Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer could not handle this piece of ... a web page. You cannot use it seamlessly and make it scroll at all times. It's a pop up window with a calendar in it where you select the hours you want to book each day. Scheduled labs vanish! It happened two times for a scheduled session from a previous day to disappear. Could not book another session at the same time because I was getting an error message about duplicated bookings. Some times it didn't merge the 3-hour sessions. After let say 6 hours of continuous use it disconnects you. You lose every configuration progress you've done till then and after a half an hour starts another new blank session. This was meant to be a 3x3 hour session (merged to one 8.5 hour session) but it didn't merge.   
   But this is nothing. The worst part is that when they're running a Bootcamp for one or two weeks, there is no available slot to use. I've spent so much time trying to make arrangements, emailing support, rescheduling hours, dates, the whole schedule of a day, in order to claim a rack  when a bootcamp was running. There is nothing worse to be 2-3 weeks away from your exam (or even months this is not the case) and see that you are not able to make a decent schedule and book a rack whenever you want. My schedule was already pressing, I made personal sacrifices, turned to be a no lifer (of course this was my decision) in order to be able to prepare my self. But INE had different plans for me. This happened three times.  The first two times it was about a 2-week Bootcamp. The third time was about a 1-week bootcamp two weeks prior my exam. For the first two occasions they've managed to provide me a solution at the end. I want to thank one or two persons from INE for their efforts for that matter. For the third one though they couldn't provide me a rack. Remember just 2 weeks before my exam!
   I suggest you not to let your studies depend on INE or any other company that sells these services. Just build your own lab. It'll take more money, time and effort, but it gives you the freedom to arrange things and life your way not theirs, independently. With INE I some times had the feeling that  I was loosing my time.
Score: 1.5/5
Running a lab
   It was decent. I mean the actual use of the rack, at the times that there wasn't any issue with the scheduling. You need to get used to it for the first one or two times but in general didn't have any further issues. But the overall use of the members area is problematic I believe. They did many changes to the back end system right after summer till now. Some times I didn't have access, using the member area, to the solutions of specific scenarios. Once it took them 2 weeks to provide me the video solutions for a specific lab.
   The last week it seems that they had some issues with their VPN connections. Just like today my VPN connection to the INE suddenly stopped working after two hours of use. This gave me the time to write this post.
Score: 2.5/5
    I'm on a GMT +2 time zone so the support is quite problematic in my case. They don't have 24*7 support. I had to wait the next day to get an answer for any matter. Only late at evenings I was able to have an answer on a inquiry but not always. Some times it took them longer to respond. They also have an emergency ticketing system. They are faster with this but there's no response on the weekends it seems. They are trying to expand to Africa and India right now according to this so they might fix this at some point. Technically speaking the support level of the people working there is sufficient I suppose.
Score: 2.5/5

   I wouldn't recommend you to trust this kind of services. Because this is not just INE. I was forced, 2 weeks before my exam, to find another company to rent a rack and do my labs. I was forced  to spend more money that I don't have. The worst part though is the pressure I'm feeling right now. I'll start with the IP Expert 5-lab Handbook by tomorrow (I'll make a review of course). I'll work hard on this for 2 weeks and then I'll take the exam. It seems though that IP Expert also run a Bootcamp this week. So no available racks for the week. They assured me they'll find me a slot on Monday. Students won't attend they said. We'll see can't help it somehow :-( .

Final Score: 2/5