personally I'd agree with both suggestions so far. In terms of simulators the best of breed is Boson Netsim
. I ordered the CCNA version as a complement to a Cisco Bootcamp and found it really useful (plus it stopped me breaking the live environment under the laws of snafu
). Only downside is that the versions can get costly depending on what functionality you are looking for.
I'm currently trying to evaluate GNS3
, think I was introduced to it from a EH-net forum post but can't find the original (apologises to original poster). Looks promising, but you need to supply your own IOS images.
The hardware approach provides the most realistic (shockingly
) environment and allows for trying some activities that aren't available under simulators (for example hardware resets for password recovery or trying to figure out what is wrong with your MiniCom configuration). In terms of hardware the 1700 series devices are a nice, low-end place to start. Depending on your requirements and budgets I'd suggest taking a look at the Cisco 3750
. As it has functionality at both layer 2 and layer 3, you can create some complicated logical setups using only one device, which can save cost and space when playing in a lab environment.
Hope this helps, let me know if you want some more pointers.