Network Simulation Tools for Supporting Teaching in Computer Networks

Network Simulation Tools for Supporting Teaching in Computer Networks

Shao Ying Zhu (University of Derby, UK) and Gerald Schaefer (Loughborough University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0191-8.ch023
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Abstract

Computer networks have evolved dramatically in recent years and consequently qualified and experienced network administrators are highly sought after, which in turn has led to the development of specialised computer networking courses at many universities. In this chapter, the authors investigate the use of network simulation tools as an alternative to be employed in computer networking laboratories. Network simulation tools provide students with the opportunity to freely experiment with virtual computer networks and equipment without the expensive costs associated with real networking hardware. The results of their research show that students appreciate the use of network simulators and see them as an effective approach to learning computer networking concepts and gaining the relevant experience. This was also confirmed by the actual performance of students who experienced different levels of exposure to networks simulators during their studies. The authors furthermore investigate the use of interactive, electronically assessed lab sessions, where students get immediate and interactive feedback while they are going through lab exercises. Their research shows that this approach not only releases the lecturer from less demanding students to better support weaker students, but that this will also lead to improved student performance and better student retention.
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Physical Laboratories Vs. Simulation Software

Physical networking laboratories have the following limitations:

  • 1.

    They are expensive. The cost of network components is high and sometimes beyond the reach of higher education institutions.

  • 2.

    They are difficult to maintain. Networking equipment and software need to be upgraded regularly.

  • 3.

    They are hard to secure. The safety of the equipment cannot be guaranteed, and it is difficult to prevent accidental damages to the hardware by inexperienced student.

  • 4.

    They lack flexibility. Students need to conduct lab session on campus within a certain time limit (2 hours). It is difficult to replicate the same lab without wasting time on initial setup. After the lab, the students have to leave the room to make way for another class. Therefore, if they have not finished their exercises, they will need to wait for the next available timeslot to continue with their lab session. Also, time is wasted in reconfiguring the network equipment to the former network topology.

On the other hand, simulation software is less expensive and easy to upgrade. They are flexible and there is no need to purchase new network equipment regularly. Students can conduct network labs both on campus and off campus (or even on the move with mobile computing). Some labs (such as the one shown in Figure 1) which are impossible to complete in reality due to the demand of a large setup of networking equipment become possible with network simulation programs.

Figure 1.

Sample screen shot of a simulated lab

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