A quick introduction to netsim-tools

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The somewhat newly released netsim-tools by Ivan Pepelnjak has been on my “check-this-out” list for a couple of weeks now. It contains a set of tools to simplify the process of creating virtual network labs. In the following sections I will lay out how to quickly get started with labbing on Cisco NXOS 9000v or Cumulus Linux devices using netsim-tools.

Note: Following the 0.8 release of netsim-tools this post received an update to use the pip-way of installing the tools.

Virtualizing network devices ๐Ÿ”—

In the past I have mostly used GNS3 for my virtual network labbing purposes. While this works quite well, I was a little annoyed having to set up the same basic configuration everytime:

  1. SSH access
  2. IP addresses on links between the devices
  3. Routing protocols

Ivan probably thought something along those lines as well when he created netsim-tools.

Vagrantfile for netsim-tools ๐Ÿ”—

I’m using Vagrant for creating my development environment here. For the purposes of this blog post I will assume that you already have Vagrant installed. Otherwise, just take a look at the docs.

The first step will be creating a Vagrantfile for the test VM. I’m running Virtualbox as the Vagrant provider from a Windows 10 machine, but thanks to the power of Vagrant these instructions should work on any OS.

Note: A prerequisite is a host OS supporting nested virtualization, because we will be using KVM inside of the Vagrant provisioned Ubuntu VM.

Note: While I wrote the old version of this Vagrantfile myself, credit for the update to the pip-way of installing in this one goes to Ivan!

Vagrant.configure("2") do |config|
  config.vm.box = "ubuntu/focal64"

  config.vm.provider "virtualbox" do |vb|
    vb.memory = "8192"
    vb.cpus = 4
    vb.customize ['modifyvm', :id, '--nested-hw-virt', 'on']

  config.vm.provision "shell", inline: <<-SHELL
    apt-get update
    apt-get install -y python3-pip
    pip3 install netsim-tools
    netlab install -y ubuntu ansible libvirt
    usermod -aG libvirt vagrant

Make sure to adjust the vb.memory and vg.cpus settings to your needs. Virtualbox starts throwing warnings whenever you have a VM consuming >=75% of the hypervisor hosts memory capacity.

Place this file in a directory on your host OS and then run vagrant up. This will do the following things (and therefore might take a little while):

  1. Download and boot a Ubuntu 20.04 Vagrant box
  2. Enable nested virtualization in the Virtualbox settings of the VM
  3. Install pip inside of the box
  4. Add the vagrant user to the libvirt group so we can use libvirt without sudo
  5. Install netlab to the system python interpreter from PyPI

Note: We are using the system Python interpreter here instead of a virtual Python environment. Normally, this would be a bad idea, but because this is a throwaway VM we can remove that complexity.

Once the machine successfully comes up, you can SSH into it with vagrant ssh. All subsequent command line excerpts are from the VM.

Readying the NXOS 9000v box for use with netsim-tools ๐Ÿ”—

The following section describes how to ready a Cisco NXOS 9000v box for virtual labbing. If you aren’t set on a vendor I recommend you check out Cumulus Linux as they provide the most-hassle free Vagrant box experience (it’s available on the public Vagrant registry!). Just use the OS “cumulus” inside of the topology file further down.

Netsim-tools provides tools to perform the following tasks:

  • Automate file creation based on a simple topology file for
    • Vagrantfile
    • Ansible inventory
  • Deploy initial configuration with various optional features (e.g. basic routing protocol configuration) using Ansible
  • Various other utilities for configuration management

Unfortunately, you still have to put in a little leg work yourself to get the VMs from the vendors. Juniper, Cisco and Arista for example all allow for downloads of virtual appliances, but only once you sign up on their web sites. Take a look at Ethan Banks blog post on this topic here. He explains where to find free networking lab images. In the coming steps I will assume that you have downloaded a copy of a NXOS 9000v Vagrant box and put that file into the directory containing the Vagrantfile of the Ubuntu VM (Vagrant automatically syncs that directory to /vagrant in the guest operating system).

Note: While netsim-tools supports a Virtualbox backend for some of the VMs (including the NXOS 9000v) I will, for the purposes of this blog post, be using a libvirt backend.

In order to use that box with Vagrant and Ivan’s tools you have to convert the downloaded box to the libvirt provider with https://github.com/sciurus/vagrant-mutate and repackage it with the correct version and name for netsim-tools to pick up. Don’t worry if the mutate command takes a while - it has to copy the contents of the entire box file at some point. The mv command is used to rename the box to the name at which netsim-tools expects the box to be.

Note: You can skip the step of copying into /tmp and have vagrant mutate read from /vagrant directly - I opted not to do this because my vagrant mutate command always seemed to stall out at 99% when reading diretly from the shared folder.

$ ls /vagrant
$ vagrant plugin install vagrant-mutate
$ cp /vagrant/nexus9300v.9.3.7.box /tmp
$ vagrant mutate file:///tmp/nexus9300v.9.3.7.box libvirt
$ mv ~/.vagrant.d/boxes/nexus9300v.9.3.7/ ~/.vagrant.d/boxes/cisco-VAGRANTSLASH-nexus9300v

At this point you could start using the box manually, but we will be leveraging netsim-tools to do most of the hard lifting for us. You might also want to copy the box folder ~/.vagrant.d/boxes/cisco-VAGRANTSLASH-nexus9300v back to /vagrant in case you ever need to vagrant destroy you Ubuntu VM.

Using netsim-tools ๐Ÿ”—

Netsim-tools uses a YAML files to describe topologies. These include the actual nodes to be provisioned, links between the nodes, any modules to be deployed onto the nodes and finally configuration for those modules.

Copy the content of the following topology file into any folder inside of the box, for the purposes of this tutorial I will be using the home folder.

Note: As mentioned above, if you skipped the NXOS 9000v part you can use “cumulus” as the device type here and it will just work without any further preparation.

module: [ bgp, ospf ]

  as: 65000
  device: nxos
  - name: r1
  - name: r2
  - r1-r2

This describes two connected Cisco NXOS with basic OSPF config to ensure loopback interface reachability in order for a BGP session to be established over those loopback interfaces.

The netlab create python script defaults to ./topology.yml as the input and generates the following files as its output:

  • Vagrantfile
  • hosts.yml (Ansible inventory)
  • ansible.cfg
$ ls
$ netlab create
Created provider configuration file: Vagrantfile
Created group_vars for nxos
Created host_vars for r1
Created host_vars for r2
Created minimized Ansible inventory hosts.yml
Created Ansible configuration file: ansible.cfg

Make sure to take a look into the generated Vagrantfile. All the configuration we entered manually when we instantiated the Ubuntu VM we are currently operating in have been auto-generated for us by netsim-tools.

A subsequent vagrant up creates all the machines in the topology with the appropriate links. This takes a couple of minutes on my setup; your mileage may vary.

Debugging Vagrant / libvirt / vendor issues ๐Ÿ”—

If you experience any issues during vagrant up, you can use the following steps to debug the installation process:

  • List all the virtual machines created with libvirt with virsh list
  • Console into any failing devices with virsh console netsim-tools_r1

I had one central problem which I found using this process:

Neither NXOS nor Junos liked my setup with a Ubuntu VM using an AMD CPU. This lead to issues where the Junos machine wouldn’t boot at all or the NXOS machine was unable to save its running configuration to the startup configuration.I had to set domain.cpu_mode = "custom" on most VMs which sets the --cpu qemu64 flag for the qemu command that runs the VM. This hinders performance but made all the machines run fine. With release 0.6.2 of netsim-tools this should be resolved, as the cpu_mode parameter is automatically set to customwhenever an AMD CPU is used.

Using Ansible with netsim-tools ๐Ÿ”—

After your VMs are all set up you can use Ansible to deploy the initial configuration (including BGP and OSPF) to the virtual machines. The following basically command acts as a frontend to ansible-playbook running a playbook to deploy a specified set of commands in order to configure the configuration described in the topology file:

$ netlab initial

Once that’s done you can SSH into one of the machines and take a look at the routing protocol state. netlab also provides a handy shorthand for this:

$ netlab connect r1
r1# sh ip ospf neighbors
 OSPF Process ID 1 VRF default
 Total number of neighbors: 1
 Neighbor ID     Pri State            Up Time  Address         Interface          1 FULL/ -          00:00:08        Eth1/1
r1# sh ip bgp neighbors | i "neighbor is"
BGP neighbor is, remote AS 65000, ibgp link, Peer index 3
r1# sh ip route
IP Route Table for VRF "default"
'*' denotes best ucast next-hop
'**' denotes best mcast next-hop
'[x/y]' denotes [preference/metric]
'%<string>' in via output denotes VRF <string>, ubest/mbest: 2/0, attached
    *via, Lo0, [0/0], 00:01:25, local
    *via, Lo0, [0/0], 00:01:25, direct, ubest/mbest: 1/0
    *via, Eth1/1, [110/41], 00:00:58, ospf-1, intra, ubest/mbest: 1/0, attached
    *via, Eth1/1, [0/0], 00:01:23, direct, ubest/mbest: 1/0, attached
    *via, Eth1/1, [0/0], 00:01:23, local

As you can see at this point the routing protocol neighborships have been successfully established.

Apart from deploying pre-baked initial configurations we can also use the netlab config command to deploy our own custom configuration templates to the devices as follows:

$ echo "no feature telnet" > config.j2
$ netlab config config.j2

Note that all this passes every argument except for the first one verbatim to ansible-playbook, which allows you to control its behavior. You can of course get more complex with those templates rather than merely disabling telnet.

Conclusion ๐Ÿ”—

In this blog post I demonstrated how to use Vagrant, netsim-tools and Linux to build a virtual network lab. I personally feel like the instant Ansible integration and batteries-includedness regarding boilerplate routing protocol configuration are useful enough for me to forgive the lack of a shiny graphical user interface guiding me through the process. Finally, I’d like to thank Ivan Pepelnjak for his patience in accepting my many pull requests over the course of my exploration into the world of netsim-tools.

If you want to find out more about netsim-tools, make sure to visit Ivan’s blog about it. Thanks for reading!