How to Obtain Cisco IOS Software?

Updated:  11/13/2011

Can I download Cisco IOS software?  Where can I get it?

I had a reader ask me this question this week and I thought that it would be a good topic for a short article.  I'm going to further clarify the question that I intend to answer...

How to Obtain Cisco IOS Software Legally?

Simply put, even if you have obtained the Cisco IOS software - you must have a valid license from Cisco to use it - legally.  We all know that there are ways to obtain software on the Internet (for example, IOSHunter), but I'm going to strongly suggest that if you use any of these sources you first consider the potential career ramifications of using illegally-obtained software.  It could be devastating to your career.  While getting Cisco IOS software and licensing via accepted means can be very expensive, it is not nearly as expensive as the damage done to your career if you get an unsavory label attached to you.

Insightful Comments From Wendell Odom

I ran across an article Wendell Odom published in Network World last summer.  At that time, Cisco indicated that they are considering the usage of IOS for self-study endeavors.

Note:  Wendell Odom has since provided an update on Network World which explains that Cisco rolled out "Cisco Learning Labs" instead of providing it for GNS3, et al.

In summary, here is Cisco's latest stance (that I've been able to find):
  • They have talked about it
  • Cisco Learning Labs is Cisco's solution for those that want access to IOS for study purposes
  • No additional options are imminent

GNS3 Emulator

Many engineers and students use the GNS3 emulator to study for Cisco certifications in lieu of actually going out and spending thousands on actual Cisco hardware to build a lab.  While this is a great tool for learning and experimentation - it does require that you obtain the Cisco IOS software yourself for use with their tool.  Cisco does not currently provide a license to use IOS software with software emulators or other self-study tools.

How to Get A Cisco IOS License

There are simply two ways to get Cisco IOS software and a valid license to use it, without risk of violating any copyrights, laws, etc.
  1. Purchase a service contract from Cisco that provides for the download of maintenance releases of IOS to fix bugs, etc.
  2. Purchase Cisco IOS from a Cisco Partner as an extension of a hardware purchase
I'd very much like to hear from readers about other potential methods to obtain Cisco IOS software.  There are tons of discussions out there on the subject, but it always seems to boil down to the two methods I've listed above.

Overview of typical Cisco IOS Usage

Per Conwyn, Cisco Learning Network:
I normally purchase the router, components and software license or a bundle and a upgrade license. I receive a physical router with software, a CD and a white envelope containing the license. The CD is some T version of the software. I am authorized to install once software of that version and feature set. Next I purchase an Independent Smartnet (various options) and I assign the Smartnet contract to my CCO userid. I then can download software from Cisco for bug fixes etc and they are various rules.
Cisco IOS License Terms

Note: The terms below do not provide use for software emulation, only on valid Cisco hardware.  It is also nontransferable - you must purchase an IOS license.
Conditioned upon compliance with the terms and conditions of this Agreement, Cisco Systems, Inc. or its subsidiary licensing the Software instead of Cisco Systems, inc ("Cisco"), grants to Customer a nonexclusive and nontransferable license to use for the Customer's internal business purpose the Software and the Documentation for which Customer has paid the required license fees. Customer's license to use the Software shall be limited to, and Customer shall not use the Software in excess of, a single hardware chassis or card or that number of agent(s),...,as set forth in the applicable Purchase Order which has been accepted by Cisco and for which Customer has paid to Cisco the required license fee.
Petition Cisco for License for IOS Emulator Usage

The folks over at have taken an active approach to try to get Cisco to provide IOS for use with emulators like GNS3.  They've created a petition form to ask Cisco to provide a license that will allow IOS to be used for educational purposes on the various IOS emulators.

I tend to agree that something should be done by Cisco to allow educational pursuits to continue without having to spend large fees to get IOS through their accepted channels and would encourage everyone to support their efforts.

More Information

Cisco Learning Network Thread
Happy Router

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