During the November 14th vBrownBag, which is an excellent weekly webinar dedicated to many interesting virtualization topics, the question was raised on Twitter about mapping the VMware certification levels to their corresponding counterparts in Cisco certification. That caught me a bit off guard at first because certification programs among the various vendors tend to be very insular and don’t compare well to other programs. The Novell CNE isn’t the same animal as the JNCIE. It’s not even in the same zoo. Still, the watermark for difficult certifications is still the CCIE for most people, due to its longevity and reputation as a tough exam. Some were wondering how it compared to the VCDX, VMware’s premier architect exam. So I decided to take it upon myself to write up a little guide for those out there that may be Cisco certification junkies (like me) and are looking to see how their test taking skills might carry over into the nebulous world of vKernels and port groups. Note that I’m going to focus on the data center virtualization track of the VMware certification program, as that’s the one I’ve had the most experience with and the other tracks are relatively new at this time.
The VMware Certified Professional (VCP) is most like the CCNA from Cisco. It’s a foundational knowledge exam designed to test a candidate’s ability to understand and configure a VMware environment consisting of the ESXi hypervisor and vCenter management server. The questions on the VCP tend to fall into the area of “Which button do you click?” and “What is the maximum number of x?” types of questions. These are the things you will need to know when you find yourself staring at a vCenter window and you need to program a vKernel port or turn on LACP on a set of links. Note that according to the VCP blueprint, there aren’t any of those nasty simulation questions on the VCP, unlike the CCNA. That means you won’t have to worry about a busted Flash simulation that doesn’t support the question mark key or other crazy restrictions. However, the VCP does have a prerequisite that I’m none too pleased about. In order to obtain the VCP, you must attend a VMware-authorized training course. There’s no getting around it. Even if you take the exam and pass, you won’t get the credential until you’ve coughed up the $3000 US for the class. That creates a ridiculous barrier to entry for many that are starting out in the virtualization industry. It’s difficult in some cases for candidates to pony up the cost of the exam itself. Asking them to sell a kidney in order to go to class is crazy. For reference, that’s two CCIE lab fees. Just for a class. Yes, I know that existing VCPs can recertify on the new version without going to class. But it’s a bit heavy handed to require new candidates to go to class, especially when the material that’s taught in class is readily available from work experience and the VMware website.
The next tier of VMware certifications is the VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP). This is actually split into two different disciplines – Data Center Administration (DCA) and Data Center Design (DCD). The VCAP-DCA is very similar to the CCIE. Yes, I know that’s a pretty big leap from the CCNA-like VCP. However, the structure of the exam is unlike anything but the CCIE in Ciscoland. The VCAP-DCA is a 4-hour live practical exam. You are configuring a set of 30-40 tasks on real servers. You have access to the official documentation, although just like the CCIE you need to know your stuff and be able to do it quickly or you will run out of time. Also, just like the CCIE, you are given constraints on some things, such as “Configure this task using the CLI, not the GUI.” When you leave the secured testing facility, you won’t know your score for up to fifteen days until the exam is graded, likely by a combination of script and live person (just like the CCIE). David M. Davis of Trainsignal is both a CCIE and a VCAP and has an excellent blog post about his VCAP experience. He says that while the exam format of the VCAP is very similar to the CCIE, the exam contents themselves aren’t as tricky or complicated. That makes sense when you think about the mid-range target for this exam. This is for those people who are the best at administering VMware infrastructure. They know more than the VCP blueprint and want to show that they are capable of troubleshooting all the wacky things that can happen to a virtual cluster. Note that while there is a recommended training class available for the VCAP, it isn’t required to sit the test. Also note that the VCAP is a restricted exam, meaning you must request authorization in order to sit it. That makes sense when you consider that it’s a 4-hour test that can only be taken at a secured Pearson VUE testing center.
The other VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP) exam is the Data Center Design (DCD) exam. This is where the line starts to blur between people that spend their time plugging away and configurations and people that spend their time in Visio putting data centers together. Rather than focusing on purely practical tasks like the VCAP-DCA, the VCAP-DCD instead tests the candidate’s ability to design VMware-focused data centers based on a set of conditions. The exam consists of a grouping of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and in-exam design sessions. The latter appears to have some Visio-like design components according to those that have taken the test. This would put the exam firmly in the territory of the CCDP or even the CCDE. The material on the DCD may be focused on design specifically, but the exam format seems to speak more to the kind of advanced questions you might see in the higher level Cisco design exams. Just like the DCA, there are recommended courses for the DCD (like the VMware Design Workshop), but these are not requirements. You will receive your score as soon as you leave, since there aren’t enough live configuration items on the exam to warrant a live person grading your exam.
The current king of the mountain for VMware certifications is the VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX). This the VMware’s premier architecture certification. It’s also one of the most rigorous. A lot of people compare this to the CCIE as the showcase cert for a given industry, but based on what I’ve seen the two certifications only mirror each other in number of attempts per candidate. The VCDX is actually more akin to the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr) or Microsoft Certified Master certification. That’s because rather than have a lab of gear to configure, you have to create a total solution around a given problem and demonstrate your knowledge to a council of people live and in person. It’s not a inexpensive, either in terms of time or cost. You have to pay a $300 fee to even have your application submitted. This is pretty similar to the CCIE written exam. However, even if you submit the proposal, there’s no guarantee you’ll make it to the defense. Your application has to be scrutinized and there has to be a reasonable chance of you defending it. If you’re submission isn’t up to snuff, you get recycled to the back of the pile with a pat on the head and a “try again later” note. If you do make the cut, you have to fly out to a pre-determined location to defend. Unlike Cisco’s policy of having a lab in many different locations all over the world, the defense locations tend to move around. You may defend at VMWorld in San Francisco and have to try again in Brussels or even Tokyo. It all really depends on timing. Once you get in the room for your defense, you have to present your proposal to the council as well as field questions about it. You’ll probably have to end up whiteboarding at some point to prove you know what you’re talking about. And this council doesn’t accept simple answers. If they ask you why you did something, you’d better have a good answer. And “Because it’s best practice” doesn’t cut it either. You need to show an in-depth knowledge of all facets of not only the VMware pieces of the solution, but third party pieces as well. You need to think about all the things that you would put into a successful implementation, from environmental impacts to fault tolerance. Implementation plans and training schedules could also come up. The idea is that you are working your way through a complete solution that shows you are a true architect, not just a mouse-clicker in the trenches. That’s why I tend to look at the VCDX as above the CCIE. It’s more about strategic thinking instead of brilliant tactical maneuvers. Read up on my CCAr post from earlier this year to get an idea of what Cisco’s looking for in their architects. That’s what VMware is looking for too.
That’s VMware certification in a nutshell. It doesn’t map one-to-one to the existing Cisco certification lineup, but I would argue that’s due more to the VMware emphasis on practical experience versus book learning. Even the VCAP-DCD, which would appear to be a best practices exam, has a component of live drag-and-drop design in a simlet. I would argue that if Cisco had to do it all over again, their certification program would look a lot like the VMware version. I talked earlier this year about wanting to do the VCAP in some form this year. I don’t think I’m going to get there. But knowing what I know now about the program and where I need to focus my studies based on what I’m doing today, I think that the VCAP is a very realistic goal for 2013. The VCDX may be a bit out of my league for the time being, but who knows? I said the same thing about the CCIE many years ago.