New Cisco Data Center Certifications

Last week, Cisco finally plugged a huge hole in their certification offerings.  Cisco has historically required its partner community to study for specific certifications related to technologies before offering them as specialized tracks for all candidates.  It was that was for voice, wireless, and even security.  However, until last week there was no offering for data center networking.  I think this is an area in which Cisco needs to concentrate, especially when you look at their results for the first quarter of their fiscal year that were just released.  Cisco grew its data center networking business by 61% and their UCS success has vaulted them into third place in the server race easily, though some may argue they are a tight contender for second.  What Cisco needs to solidify all that growth is a program that grows data center network engineers from the ground up.

Cisco’s previous path to creating a data center network engineer involved getting a basic CCNA with no specialization and then focusing on the Data Center Networking Infrastructure certifications.  After the networking is taken care of, there is a path for UCS design and support as well.  But that requires a prospective engineer to pick up NX-OS on the fly, not having started with it in the CCNA level.  Thankfully, Cisco has now addressed that little flaw in the program.

CCNA Data Center

Cisco now has a CCNA Data Center certification that consists of non-overlapping material.  640-911Introduction to Data Center Networking DCICN is square one for new data center hopefuls.  It tests over the basics of networking much like the CCNA, but the focus is on NX-OS devices like the Nexus 7k and Nexus 5k.  It’s very much like the ICND1 exam in that is focuses on the basics and theory of general networking.  640-916 Introducing Cisco Data Center Technologies DCICT is the real meat of data center technology.  This is where the various fabric and SAN technologies are tested along with Unified Computing as well as virtualization technology like the Nexus 1000V.  Of these two tests, the DCICT is going to be the really hefty one for most candidates to chew on.  In fact, I’m almost sure that most CCNA-level engineers can go out and pass DCICN without any study beyond their CCNA knowledge.  The DCICT will likely require much more time with the study guides to get past.  Once you’ve gotten through both, you can now proudly display your CCNA: Data Center title.

CCNP Data Center

Once you’ve attained your CCNA Data Center, it’s time to delve into the topics a bit deeper.  Cisco introduced the CCNP Data Center certification track to compliment the entry level offering in the CCNA DC.  Historically, this is where the various partner-focused Data Center specializations have focused.  With the CCNP Data Center, you have to start with the Implementing Data Center Unified Computing DCUCI and Implementing Data Center Unified Fabric DCUFI exams.  Right now, you can take either version 4 or version 5 of these exams, but the version 4 exams will start expiring next year.  Once you’ve passed the implementation exams, you have a choice to make.  You can go down the path of the data center designer with Designing Cisco Data Center Unified Computing DCUCD and Designing Cisco Unifed Data Center Fabric DCUFD.  Those two exams also have a choice between version 4 and version 5, with similar expiration dates in 2013 for the version 4 exams.  If you fancy yourself more of a hands-on troubleshooter, you can opt for the Troubleshooting Cisco Unified Data Center Computing DCUCT and Troubleshooting Cisco Unified Data Center Fabric DCUFT exams.  Note that these exams don’t have a version 4 option.  There seems to have been some confusion about which exams count for what.  You must take the Implementation exams.  After that you can either take the Design exams or the Troubleshooting exams.

Tom’s Take

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year talking about the CCIE Data Center.  One of the things that struck me about it was how focused it was in its present state on currently trained engineers.  Unless you work with Nexus and UCS every day, you won’t do well on the CCIE DC exam because there isn’t really a training program for it.  Now, with the additions of the CCNA DC and the CCNP DC, aspiring data center rock stars can get started on the road to the CCIE without needing to worry about learning IOS first.  I’m sure that Cisco will eventually retire the data center partner specializations and make the requirement for the Data Center Architecture focused around the CCNA DC and CCNP DC.  There’s no better time to jump out there and get started.  Just remember your jacket.

VMware Certification for Cisco People

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.

VCP

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.

VCAP-DCA

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.

VCAP-DCD

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.

VCDX

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.

Do They Give Out Numbers For The CCIE Written?

I’ve seen a bit of lively discussion recently about a topic that has vexed many an engineer for years.  It revolves around a select few that put “CCIE Written” as their title on their resume or their LinkedIn account.  While they have gone to great lengths to study and take the 100-question multiple choice written qualification exam for the CCIE lab, there is some notion that this test in and of itself grants a title of some sort.  While I have yet to interview someone that has this title, others that I talk to said they have.  I have been in a situation where some of my co-workers wanted to use that particular designation for me during the period of time when I passed the written but hadn’t yet made it through the lab.  I flat out told them “no.”

I understand the the CCIE is a huge undertaking.  Even the written qualification exam is a huge commitment of time and energy.  The test exists because the CCIE has no formal prerequisite.  Back before the CCNA or the CCNP, anyone could go out and attempt the CCIE.  However, since lab spots are a finite resource, some method of pre qualification had to be in place to ensure that people wouldn’t just book spot after spot in the hope of passing the lab.  The written serves as a barrier to entry that prevents just anyone from grabbing the nearest credit card and booking a lab slot they may have no hope of passing.  The written exam is just that, though – a qualification exam.  It doesn’t confer a number or a title of any kind.  It’s not the end of the journey.  It’s the beginning.  I think the rise of the number of people trying to use the CCIE written as a certification level comes from the fact that the exam can now be used to recertify any of a number of lower level certifications, including CCxA, CCxP, and almost all the Cisco Qualified Specialist designations.  That’s the reason I passed my first CCIE written.  At first, I had no real desire to try and get my brains hammered in by the infamous lab.  I merely wanted to keep my professional level certifications and my specialist tags without needing to go out and take all those exams over again.  However, once I passed the written and saw that I indeed knew more about routing and switching than I anticipated, I started analyzing the possibility of passing the lab.  I passed the written twice more before I got my number, both to keep my eligibility for the lab and to keep my other certifications from expiring.  Yet, every time someone asked me what my new title was after passing that test I reminded them that it meant nothing more beyond giving me the chance at a lab date.

I’m not mad at people that put “CCIE Written” as their title on a resume.  It’s not anger that makes me question their decision.  It’s disappointment.  I almost feel sorry that people see this as just another milestone that should provide some reward.  The reward of the CCIE Written is proving you know enough to go to San Jose or Brussels and not get your teeth kicked in.  It doesn’t confer a number or a title or anything other than a date taken and a score that you’ll need to log into the CCIE site every time you want to access your data (yes, even after you pass you still need it).  Rather than resting your laurels after you get through it, look at it as a license to accelerate your studies.  When someone asks you what your new title is, tell them your lab date.  It shows commitment and foresight.  Simply telling someone that you’re a CCIE written is most likely going to draw a stare of disdain followed by a very pointed discussion about the difference between a multiple choice exam and a practical lab.  Worst case scenario?  The person interviewing you has a CCIE and just dismisses you on the spot.  Don’t take that chance.  The only time the letters “CCIE” should be on your resume is if they are followed by a number.

Mental Case – In a Flash(card)

You’ve probably noticed that I spend a lot of my time studying for things.  Seems like I’ve always been reading things or memorizing arcane formulae for one reason or another.  In the past, I have relied upon a large number of methods for this purpose.  However, I keep coming back to the tried-and-true flash card.  To me, it’s the most basic form of learning.  A question on the front and an answer on the back is all you need to drill a fact into your head.  As I started studying for my CCIE lab exam, this was the route that I chose to go down when I wanted to learn some of the more difficult features, like BGP supress maps or NTP peer configurations.  It was a pain to hand write all that info out on my cards.  Sometimes it didn’t all fit.  Other times, I couldn’t read my own writing.  I wondered if there was a better solution.

Cue my friend Greg Ferro and his post about a program called Mental Case.  Mental Case, from Mental Faculty, is a program designed to let you create your own flashcards.  The main program runs on a Mac computer and allows you to create libraries of flash cards.  There are a lot of good example sets when you first launch the app for things like languages.  But, as you go through some of the other examples, you can see the power that Mental Case can give you above and beyond a simple 3″x5″ flash card.  For one thing, you can use pictures in your flash cards.  This is handy if you are trying to learn about art or landmarks, for instance.  You could also use it as a quick quiz about Cisco Visio shapes or wireless antenna types.  This is a great way to study things more advanced than just simple text.

Once you dig into Mental Case, though, you can see some of the things that separate it from traditional pen-and-paper.  While it might be handy to have a few flash cards in your pocket to take out and study when you’re in line at the DMV, more often than not you tend to forget about them.  Mental Case can setup a schedule for you to study.  It will pop up and tell you that it’s time to do some work.  That’s great as a constant reminder of what you need to learn.  Another nice feature is the learning feature.  If you have ever used flash cards, you probably know that after a while, you tend to know about 80% of them cold with little effort.  However, there are about 20% that kind of float in the middle of the pack and just get skipped past without much reinforcement.  They kind of get lost in the shuffle, so to speak.  With Mental Case, those questions which you get wrong more often get shuffled to the front, where your attention span is more focused.  Mental Case learns the best ways to make you learn best.  You can also set Mental Case to shuffle or even reverse the card deck to keep you on your toes.

When you couple all of these features with the fact that there is a Mental Case IOS client as well as a desktop version, your study efficiency goes through the roof.  Now, rather than only being able to study your flash cards when you are at your desk, you can take them with you everywhere.  When you consider that most people today spend an awful lot of time staring at their iPhones and iPads, it’s nice to know that you can pull up a set of flash cards from your mobile device and go to town at a moment’s notice, like in the line at the DMV.  In fact, that’s how I got started with Mental Case.  I downloaded the IOS app and started firing out the flash cards for things like changing RIP timers and configuring SSM.  However, the main Mental Case app only runs on Mac.  At the time, I didn’t have a Mac?  How did I do it?  Well, Mental Case seems to have thought of everything.  While the IOS app works best in concert with the Mac app, you can also create flash cards on other sites, like FlashcardExchange and Quizzlet.  You can create decks and make them publicly available for everyone, or just share them among your friends.  You do have to make the deck public long enough to download to Mental Case IOS, but it can be protected again afterwards if you are studying information that shouldn’t be shared with the rest of the world.  Note, though, that the IOS version of the software is a little more basic than the one on the Mac.  It doesn’t support wacky text formatting or the ability to do multiple choice quizzes.  Also, cards that are created with more than two “sides” (Mental Case calls them facets) will only display properly in slideshow mode.  But, if you think of the IOS client as a replacement for the stack of 10,000 flash cards you might already be carrying in your backpack or pocket the limitations aren’t that severe after all.

The latest version of Mental Case now has the option to share content between Macs via iCloud.  This will allow you to keep your deck synced between your different computers.  You still have to sync the cards between your Mac and your IOS device via Wi-Fi.  You can share at shorter ranges over Bluetooth.  You can also create collection of cards known as a Study Archive and place them in a central location, like Dropbox for instance. This wasn’t a feature when I was using Mental Case full time, but I like the idea of being able to keep my cards in one place all the time.

Mental Case is running a special on their software for the next few days.  Normally, the Mac version costs $29.99.  That’s worth every penny if you spend time studying.  However, for the next few days, it’s only $9.99.  This is a steal for such a powerful study program.  The IOS app is also on sale.  Normally $4.99, it’s just $2.99.  Alone the IOS app is a great resource.  Paired with its bigger brother, this is a no-brainer.  Run out and grab these two programs and spend more time studying your facts and figures efficiently and less time creating them.  If you’d like to learn more about Mental Case from Mental Faculty, you can check out their webiste at http://www.mentalcaseapp.com.

Disclaimer

I am a Mental Case IOS user.  I have used the demo version of the Mental Case Mac app.  Mental Case has not contacted me about this review, and no promotional consideration was given.  I’m just a really big fan of the app and wanted to tell people about it.

Networking Is Not Trivia(l)

Fun fact: my friends and family have banned me from playing Trivial Pursuit.  I played the Genus 4 edition in college so much that I practically memorized the card deck.  I can’t play the Star Wars version or any other licensed set.  I chalk a lot of this up to the fact that my mind seems to be wired for trivia.  For whatever reason, pointless facts stick in my head like glue.  I knew what an aglet was before Phinneas & Ferb.  My head is filled with random statistics and anecdotes about subjects no one cares about.  I’ve been accused in the past of reading encyclopedias in my spare time.  Amusingly enough, I do tend to consume articles on Wikipedia quite often.  All of this lead me to picking a career in computers.

Information Technology is filled with all kinds of interesting trivia.  Whether it’s knowing that Admiral Grace Hopper coined the term “bug” or remembering that the default OSPF reference bandwidth is 100 Mb, there are thousands of informational nuggets laying around, waiting to be discovered and cataloged away for a rainy day.  With my love of learning mindless minutia, it comes as no surprise that I tend to devour all kinds of information related to computing.  After a while I started to realize that simply amassing all of this information doesn’t do any good for anyone.  Simply remembering that EIGRP bandwidth values are multiplied by 256 doesn’t do any good without a bigger picture of realizing it’s for backwards compatibility with IGRP.  The individual facts themselves are useless without context and application.

I tried to learn how to play the guitar many years ago.  I went out and got a starter acoustic guitar and a book of chords and spent many diligent hours practicing the proper fingering to make something other than noise.  I was getting fairly good at producing chords without a second thought.  It kind of started falling apart when I tried to play my first song, though.  While I was good at making the individual notes, when it came time to string them together into something that sounded like a song I wasn’t quite up to snuff.  In much the same way, being an effective IT professional is more than just knowing a whole bunch of stuff.  It’s finding a way to take all that knowledge and apply it somehow.  You need to find a way to take all those little random bits of trivia and learn to apply them to problems to fix things efficiently.  People that depend on IT don’t really care what the multicast address for RIPv2 updates is.  What they want is a stable routing table when they have some sort of access list blocking traffic.  It’s up to us to make a song out of all the network chords we’ve learned.

It’s important to know all of those bits of trivia in the long run.  They come in handy for things like tests or cocktail party anecdotes.  However, you need to be sure to treat them like building blocks.  Take what you need to form a bigger picture.  You won’t become bogged down in the details of deciding what parts to implement based on sheer knowledge alone.  Instead, you can build a successful strategy.  Think of the idea of the gestalt – things are often greater than the sum of their parts.  That’s how you should look at IT-related facts.


Tom’s Take

I’m never going to stop learning trivia.  It’s as ingrained into my personality as snark and sarcasm.  However, if I’m going to find a way to make money off of all that trivia, I need to be sure to remember that factoids are useless without application.  I must always keep in mind that solutions are key to decision makers.  After all, the snark and sarcasm aren’t likely to amount to much of career.  At least not in networking.

Study Advice – Listen To That Little Voice

During Show 109 of the Packet Pushers podcast, I had the unique honor to be involved in an episode that included the uber geek Scott Morris, distinguished Cisco Press author Wendell Odom, and the very first CCDE, Russ White.  Along with Natalie Timms, the CCIE Security program manager and Amy Arnold, we discussed a lot of various topics around the subject of certification.  One of the topics that came up about 37 minutes in was about being persistent in your studies.  Amy brought up a good point that you need to find a study habit that works for you.  I followed up with a comment that I still have a voice in the back of my head that tells me I need to study.  I promised a blog post about that, so here it is only a month late.

I took three years to get my CCIE.  Only the last year really involved intense study on a regular basis.  The previous 24 months, I spent a great deal of time and effort with my regular job.  I picked up a book from time to time and refresh my memory, but I wasn’t doing the kind of heavy duty labbing necessary to hone my CCIE skills.  After I had some conversations with my mentors about what the CCIE really meant to me, I jumped in and started doing as much studying as I could every night.  Almost all of my study time came after my kids went to bed.  Basically, from 8 p.m. until about 1 a.m. I fired up my GNS3 lab and tested various scenarios and brain teasers.  I took me a bit of time before I really settled into a routine, though.  There were lots of things that kept tugging at my attention.  The devilsh Internet, the seductive allure of my television, and the siren call of video games all competed to see which one could lure me away from the warm glow of my console screen.  I had to spend a great deal of time focusing on making a conscious decision to drop what I was doing and start working on my lab.  It’s a lot like running, in a way.  Most runners will tell you that if you can get outside and start running, the rest is easy.  It’s overcoming all the obstacles in your way that are trying to keep you from running.  You have to push past the distractions and keep moving no matter what.  Don’t let an email or a text message keep you from starting R1.  Don’t let a late-night snack run distract you from loading a troubleshooting configuration.  The real key is to get started.  Crack open those lab manuals and fire up your routers, whether they be real or virtual.  After that, the rest just falls into place.

There is a downside to all that training, though.  It’s now been 13 months since I passed my CCIE lab.  To this day, I stil have a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I need to be studying.  Every time I flip on the TV or sit down on the couch, I feel like I should have a book in my lap or have a lab diagram staring me in the face.  I’ve taken some certification tests since the lab, but I haven’t really taken a great deal of time to study something that isn’t familiar to me.  I talked about what I wanted to do at the beginning of the year, and I firmly believe now that I’m halfway through that I’ve missed some opportunities to get back on the horse, as it were.  I know that the only way to satisfy that voice that keeps telling me that I should be doing something is to feed it with chapters of study guides and time in front of the lab console again.  I don’t think it will take the same kind of time investment that the CCIE did, but who knows what it might build into in the end?  I certainly never thought I’d be taking the granddaddy of all certification tests when I first started learning about networking all those many years ago.

For those out there just starting to study for your certifications, I would echo Ethan’s advice during the podcast.  You need to make a habit out of studying.  Many people that I talk to want to study for tests, but they want to do it on someone else’s time.  They want their employer to mark off time for study or provide resources for learning.  While I’m all for this kind of idea and would love to see more employers doing things like this, there is a limit that you will eventually reach.  Your employer expects you to spend your time providing a service for them.  If you truly want to have as much study time as you want, you will have to do it outside working hours.  Your boss doesn’t care what you do from 5 p.m. on.  In the case of the CCIE, it was a whole lot easier for me to try and do mock labs on Saturday than it was to try and do them on Tuesday.  The work week doesn’t afford many uninterrupted opportunities for study.  Nights and weekends do.

Make sure you take your study habits as seriously as you do your job.  It might be easy to kid yourself into thinking that you can just pick up the book for five minutes before the next TV show comes one, but we both know that won’t work.  Unless you immerse yourself in studying, all that knowledge that you gained in those scant minutes of furious reading will evaporate when the theme song to that hit sitcom starts.  You don’t have to have total silence, though.  I find that I do some of my best studying when I have some noise in the background that forces me to pay attention to what I’m doing.  However, if you don’t apply some serious consideration to your studies, you’ll probably end up much like I did in the first couple of years of my studies – adrift and listless.  If you can knuckle down and treat it just like you would a troubleshooting task or an installation project, then you’ll do just fine.

CCDE and CCAr – Why All The Hate?

Cisco Live 2012 gave me an opportunity to sit in a session dedicated to the newer Cisco expert certfications.  BRKCRT-8862 is for CCIEs that are looking at moving to the Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) and maybe even the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr).  The CCDE is a pretty well known certification at this point.  Developed in large part by Russ White, the CCDE tests a candidate on their knowledge of taking a set of requirements and producing a valid design for a given scenario.  Originally envisioned as a board certification exam not unlike the VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX), the CCDE is instead an 8-hour exam with some multiple choice and some fill-in-the-blank type questions.  The CCDE is a prerequisite for the CCAr, which is the culmination of something Cisco is trying to do with focusing on solutions.  The CCAr tends to focus more on the Planning and Preparation areas of the PPDIOO model.  Cisco tends to see them as “big picture” solutions engineers that focus on more conceptual ideas that revolve around things like business contraints and specific use cases.  From what Cisco was describing, it appears that the role of the CCAr is to gather information about the customer desires that will then be given to the CCDEs to generate a design.  The CCAr is a 5-month long board exam that is graded by three judges (mostly existing CCArs) that are with you during the entire process, from the initial submission of your application up until the final board review.  Note that not all those that apply to the program will be selected for review.

The BRKCRT session highlighted a lot of hesitation in the CCIE ranks where the CCAr is concerned.  Cisco has spent a lot of time over the last three years attempting to have the CCDE reach parity with the CCIE in terms of importance.  Had they simply called it the CCIE: Design it would likely have been much more accepted in the community.  However, there is a legacy of the original failed CCIE: Design track from a decade ago, so I’m sure that Cisco wanted to avoid carrying the negativity forward.  Instead, they’ve had to fight the reputation that the exam has gotten for being too focused on very specific technologies or being a bad representation of what a design test should be.  Much of this criticism focuses on the major test developer, Russ White.  When I first heard of the exam going live, many people said it was easy so long as you asked yourself “What Would Russ White Do?”  With the new version of the exam being recently released, as well as Cisco offering the exam at new locations, the CCDE may very well be on the road to gaining a little more respect.

The CCAr, on the other hand, is a pretty big target.  CCIEs are upset that the CCDE is the only prerequisite for the exam.  After almost twenty years of being told that the CCIE is the most important certification inside of Cisco, if not the world, now we’re told that the CCIE isn’t even good enough for us to get our foot in the door of the Architect board.  I think some of this comes from the reality that many CCIEs are called upon to do designs in their every day work.  Often, after a CCIE goes through all the training necessary to pass the lab exam, they have a very good idea of the capabilities of the product set within their particular track.  Therefore, many companies call on them to produce designs, as they are usually the best suited to make the decision between using a particular model of switch or router or firewall.  However, not all CCIEs are good at design.  Many of them have a “bottom up” view of things that tends to lead them down the path of point solutions without regard for higher-level thinking.  Call it a “forest for the trees” type of mentality.  They get so bogged down on the decisions between what line cards to use or why they’d rather use a 4500 in place of a 6500 that they lose sight of the bigger goals.  There’s also no guarantee that a CCIE will be able to produce a valid design from a pile of non-technical interviews and business requirements instead of data sheets and performance specs.  The CCDE teaches engineers how to keep a bigger view of things in mind when planning a design.

The problem, however, is that both the CCDE and CCIE are still focused on providing their respective documents, whether they be for design or implementation.  Someone still has to lay the groundwork for the project and figure out how to focus the task of the designers.  Without an even bigger picture, design is just throwing things at the wall until something sticks.  Some designers understand that and ask specific questions before diving into their work.  These are the folks that are the target of the CCAr program.  Cisco doesn’t just want a bill of materials or a pretty Visio document handed to the customer.  They want a cohesive plan and design delivered to sell a vision, whether it be an architecture like a connected sports stadium or a connected energy grid.  Architects take into account more than just technology.  They are constantly thinking about esoteric things like regulatory laws and other logistic restraints.  These are the kinds of things that CCIEs and CCDEs either shy away from or would rather not think about.

Look at it like this:  The CCAr is like the CEO of the team.  They have the vision and the desire to go out and kickstart things by looking at the big picture.  They have to play the role of project manager and pre-sales at the same time.  They keep a handle on the non-technical aspects of the project.  Once they’ve determined the direction, the send in the CCDEs.  These guys take all the documentation the CCAr has generated and meld it with the best practices needed to create a valid, working design.  Once the CCDEs have everything in order, it’s up to the CCIEs to go out and make it all work.  They are the technical piece that gets the hard work accomplished.  The CCAr may not be typing commands in on the CLI, but they are the ones running interference from the other side by keeping customers appraised and kicking over rocks to find things the designers need to know.

If you’d like to read a few more takes on the CCDE, check out Russ White’s Why CCDE? post at the Packet Pushers site.  Also, read about the journey to CCDE success from CCDE 2012::1, Ronnie Angello (@rangello)

Tom’s Take

I’ll be shocked if there are ever more than a hundred Cisco Certified Architects.  The level of thinking required for this exam isn’t something that can be taught.  You are either born to be a technical architect or you aren’t.  With that being said, I think that the skills that are crucial to having a well rounded view of architecture are best served by requiring both the CCIE and CCDE as a prerequisite for the CCAr.  Design without technical know-how is a dicey proposition at best, but trying to attain and architecture role without knowing how to design is equally capable of colossal folly.  Just like any recipe, you need a good mix of both to make the final product come out right.

The CCIE Spelling Bee

I’ve seen a lot of discussion recently about the CCIE with regards to how “hard” the test really is.  There is no denying that the exam is of a very high difficulty level.  The discussion revolves around application.  It has been said that one of the reasons the CCIE lab exam is so difficult is because it doesn’t test the candidate on “real world” network designs.  According to these folks, the CCIE lab tests you on things that you would never see yourself doing in reality outside a lab environment solely for the purpose of seeing how well you can follow directions.  There is some merit to this, as the overview for the CCIE clearly states that this is not a “best practices” examination of networking theory.  It’s a practical implementation test with a given set of parameters and instructions.  There was also a story told in one of my bootcamps with Narbik Kocharians about a student taking a mock lab that took two hours to finish the first section because he spent all his time doing it the “right” way and ensuring there couldn’t be any possible problems down the road.  He thought like an engineer working on a production network instead of a CCIE candidate.  Those clues tend to lend credence to the idea that the CCIE is hard because you are doing things you might not do otherwise.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized the CCIE lab exam is a lot like another type of test that almost every one of us has taken at some point in our lives – a spelling bee.  The time honored tradition of rounding up a group of students and giving them strange words out of the dictionary to see how well they can disassemble them and regurgitate them back in serialized order.  When you think about it, there’s a lot in common with the granddaddy of networking exams.  Both are practical, in that multiple choice isn’t allowed (curiously, the first round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee uses a multiple choice format sometimes, similar to the CCIE written qualification exam).  Both exams don’t give any points for partial credit.  Transposing two letters of a word gets you the same number of points as forgetting to enable mls qos on a switch in the lab (zero).  Both exams give you all the answers up front.  For the CCIE, it’s all there in the documentation. In the spelling bee, you usually get a word list of some kind, either the Spell It! book or Webster’s Third International Dictionary.  In both cases, the amount of documentation that must be sorted through is rather large.  Both tests tend to introduce a large amount of performance anxiety.  And finally, both tests tend to focus on things you wouldn’t normally see for the sake of testing the candidate’s abilities.

Think about this for a moment.  The winning words for the last three National Spelling Bee winners were (in order) cymotrichous, Stromuhr, and Laodicean.  I can’t even pronounce those words, let alone use them in general conversation.  There are even differences in the vocabulary I use in my blog posts versus the words I use in conversation.  Does it make the above words any less valid if the only appear in a dictionary?  No, it doesn’t.  Yes, many of the constructs in the CCIE lab are presented in such a way as to test the candidate’s grasp on applying concepts.  Yes, the lab is crafted in such a way as to eliminate several obvious choices that make life easier.  Just like a spelling bee doesn’t give you access to the dictionary.  Yes, there is a time crunch in the lab.  Just like a spelling bee doesn’t give you three hours to think about how to spell the word.  You only have 2.5 minutes to spell the word from the time it’s first pronounced.  Overall, both the spelling bee and the CCIE lab exam take specific examples that demonstrate advanced concepts and give the test takers a short amount of time to produce results.  It shouldn’t matter that I may never configure multi-router redistribution or RIP neighbor relationships across RSPAN VLANs.  The point is that these examples are designed to test my knowledge of a subject, just like cymotrichous is designed to test my spelling ability a lot better than dog or cat.

Tom’s Take

There’s no denying the CCIE is a hard exam.  The question of real word application versus crafted lab scenarios is a semantic one at best.  While many feel that making the exam reflect scenarios that you might encounter in your job every day would be more appropriate, I feel that having it test a broad subject matter with intricate questions is a better application.  I’d much rather be looking at a problem and think to myself, “Hey! I’ve seen this in the lab before!”  That way, I feel more comfortable having seen it work in a controlled environment before.  At the end of the day, making the CCIE lab a “real world” test is as bad an idea as making the National Spelling Bee only test over words used in everyday conversation.  The test would soon become a very rigid and insular example of the mythical “real world” that would either need to be updated every six months to stay current or it wouldn’t be updated frequently enough and eventually become what people are accusing it of today, namely being a “bad” example of the real world.  I think it’s better to stretch our horizons and spend a little time thinking outside the box for solutions that may not apply in every day life but force us to think about our methods and processes.  Whether that involves routing protocol configuration or challenging the “I before E except after C” rule, the end result is the same.  People question more and dig deeper rather than just accepting someone’s idea of what reality looks like.  And, after all, we know that in our world, I and E really come after two Cs.

So Long To The CCIP

The Cisco Certified Internetwork Professional (CCIP) certification has always been the goal of those network professionals that wanted to march to the beat of a different drummer.  People like me that concentrate on the enterprise/campus side of things revel in our use of OSPF and EIGRP.  We live and die by IOS and get cold sweats at night when someone mentions IS-IS.  The ideal CCIP candidate, on the other hand, loves all of this service provider oriented talk.  They want to spend all their time talking about ingress QoS policies.  They cackle with glee when the subject of MPLS-TE comes up.  They think users are just a myth that exist on the other side of the mythical CPE Wall.

The problem, though, is that the CCIP hasn’t really been focused on the service provider arena for a while now.  While the other professional level exams have received overhauls in the recent past, no one touched the CCIP.  When the CCVP and CCSP became the CCNP: Voice and CCNP: Security, no one wanted to make the CCNP: Internetwork.  The coursework for the CCIP has always relied heavily on other tracks to exist.  QoS is a big part of the SP world, so the QoS exam was borrowed from the voice track.  Routing is another huge part, so the old Building Cisco Scalable Internetworks (BSCI) test was repurposed as well.  The only pure CCIP exams were over BGP and MPLS.  You could even take a composite exam if you were feeling up to the challenge of getting your teeth kicked in for twice as long.  However, the routing exam has caused some consternation.  When I originally studied for my CCNP three years ago, the BSCI book was a handbook of enterprise and service provider routing.  It contained a lot of information about every routing protocol.  While it focused on OSPF and EIGRP, there was a touch of BGP and IS-IS as well.  It served as the foundation for the CCNP, CCDP, and the CCIP.  This made sense with Cisco’s foundation being the router.  However, when Cisco changed the tests and courseware for the CCNP with their latest refresh, the new ROUTE test was a shell of its former self.  Based on the blueprint (login required), it still tests on OSPF, EIGRP, and BGP somewhat.  It even throws in IPv6 routing as well, which is a sorely needed topic.  However, there’s no IS-IS.  None. Nada. Zilch.  How’s that supposed to help the SP engineer that might use IS-IS all the time and never see EIGRP?  Something needed to be done.  And every passing day that the CCIP relied upon tests that didn’t fulfill the criteria of the people being certified was a day that it passed closer to irrelevance.

Thankfully, Cisco decided in May 2012 to overhaul the entire CCIP track.  Now known as the CCNP: Service Provider, it finally focuses on the things that service provider network professionals will be doing.  The four new tests are specific to the SP track.  There are no overlapping tests.  The prerequisite for the CCNP: SP is the CCNA: SP, which is two SP-specific tests of it’s own.  Cisco has finally figured out that most SP engineers exist in a world all their own with very little in common with enterprise/campus folks.  A quick glance at Mirek Burnejko’s excellent IT Certfication Master page for the CCNP:SP shows that the SPROUTE test will focus on IS-IS, OSPFv2 and v3, and BGP.  No EIGRP to be found.  It also tests these topics on IOS-XR and IOS-XE, the new flavors of IOS that run on the equipment that would be found in an SP environment.  If you’d like to see more about the ins and outs of IOS-XR, check out Jeff Fry’s (@fryguy_pa) IOS-XR posts.  The SPADVROUTE test focuses on BGP and multicast, the two odd ducks of routing.  This means that you can spend your time reading Jeff Doyle’s Routing TCP/IP Volume 2 and take a test basically over that whole book.  The SPCORE covers QoS and MPLS functionality such as MPLS-TE.  That’s where I’d expect to see the TE stuff, since it’s usually configured in the network core and not on the edges.  The SPEDGE test covers MPLS VPNs, as well as VPN technologies in general.  I like that Cisco chose to split the core and edge pieces of the CCNP: SP, as there are people that may spend their entire careers working on P routers and never see a piece of CPE equipment.  Conversely, there are those that want to stay as far away from the core as possible and would prefer to make the PE router their device of choice.

The CCNP: SP is available today at any Prometric/VUE testing center.  You can find out more about the certification from Cisco’s website or by visiting Mirek’s site above.

Tom’s Take

Cisco has done a great job of breaking the CCIP up into bite-sized chunks that have clearly defined topic boundaries.  I can choose to focus on interior routing without worrying about multicast.  I can focus on MPLS VPN without thinking too much about MPLS-TE.  I can focus on the important parts one at a time.  The new CCNP: SP also addresses the shortcomings I’ve seen with the old CCIP test.  By giving the SP track a dedicated testing platform all by itself, Cisco no longer has to worry that test changes in one area will carry over to a separate track and cause confusion and delay.  As well, with the new branding and focus on the service provider arena, Cisco has shown that it has not forsaken those that want to spend their time working behind the scenes at ISPs.

Cisco CoLaboratory – Any Questions? Any Answers?

Cisco has recently announced the details of their CoLaboratory program for the CCNP certification.  This program is focused on those out there certified as CCNPs with a couple of years of job experience that want to help shape the future of the CCNP certification.  You get to spend eight weeks helping develop a subset of exam questions that may find their way into the question pool for the various CCNP or CCDx tests.  And you’re rewarded for all your hard work with a one-year extension to your current CCNP/CCDx certification.

I got a chance to participate in the CCNA CoLab program a couple of years ago.  I thought it would be pretty easy, right?  I mean, I’ve taken the test.  I know the content forwards and backwards.  How hard could it be to write questions for the test?  Really Hard.  Turns out that there are a lot of things that go into writing a good test question.  Things I never even thought of.  Like ensuring that the candidate doesn’t have a good chance of guessing the answer.  Or getting rid of “all of the above” as an answer choice.  Turns out that most of the time “all of the above” is the choice, it’s the most often picked answer.  Same for “none of the above”.  I spent my eight weeks not only writing good, challenging questions for aspiring network rock stars, but I got a crash course in why the Cisco tests look and read the way they do.  I found a new respect for those people that spend all their time trying to capture the essence of very dry reading material in just a few words and maybe a diagram.

I also found that I’ve become more critical of shoddy test writing.  Not just all/none of the above type stuff either.  How about questions that ask for 3 correct answers and there are only four choices?  There’s a good chance I’ll get that one right even just guessing.  Or one of my favorite questions to make fun of: “Each answer represents a part of the solution.  Choose all correct steps that apply.”  Those questions are not only easy to boil down to quick binary choices, but I hate that often there is one answer that sticks out so plainly that you know it must be the right answer.  Then there’s the old multiple choice standby: when all else fails, pick the longest answer.  I can’t tell you how much time I spent on my question submissions writing “good” bad answers.  There’s a whole methodology that I never knew anything about.  And making sure the longest answer isn’t the right one every time is a lot harder than you might think.

Tom’s Take

In the end, I loved my participation in the Cisco CoLaboratory program.  It gave me a chance to see tests from the other side of the curtain and learn how to better word questions and answers to extract the maximum amount of knowledge from candidates.  If you are at all interested in certifications, or if you’ve ever sat in a certification test and said to yourself, “This question is stupid!  I could write a better question than this.”, you should head over to the Cisco CoLaboratory page and sign up to participate.  That way you get to come up with good questions.  And hopefully better answers.