Cisco’s ultimate certification costs $1,200 at a minimum and requires two days of lab work at Cisco. But did you know that there are several other titles you can earn on the way to the top?

The Cisco Challenge

Cisco’s ultimate certification costs $1,200 at a minimum and requires two days of lab work at Cisco. But did you know that there are several other titles you can earn on the way to the top?

Cisco Systems, Inc. is widely regarded within the computer industry as having the preeminent networking certification title, the CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert). There aren’t many professionals who hold this title—just a few over 3,000 as of October 1998—but those who do often command salaries from $75,000 to over $200,000 a year. Sound outrageous? The fact is, supply is driving demand—few certified experts exist in the field of routing, especially with Cisco products. And in order to achieve the CCIE, Cisco requires a hands-on lab that can cost thousands of dollars. Thus, don’t look for a lot of CCIEs out there any time soon.

While plenty of MCSEs are looking eagerly at adding Cisco’s top title to their business cards, what they may not know is that in addition to the three types of CCIE titles, Cisco also offers four other certifications at two lower levels—the CCNA and CCNP. (The three CCIE titles are CCIE-Routing and Switching; CCIE-Routing and Switching, ISP Dial; and CCIE-WAN Switching). In this article, I focus on the certifications within the Routing and Switching tracks because those are currently the most popular.

Are You a Chosen One?

So you’re wondering if you have the necessary level of knowledge to be successful in pursuing Cisco certification? In my experience as a Cisco trainer, the ideal person starting this certification track has six months to a year of occasional router configuration experience. In addition to that, I recommend that he or she be either a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) or Certified NetWare/Novell Engineer (CNE) with one or two years of network administration experience.

At the very least, you should have a solid grounding in networking and a good understanding of how TCP/IP works. IP subnetting is a large part of all of the courses, beginning with the Introduction to Cisco Router Configuration course. While this introductory course explains subnetting, all of the other Cisco courses assume you know it. Be forewarned: The course spends very little time on subnetting compared to Microsoft and Novell. You should arrive knowing the subject already.

From the Beginning: CCNA

The Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) is Cisco’s entry-level title. While it’s simple in comparison to the CCIE, the CCNA is still tough for the networking beginner. With the MCSE, if you don’t lay a solid foundation (with the NT exams) you won’t be much of an MCSE. With Cisco, if you don’t learn the basics of routing protocols, you don’t have a chance of becoming a CCIE.

The CCNA exam, which costs $100 and can be taken at any Sylvan Prometric testing center, confirms your knowledge of routing protocols (IGRP, EIGRP, IP, and IPX RIP), routed protocols (IP, IPX, and AppleTalk), and WAN technology and protocols (serial connections, X.25, and frame relay). It also covers quite a bit about the OSI model, dial-on-demand routing, and packet filtering. These items comprise what Cisco terms “simple networks.” A CCNA is supposed to be able to support a small routed and switched network infrastructure.

The subject for this exam is taken partially from two Cisco courses: Cisco Router & LAN Switching and the aforementioned Introduction to Cisco Router Configuration. The advantage of taking these classes to prepare for the CCNA is that you gain the expertise of the instructor, who can help you out if you get confused during the router configuration process. This is helpful because for a beginner, learning router configuration can be highly frustrating.

If you don’t know the basics of routers and can’t take a Cisco switching course, then Cisco recommends you spend time with two Cisco CDs: Internetwork Technology Multimedia (ITM) and High Performance Solutions for Desktop Connectivity. By themselves, these products will not give you the knowledge necessary to pass the ACRE exam. They are designed to be used with other materials. Cisco recommends the ITM no matter how you study for the CCNA. In practice, this often isn’t necessary. Both self-study products are available from Cisco for $100 each. The “Additional Information” sidebar lists third-party products to help you prepare as well.

Turning Up the Heat: CCNP

The Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) builds on the CCNA and is a notch up in difficulty and complexity. A CCNP is expected to be able to support a complex routed and switched network with dial-up access. (My version of a complex internetwork involves at least 50 routers, at least two protocols—IP, IPX, AppleTalk, Vines, DECnet, etc.—and at least two topology types—Ethernet, token ring, frame relay, ATM, X.25, etc.) You should know items covered in the CCNA exams, as well as OSPF, ISDN, BGP, ISL, bridging, route summarization, route redistribution, variable length subnet masks, and asynchronous routing.

To become a CCNP, you must take either two or four more exams, in addition to having earned the CCNA. If you prefer to be tested on one topic at a time, you can take separate exams for Advanced Cisco Router Configuration, Cisco LAN Switch Configuration, and Configuring, Monitoring, and Troubleshooting Dial-up Services. You can also take all of these topics in one big exam called Foundation R/S. This method is like taking a Microsoft beta exam, with the added stress of knowing that a passing score has already been set. The benefit is that you spend $200 instead of $300. Either way, to become a CCNP, you also have to pass the Cisco Internetwork Troubleshooting exam.

Figure 1. Although the CCIE program is independent of the CCNP and the CCNA certification tracks, each tier tends to build on the others.

The Premium Title: CCIE

As a Cisco instructor, the most common question I’m asked about Cisco certification is: “What do they test you on when you take the CCIE?” The only answer I know is this: “Configuring and troubleshooting Cisco products.” The CCIE lab has no equal in the realm of vendor certifications.

Imagine that Microsoft had a lab requirement for a “Master MCSE” certification. You’d arrive at the campus in Redmond not knowing what to expect. The lab proctor would give you a sheet telling you to set up an Exchange server to pull mail from an ISP, set up user policies on an NT server, and set up SMS to distribute an upgrade to Office 98. Assuming you perform correctly, you’re told to come back the next day and fix the errors the proctor will create in your absence that night. You may be required to set up any feature suppoted by Cisco 2500, 4000, and 4500 series routers and Catalyst 5000 series switches.

The CCIE consists of two exams that must be taken in order; no other Cisco certifications need to be earned before you attempt the CCIE. The first, called “Qualification Exam 350-001,” is a computer-based test on which you must score 65 percent or better—70 percent if you’re a Cisco employee. Effective January 1, 1999, the passing score will be raised to 70 percent for non-Cisco employees as well. This exam, which costs $200, weeds out those with no chance of passing the second exam—the lab. Once you’ve passed the computer-based exam, you’re ready to register for the lab. If you’re in the U.S., you can take the CCIE lab in San Jose, California or Raleigh, North Carolina. Cisco also offers the lab exam in Canada, Belgium, Japan, China, and Australia. Each attempt costs $1,000 plus room, board, and travel costs.

How Do You Prepare?

Although self-study can be useful for network professionals preparing for the MCSE title, it’s not the best method for Cisco certifications. While it’s possible (though not recommended) to get through the initial certifications that way, don’t even think about trying the CCIE lab after simply reading books (unless you really have no other use for the $1,000 fee). Nor can some of the written tests be passed by self-study alone. Some Cisco exams include 100 questions that you must complete in an hour. Without hands-on experience with Cisco products, don’t waste your money on the exams.

However, self-study is definitely an option if you have experience with routers and switches or if your employer is willing to buy or lease you a lab.

I know one student whose employer told him he needed to become a CCIE within six months (he had several years of experience). The employer then purchased $500,000 worth of equipment for this student to practice on. (No, I’m not aware of any job openings at this particular company.)

Since most of you don’t work for that company, you’ll need to find an alternative. Your employer would probably frown on your practicing on production equipment, so Cisco has established practice labs in several cities. If you’ve signed up for the CCIE lab, you can arrange to practice on Cisco’s equipment.

New Career Specializations Announced
In mid-November 1998, Cisco Systems announced five career specialization certifications as part of its Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) program. You’re required to have your CCNP title in order to pursue the specialties.

The Security track focuses on building and maintaining Cisco security solutions, including stand-alone firewall products and Cisco Internetwork OS software features. You must pass exam 640-442, Managing Cisco Network Security.

A Network Management track drills down on skills for implementing and supporting solutions for multi-layer networks. That requires two tests, 640-443, Managing Cisco Routed Internetworks, and 640-444, Managing Cisco Switched Internetworks.

The LAN ATM track focuses on building and maintaining campus ATM networks, which are based on LAN emulation services offered over ATM switches. It requires a single exam, 640-446, Cisco Campus ATM Solutions.

A Voice Access track, which requires one test—640-447, Cisco Voice Essentials, Cisco Voice over Frame Relay, ATM, and IP—focuses on the skills for implementing and supporting data/voice integration solutions at the network access level, which include IP, ATM, and Frame Relay uplink access products.

The SNA Solutions track requires two exams—640-445, SNA Configuration for Multiprotocol Administrators, and 640-450, Cisco Data Link Switching Plus. It focuses on the skills required to install, configure, and troubleshoot Cisco routers in SNA environments.

Cisco Certified Training Partners offer classes tied to each exam.

The Classroom Route

Finally, if you don’t have access to networking equipment at work and aren’t ready for the CCIE, you can take a class to prepare. As a Cisco instructor, I favor this route, and I’ll explain why. Classes are perfect for someone who doesn’t want to spend $50,000 (minimum) on a Cisco lab and doesn’t have access to practice equipment at work. It’s also good for those who want assistance with labs and need someone to ask questions of.

Also, Cisco is strict about certifying instructors. Each instructor must pass exams covering the class he or she wants to teach. The instructor must also attend that class before teaching it. The hardest part of becoming a trainer is going through what I call the “mini CCIE,” also known as the Instructor Certification Process, or ICP. During this, the potential instructor must teach for 90 minutes in front of a CCIE, then configure a network following a supplied list. Coincidentally, the configuration on the list matches the labs in the Introduction to Cisco Router Configuration course. The instructor has a maximum of eight hours to configure a network that students will be given three days to set up. In addition, the instructor must be prepared to explain the logic he or she followed. In short, Cisco makes sure its instructors are well-prepared to teach.

If you choose to take a Cisco course, shop around. There are just 10 Cisco Training Partners in the U.S. with no plans to add any more in the near future. The two things that make a course worthwhile are the classroom environment and the instructor. Because of the generally small number of students in different locations, many classes are held in hotels rather than permanent training facilities. Also, while Cisco allows up to 24 students in a classroom, I prefer smaller groups, since that lets me spend more time with each student. Try to enroll in a class with no more than 20 students and preferably fewer than 16.

Expect to spend between four and five days and $1,795 to $1,995 per class. (Prices differ, but that’s what my training company charges.)

Going It Alone

There are several products available if you choose self-study for the introductory Cisco certifications. The first are computer-based training lessons on CD-ROMs from CBT Systems. They offer three ways of studying the Introduction to Cisco Router Configuration and Advanced Cisco Router Configuration courses. You can purchase each course separately for $1,300 apiece, or you can purchase both CD-ROMs in a bundle for $2,200. Find out when the courses you’re buying were written. Make sure they’ve been updated lately. Cisco has put out two Internetwork Operating System (IOS) revisions in the last year or so and should be releasing a major upgrade sometime in the first quarter of 1999.

You can also purchase books from Cisco Press (Macmillan Technical Publishing) and McGraw-Hill.

And, of course, you can tap Internet sources. www.ccieprep.com is a subscription Web site run by a couple of CCIEs that seeks to prepare people for the various certifications. There’s both a free and a pay section available. www.groupstudy.com is the Web site for a mailing list of people interested in getting certified and sharing information. Comp.dcom.sys.cisco is the Cisco newsgroup. While dedicated to Cisco topics and mostly useful for help in troubleshooting, the newsgroup welcomes certification questions as long as they aren’t repetitions of ones asked a day or two before. This is an invaluable group as long as you follow proper netiquette.

Additional Information
You can learn more about Cisco certification at www.cisco.com/warp/public/10/wwtraining/certprog.

To locate the 10 Cisco training partners in the U.S. (as of this writing), visit www.cisco.com/pcgi-bin/front.x/wwtraining/locator.pl.

You can locate CBT Systems at www.cbtsys.com.

The great mass of books about Cisco technology is published by Cisco Press, a Macmillan publishing group. These same books serve as courseware in the classroom. The company hosts a Cisco-related area on its Web site at www.ciscopress.com.

McGraw-Hill publishes a line of Cisco certification-related books. You can locate those at www.mcgraw-hill.com.

Sybex also publishes a CCNA study guide. Find out more at www.sybex.com.

Effort and Rewards

The CCIE doesn’t come easy. You can’t study a few books and expect to pass the exams. It requires hands-on experience and a lot of effort. The lower-level certifications can be handled by self-study, but hands-on practice is a big part. Using the self-study products for exam prep is a long road for people used to a GUI interface—the Internetwork Operating System interface and commands resemble Unix more than anything. But with effort and drive, you can succeed. Terrific employment opportunities await those with the knowledge and determination to follow the Cisco certification road to the end.

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