Exam pass: 640-911 DCICN

Introduction

Over the last few months, in between a busy work schedule, I have been covering off the CCIE Written blueprint topics, the aim being to pass the written exam to renew my Professional level exams but more importantly, to refresh my routing and switching knowledge.

Progress has been slower than I would have liked, having only really covered off the layer 2 topics, but I’m not discouraged as I’ve been spending more time on other topics, including Python and Nexus.

Learning curve

It has only been in the last few months that I’ve had more exposure to the Cisco Nexus line of switches. My company’s new data centre that will be opening in Aberdeen, UK later this year will have a healthy Nexus footprint and we are bringing more customers on-line who utilise Nexus switching. With that in mind, I arranged for all members of my team to attend a suitable course and we all agreed that getting certified on that track makes sense.

Guinea pig

The CCNA Data Centre certification is made up of two exams:

The links above take you to the relevant Cisco page. I’m a little disappointed with the exam topics, which look like they’ve been typed up by somebody who has never sat an exam in their life.

The 640-911 exam is portrayed as a subset of the CCNA R&S and so I volunteered to be the team guinea pig and sit it first, without any studying to see if my current knowledge was sufficient.

The exam

This is the first time I’ve done an IT exam with no studying whatsoever, having only decided to do it the day before I sat it. It was more of a challenge just to see exactly where this exam sat. I was pleasantly surprised, but not with Cisco’s exam topic list, which is inaccurate and misleading.

Firstly, the number of questions and the time limit was quite challenging. I swear they add more questions and knock minutes off with each iteration. Another thing that quickly became apparent in the first few questions was that my Nexus knowledge needed to be better than the exam topic list suggested. Thankfully, Cisco were asking some silly Nexus based questions in this exam that I had asked the trainer in my Nexus course only a couple of weeks ago and so I’m happy to say I got a good pass mark. Looking at the Cisco website, you might be forgiven for thinking that a CCNA R&S will allow you to fly through this exam and that Nexus knowledge is only required for the 640-916 exam. My advice would be to be more prudent and ensure your basic Nexus knowledge is in place for 640-911 too.

I have already pre-ordered the Cisco Press book for the 640-916 exam and will be going through the INE Nexus video course before booking myself in for that one to ensure my knowledge is sound. At that point, I will also have had more hands on experience, my preferred method for increasing knowledge.

Summary

I had decided quite some time ago that certification for the sake of it was not something I was interested in but with me having more and more exposure to Cisco’s data centre product line, including Nexus, MDS and UCS, I think using the CCNA DC and maybe eventually the CCNP DC certification tracks to help me focus my learning makes perfect sense.

Till the next time.

Exam pass: CCNA Security 640-554

Introduction

In my previous life as a sysadmin, I always found the topic of security a fascinating one. All those different layers to protect whilst maintaining usability was certainly a challenge. Back then, I earned myself an MCSE 2003 and opted to specialise on the security track. This meant doing an extra exam and I decided to go for the external CompTIA Security+ to give myself a different perspective.

When I began the migration to becoming a network engineer, I was already working on PIX and ASA platforms for basic tasks such as ACLs. I quickly realised that continuing my security based knowledge quest made perfect sense and so always had the CCNP Security certification on my roadmap once I had the routing and switching covered. The fact that about 90% of my day-to-day work involves working on ASAs makes this a no brainer.

Method

The CCNA Security is a prerequisite for the CCNP Security and it made sense to get that one done first. I used the same three methods for learning that I have used for almost all of my IT career exams:

  1. Book
  2. Videos
  3. Labs

The book I opted for was the Cisco Press Official Cert Guide for the 640-554 exam. This book has been co-authored by Keith Barker and Scott Morris. I found almost every one of the 22 chapters a breeze to read through thanks to the easy writing style and well laid out topics. At about 600 pages divided over 22 chapters, it was finished much quicker than I had initially anticipated. In addition to the book, I would also visit Cisco’s site to review their documentation on the various topics being covered and download various PDFs for review.

For the videos, I used the CBTNuggets video series by Jeremy Cioara. Unfortunately, the latest exam videos are not available yet and so I had to watch the 640-553 series but this is an otherwise very good series. For those not familiar with Jeremy’s training, I heartily recommend you try him out. He is a proper geek that ‘totally’ digs what he does.

The most important part of learning for me, whether it is for an exam or just learning a new feature or technology, has always been the hands on labbing. This is where the rubber meets the road and I quite often learn things outside the scope of the both the books and the videos, which lends itself to a far more rounded understanding.

Turn up early for exam

The exam itself was an interesting experience. I initially turned up very early without realising it. I gave the woman in the test centre my name and she advised me that she didn’t have me listed for an exam. I got my phone out to check the confirmation email and immediately spotted that I was exactly one week early for my exam. Plonker! I pleaded with her to find me another spot but she said that all workstations were booked for the day. Funny looking back at it now, not amusing at all on the day. I could not be bothered waiting another seven days. I have a rough schedule for achieving my CCNP Security and I didn’t want to lose a week so I rescheduled for the Friday, the earliest spot I could get. I had done the test questions that came with the book. Each exam was 60 questions. I’ll just say I was a little surprised when I loaded up the real exam. In the four days between the Monday and Friday, I had started on the Cisco Press exam guide for the SECURE exam and was thankful but a little surprised when a topic covered in that book appeared in this exam.

My overall experience of the CCNA Security has been very positive. It covers a fair amount of material, although perhaps not in too much depth (this is where the CCNP Security comes in). Some of it will be revision for those of you who are CCNA certified but there is also a lot of new topics being covered e.g. zone based firewall, IPS. Let’s not also forget that with the latest version of the exam, the SDM has been banished in favour of Cisco Configuration Professional (CCP). This is an improvement for sure, but I still think it’s way behind where it should be, albeit as a free management GUI.

I now have four professional level exams to now begin studying for to attain the CCNP Security. My next goal is the SECURE exam (642-637) and I’ll be applying the same three-step process as above except I’ll be using INE video training in addition to CBTNuggets and doing far more hands on labbing.

Summary

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I’ve always been interested in the topic of security. It’s so much more than just the glorified image of a hacker sat in a darkened room trying to break in to a top-secret system, or the endless tales of social engineers using their unique skills to get the information they want. The day-to-day tasks of creating site to site VPNs, amending ACLs, creating class maps and tying them in with policy maps, configuring remote access VPN policies; all of these feel like pieces of a big puzzle and its my job to solve them. I find it both challenging and rewarding beyond the satisfaction of working on networking kit in general.

I’m already looking down the road of my career to decide if I want to specialise in security or keep my skill set a little broader. Time will tell. I am just going to enjoy the CCNP Security journey as it happens for now and soak up as much knowledge as I can.

Till the next time.

How to prepare for a Cisco exam

Introduction

Having just passed my 642-902 ROUTE exam, I thought I would write a post to explain how I set out to walk out with a smile on my face and not egg. I’m not going to discuss the details of the exam itself for obvious reasons but thought I would blog about the training path I took and some general points of exam taking. As I often get asked how to prepare for a Cisco exam, this post will hopefully be useful for a wide audience.

For those that haven’t read my first couple of posts (and why is that??), I passed my CCNA via the ICND1 and ICND2 route back in early 2009. At that time I was a Microsoft systems engineer but saw the light and when I had the chance to become a networking engineer last year, I sat the CCNA exam to renew the certification. I moved in to the new role officially in November 2011 but had already begun to study towards the 642-813 Switch exam, which I passed on November 25th. It’s worth noting that I effectively scraped through this exam as far as I was concerned and I put that down to my preparation, which was not as complete as it should have been.

Videos

I used the CBTNuggets video series but, after the CCNA series by Jeremy Cioara which was simply excellent, I found the Switch series to be a disappointment and it included many references to the old BCMSN exam, which told me that the content wasn’t bang up to date. OK, fair enough, the topics might not have changed a whole lot but if you are going to resell something an as upgrade, please don’t just stick a different badge on it! I ended up losing interest and watched the INE video series instead.

Reading

I also used the official certification guide from Cisco Press but here lay another issue, this time with myself. As part of the move to networking, I felt a certain pressure to get up to speed as quickly as possible. This wasn’t a real pressure, it was something that I imagined but it meant instead of reading the book from cover to cover as I should have done, I skimmed some chapters and skipped a couple of topics. This is exactly why my score was not up to my usual self-imposed standards. It was also what made me determind to put time pressures to one side and make sure that I understood all the material before going in to the next exam.

For the 642-902 exam, I basically used the materials\methods below and I’ll briefly go in to a little more detail on how I blended all these together to give myself the best chance of passing the exam:

  1. Cisco Press exam guide book
  2. CBTNuggets video series
  3. Cisco Live
  4. Labs
  5. INE R&S workbooks
  6. INE video series
  7. Work experience
  8. Boson exams

Firstly I broke the book down in to 6 sections; EIGRP, OSPF, BGP, Redistribution, IPv6, WAN\Branch offices. Straight away, it ceased to be a 700 page book and became 6 individual topics that weren’t so daunting anymore. I gave myself deadlines to read each topic and made sure I hit them by increasing the page count per day if I skipped any days, which I made sure was a rare event. I read them pretty much in the order above, except for BGP which I left until last.

As I was covering each topic in the book, I would watch the corresponding CBTNuggets videos. The Route series is a vast improvement over the Switch videos. Jeremy uses GNS3 labs to cover the topics and the topology files he uses are available to subscribers on their website so you can ‘play along’ with Jezzer.

Filling in the gaps

I was lucky enough to get along to Cisco Live in London this year and found it to be very inspirational. The technical sessions were top notch and gave me a head start on a number of ROUTE related topics, such as IPv6 which I had previously not really ‘got’, but a 4 hour hands on lab gave me a massive boost, as did some of the related breakout sessions. The fact that, up until then I had pencilled in a date of June for sitting the exam but brought it back two months speaks volumes about the effect it had on my motivation.

With the book finished and the CBTNuggets videos wrapped up three weeks before the exam date, I knuckled down to some labbing. Again, I broke it down to the six topics and focused on these, even more so on the routing protocols and redistribution and used the INE CCIE Routing and Switching materials to give me a real sense that I was going beyond the requirements for the Route exam. I should point out that I am lucky in regard to the training materials I have access to. My company have a dedicated training budget and were happy to pay for all the books, subscriptions and the Cisco Live ticket, in addition to the exam cost.

As a form of ‘detail revision’, I also decided to go through the 19 hours or so of INE videos in the Route series and was watching a couple of videos each day whilst labbing. I found that this really helped it all sink in and gel. Whilst I could have rewatched the CBTNuggets videos, I think another trainer’s perspective is quite often useful and so it proved.

On the job training

The day to day tasks that I do as a network engineer really helped. For example, I work for an ISP that runs BGP and OSPF in our core and using this live environment to see how the various topics knit together is priceless. It’s also given me a few tasks to keep me busy over the next few weeks and months as I’ve noticed where improvements and tweaks could be made and let’s not forget the IPv6 implementation plan!

Practice exams

Finally, the Boson exams gave me great insight in to which areas I was still weak in. After completing an exam, I would go back to the book and read up on the weak points. The day before the exam, I did 108 questions and got 907 which made me feel more confident.

The methods used between the Switch and Route exams were worlds apart and I know which one I preferred. Putting the effort in really makes the difference and every hour you use for studying now will save you countless hours of head scratching at a later date. With one more exam to go for the CCNP, I am getting a feeling of anticipation but fully intend to apply the same regime to studying, despite the fact I hear from many sources that if you have been working in IT for any number of years, you should be able to pass the TSHOOT exam with minimal study. That doesn’t tempt me in the slightest. I want to make sure my CCNP is as solid as it can be. After all, this is the foundation for my entire networking career from now on. I have the desire to go on to the CCIE at some point, perhaps with some design certs along the way, maybe the CCIP\CCNP SP and some specialisations such as Wireless and Security.

One thing I have realised is that there is no rush for these career making skills and that is why I’ll be going back to the Switch topics and applying the same process again to them that got me here with the Route. In fact, INE have a deep dive series specifically on Layer 2 that sounds like just the ticket. On a final note, this was my 5th Cisco exam and, despite me loving the CCNA exams the first time around, was my favourite so far. Things are really starting to gel now and I have to say I have a strange attraction to BGP that I will be pursuing further…

The real exams

This last section (which I originally missed out due to being giddy about going on holiday the day after my exam!) is about the exam itself. Oh yeah…that bit!! As you progress through your studies, you should start getting a better idea of when you will be ready to sit the exam. My suggestion is to book the exam about 4-6 weeks before the date itself. This will hopefully give you a last burst of energy in the final stage – there is nothing like a target to aim for. I always try to book the exam for about one week (and usually no more than two) after finishing the books, videos and labs, giving me that 1-2 weeks for exams and final reading up.

What are my thoughts on postponing an exam? It all depends on whether you mind about having to sit some exams more than once before you nail it. If you do care (and I’ll admit I have this obsession about NOT failing an IT exam based on a failed university chapter earlier in my life), then feel free to push it back a week or more, but don’t do this more than once. If you are not bothered about a failure here and there, then stick to the original date. Either way, I think you should try to be as ready as possible, although I can see the benefits of sitting an exam when you might not be 100% ready (examples include your 1st exam when you don’t know what to expect, a renewal that has crept up on you and you must take it before a certain date).

For the exam day itself, I can offer some basic tips. Make sure you have your ID with you, book the exam for a time that suits you (e.g. if you usually feel sleepy mid afternoon, book a morning exam), make sure you know where the test centre is, where parking is etc. Leave plenty of time to get there – most centres I’ve been to have let me start early anyway. If yours doesn’t, you will at least have time to settle your nerves and maybe have a cup of tea\water\etc., (or nip to the loo…).

The exam itself should be an exercise in self-control. Make sure you read the pre-exam blurb carefully, especially if you are fairly new to exam taking. Ask for the paper and pen that you are usually allowed to take in so you can make notes. Before the exam starts proper, you should be told how long you have and how many questions are waiting for you. This is important information. Use it to determine roughly how long you have on each question. I say roughly as some questions will take seconds to answer but a simulation could take 20 minutes or more. The point is, if you have two hours to do 50 questions and you find yourself on question 10 with 30 minutes left, you’ve managed your time poorly. Rather than doing the maths on a question by question basis, I would check my time every 30 mins (in the example above) and try to ensure I was 25% further in. With that in mind, don’t be afraid to drop a question if you’ve hit a road block. In my last exam (ROUTE), I got stuck on a simulation at question 40 ish with 30 minutes left. 8 minutes later, I had done about half of the required work but was going around in circles. What did I do? I set myself a target of dumping the question with no less than 15 minutes left. At that time, I had progressed further but still not nailed it but continued to the next question regardless. As I clicked ‘END’ on my last question, I had exactly 28 seconds left on the clock. My hard decision had allowed me a chance to answer all the remaining questions.

And finally

My last bit of exam advice would be to make yourself as comfortable as you can. For me, that usually means being in the room alone as I like to talk to myself out loud, stand up and stretch my legs from time to time and even sing\hum to myself to chill out! Find what works for you, that doesn’t upset other exam takers.

Till the next time.