I recently sat and passed the two constituent exams of the Cisco Certified Network Associate – Data Center certification.
This certification covers networking, storage and virtualisation technology broadly and several of Cisco’s data centre lineup specifically including Nexus and MDS switching and UCS compute.
While historically a server, storage and virtualisation guy, converged storage and networking plus the more recent adoption of software defined networking, network virtualisation, network function virtualisation and/or whatever it is that we’re calling it this week suggest that moving forward virtualisation engineers will need a solid grounding in networking to stay relevant.
Heck, the team that I’m now working in is called “Data Centre Platforms” and is a converged team with remit across SAN, storage, DC networking, firewalling, load balancing, hypervisor, server hardware and infrastructure automation. So convergence is not only coming soon — it’s already happening — and it’s not only a technology change — it’s an organisational change as well.
In this sense, the CCNA Data Centre is a useful certification for a data centre platforms professional. Many of the topics covered are generic enough that they provide a solid grounding in networking, storage and virtualisation technology relevant beyond the Cisco stack. Unfortunately, other areas of the exams dive far, far too deep into product specifics — the dreaded speeds & feeds — to be of any real use to anybody, even someone that lives and breathes Cisco.
There are two exams required to achieve the certification:
- 640-911 Introducing Cisco Data Center Networking
- 640-916 Introducing Cisco Data Center Technologies
The exams are both 90-minutes long and contain about 70 questions each. The questions are a mix of multiple choice and lab emulators. Once you have completed a question, you cannot go back. If you do not know the answer, you cannot skip the question and come back to it later. This has implications both good and bad for time management.
Unlike any other IT exam I’ve ever sat, I had absolutely no problem with time management and cannot make any specific recommendations to other potential candidates around this. I finished both exams in between thirty to forty minutes, or less than half of the allocated time. This isn’t because I am a genius and breezed through to a perfect score. It is because for the majority of questions I either knew the answer immediately, in which case it took only a few seconds, or I didn’t and spending five or ten minutes thinking about it wouldn’t have helped. A few maths and lab questions were the exceptions here.
I’ve been exposed to networking technology and Cisco products for a number of years and didn’t feel that attending the official instructor-led training would be a good investment of time and money. Instead, I lent on my exposure with a Flexpod implementation, some online self-paced video training, and to a much lesser extent the UCS emulator for study preparation.
As with all exams, the first resource I went to was the blueprints. These were my first Cisco exams and I found the blueprints to be unhelpfully terse. Let’s look at the Unified Computing section from the 640-916 Introducing Cisco Data Center Technologies exam:
5.0 Unified Computing
5.1 Describe and verify discovery operation
5.2 Describe, configure, and verify connectivity
5.3 Perform initial set up
5.4 Describe the key features of UCSM
UCS is an incredibly powerful and incredibly complex beast. While a blueprint should be bullet-points, I found these to be unhelpful.
The various spelling and grammatical mistakes also gave the impression that they were an afterthought, not the basis from which the exam content was derived. If someone could “Describe initiator target” for me, I’d be most obliged. Perhaps it has something to do with “zoningt”.
3.0 Storage Networking
3.1 Describe initiator target
3.2 Verify SAN switch operationst
3.3 Describe basic SAN connectivityt
3.5 Describe the different storage array connectivityt
3.6 Verify name server logint
3.7 Describe, Configure and verify zoningt
3.8 Perform initial set upt
3.9 Describe, Configure and verify VSAN
And now it’s time for blog.lukedudney’s very first prize giveaway! The author of the first comment to correctly describe the difference between “server virtualization” and “Server Virtualization” will receive a cheque for ONE MILLION DOLLARS**
4.0 DC Virtualization
4.1 Describe device virtualization
4.2 Describe server virtualization
4.3 Describe Server Virtualization
4.4 Describe Nexus 1000v
4.5 Verify initial set up and operation for Nexus 1k
If you’re looking to sit the exam, I highly recommend Chris Wahl’s excellent video training series on Pluralsight which comprehensively detailed the blueprint topics. Chris’s professional but friendly and passionate style of presentation really resonated with me, which surely helps with absorbing the information. There were moments where I could tell he was genuinely geeking out over the technology, and the VOLTRON references were also a nice touch 😉
My Wife, the FEXpert
Beware of any blueprint topic that includes the words “Describe” and “product” . These are the demon topics that expect comprehensive rote learning of the minutia of the Cisco product family specs including such Googleable and irrelevant factoids as port counts and speeds, feature support, and physical connectors.
My approach to these topics was produce flash-cards that my wife tested me on over breakfast, and I am certain that through the process she (an accountant by trade) retained a more comprehensive knowledge of Cisco FEX specifications than I did. Of course, both of us had completely forgotten all of this information by the next day.
It’s disappointing that vendors still feel that rote learning of product specs is a useful and acceptable aspect of certification exams, but they’re all guilty of it to a certain degree. Of course these exams aren’t purely academic, there is also a high level of marketing involved, but even so it seems a waste of time for both the candidate and vendor to base certification on such temporal and uselessly specific product details.
UCS Platform Emulator
Cisco provide a functional UCS Manager interface in the form of a virtual appliance than can be deployed into VMware Worksation (and other similar products I’m sure). This emulator lets you interact with the UCS GUI in ways that should cover the blueprint topic “5.4 Describe the key features of UCSM”. Other than exposure to the GUI, the Emulator isn’t really going to help you much as a lot of the exam topics are about the functions of the various components within the UCS that are not obvious just from playing with the GUI.
FCoE is a Thing That Exists in the World
Fortunately I’ve had experience with the build and operations of a FlexPod environment, and even more fortunately, that environment included FCoE. Several of the exam topics covering Nexus and MDS deal specifically with FCoE, a technology to which I and probably 95% of IT professionals have never had and will never have any exposure. If you’ve got the opportunity to work with a FlexPod or VBLOCK, then this exposure will be invaluable to you in the exam.
ACE and WAAS-who?
Bless these guys, they’re still in the running and only just made the cut with 1% of the total exam score. My advice — give them a quick glance, but don’t bother rote learning the configuration maximums and so on. You likely won’t come across the technologies in the real world.
All in all, the CCNA Data Center certification process was a positive one. Cisco have done really well in creating exams that test for competence across a wide range of hitherto segregated data centre disciplines. The next Cisco exams I sit will be the two UCS certifications DCUCI and DCUCD towards my CCNP Data Center. If I need any additional help, well, it helps that my wife is now an expert!
**cheques will not be honoured.