If you're interested in a network or security certification, this advice details which certification path you should start with, what resources are available and how to map out materials for a lab setup. Wondering where to begin your network certification endeavors? The following would be my advice to any IT neophytes looking to start their networking certification paths -- and, hopefully, a successful career.
Setting a networking certification plan
At the end of the day, between supporting yourself (and possibly a family), running errands, and trying to have a life of some kind, how much time do you have in a week to devote to uninterrupted study? 10 hours? Eight? It's important that you maximize the use of your study time. And for the record, you need at least two- to three-hour consecutive chunks. Twenty minutes between commercials, or between finishing lunch and clocking-in, are really only suitable for taking practice exams. The actual studying and lab work require larger blocks of time during which you can completely focus.
Therefore, the sequence in which you study for these exams can shave weeks or possibly months off your training time, depending how far you go with your training.
|Tier 1: Your certification starting point Return to top|
So where is a good starting point? I completely agree with the masses on this one: CompTIA A+. This will give you a good grounding in what a computer is: the hardware, the OS, some basic networking and some basic troubleshooting.
Passing this test also lays a good foundation for becoming a Microsoft Certified Professional for Windows XP. There is quite a bit of crossover, and most exam topics should already be familiar to you.
Finally, the A+ also covers basic networking, which can be further developed with CompTIA's Network+ certification.
After achieving all three of these certifications, you've reached what I refer to as Tier 1. Jobs you should be capable of performing are tech support, help desk I, large-scale rollouts and PC depot technician.
CompTIA A+ http://certification.comptia.org/a/Recommended reading:
Mike Meyers' A+ Guide: PC Technician (Exams 220-602, 220-603, & 220-604)
Recommended lab setup:
The components needed to assemble a PC: motherboard, CPU, RAM, HD, CD-RW/DVD-ROM, a floppy, power supply, case and case fans. Go to newegg.com or pricewatch.com. This shouldn't cost you more than $220-250.
A copy of XP Pro, not Home. XP Home does not support domain membership or dynamic volumes and as such will be useless to you later on in your certification path. Again, try pricewatch.com. You should expect to pay $90-100.
NOTE: I would recommend XP over Vista. Two years from now, that may not be the case; but considering how many XP systems there are and the fact that most IT managers have no immediate plans to upgrade, I would say XP is your best bet.
Microsoft Certified Professional: Exam# 70-270 http://www.microsoft.com/learning/exams/70-270.mspxRecommended reading:
MCSE Windows XP Professional Exam Cram 2
Recommended lab setup: Your current A+ lab setup is sufficient for this exam.
Network+ Exam Cram 2 (Exam Cram N10-003) (2nd Edition)
Recommended lab setup:
A small router, with at least four 10/100 ports, which supports NAT & DHCP. D-Link and LinkSys make some models for under $50. For a little extra money, you can find models that also include features for basic firewall, URL filtering and VPNs.
|Tier 2: The next step Return to top|
So now that you have an understanding of system and network fundamentals, what's next? At this point, you have to start training yourself to think beyond the individual client PC. This is where you need to look at the network as a whole – such issues as accessibility to network resources (i.e., printers, files/shares, databases, Web applications) and basic security issues surrounding that access (permissions, authentication, auditing, etc.).
This is serious stuff. You must now begin to align your thinking with business goals and understand concepts such as availability, business continuity and disaster recovery for both the individual user and the company.
The most clearly defined path is Microsoft's Certified System Administrator certification. This is because A+, Network+ and MCP all count toward your MCSA, leaving you only two additional tests to pass: 290, Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment; and 291, Implementing, Managing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure.
After this, you should really open your eyes to the world outside of Microsoft. Cisco's CCNA is a good follow-up. About 25% of the exam brushes over the same material covered in the Network+; also, 291 (from above) gives you an introduction to routing and subnetting, which is expanded on with the CCNA. As of this writing, the CCNA also covers ISDN and frame relay, which is nice to know, but chances are that any corporate network you administer will be using DSL for its branch offices and dedicated leased lines for the data center at headquarters.
Finally, I'd recommend obtaining the Linux+ certification. This focuses on basic system administration and interoperability.
Once you've completed these, you should be well-rounded enough to handle a majority of issues in the day-to-day administration of a network. Keep in mind that you cannot know everything; what separates a good IT worker from a mediocre one, however, is the ability to research an issue. You'll see throughout this article that I make several references to TechNet (Microsoft's online documentation and knowledgebase).
Jobs that you'd be capable of performing would be help desk II, tech support II, server/backup operator, and junior administrator.
Microsoft's MCSA 2003 http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/mcsa/windows2003/default.mspxRecommended training materials and lab activities:
I would highly recommend the following:
Windows File Servers
Active Directory Fundamentals
DNS Server Essentials
Managing Group Policy
Routing & Remote Access Server
Recommended lab setup:
This is where it starts to get expensive. You need to get two additional PCs (giving you a grand total of three), each with 512 MB of RAM, two HDs of 20+ GB, and two NIC cards. These two are going to function as your servers.
Server 2003 Trial Software can be downloaded here:
Cisco's CCNA http://www.cisco.com/web/learning/le3/le2/le0/le9/learning_certification_type_home.htmlRecommended training materials and lab activities:
-- Look at some of the free tutorials.
Look at his Ultimate CCNA Study Package.
You can rent rack time quite cheaply:
If you purchase three days for $37, you can download a free copy of their CCNA Lab Workbook. The lab book is exceptional and well detailed, and Chris Bryant of The Bryant Advantage does answer his emails (which is more than I can say for quite a few training companies). He takes great pride in his training materials and usually answers any questions within a couple of days.
Recommended lab setup:
Because Chris Bryant rents rack time, you don't have to purchase your own routing equipment. However, I strongly recommend that you check out ciscokits.com. The site author will return your correspondence and ensure that the routers/switches he sells you will meet your certification goals.
You can read his lab suggestions here:
I'd recommend at a minimum that you get his Dual 1720 Router and 2924 Switch CCNA Kit. 100 Mb interfaces are required for configuring VLAN trunking, and these can later be upgraded to the Security IOS, which includes the IOS Firewall and VPN features. I can almost guarantee that the next revision -- while not part of the CCNA curriculum at this point -- will drop the ISDN/Frame Relay in favor of these features. In addition, the Catalyst 1900 IOS commands are no longer on the exam, so purchasing one of these is really a waste of money. The 2900 IOS is what you will be tested on and what you must be able to configure.
NOTE: I would not recommend purchasing routers from eBay. I've been burned several times getting Asian counterfeits, or routers with either no IOS or mismatching power supplies.
CompTIA's Linux+ http://certification.comptia.org/linux/Recommended training materials and lab activities:
Recommended lab setup:
At this point, you should already have three PCs; simply install Linux on one of them and practice making it talk to the remaining Windows systems. CUPS and Samba are especially useful for real-world scenarios.
|Tier 3 and beyond: Final steps Return to top|
At this point, you need to think about specializing. Being a generalist will get you only so far. You also need to decide whether you want to focus more on management or technical/operations. Do you see yourself as the IT director or the senior systems engineer?
Learn the concepts, configurations and procedures until you can comfortably discuss them with other experts. Gain experience by contracting yourself out at cheaper rates to boost your resume. Play around with your home lab; think of scenarios and construct solutions, both on paper and in configuring your home lab. Instruct/lecture at your local Tech Schools or 2600 chapters; teaching a subject is a fantastic way to reinforce your knowledge.
All in all, have fun. Be passionate about what you do -- and if you're not, then find something you are passionate about. IT is usually a stressful and thankless job. You rarely find people coming up to you saying "thank you" for the 364 good days the network was up and running smoothly. The thrills and challenges of securing a company -- its network, servers, data, assets, etc. -- are a huge part of why I'm in this industry. It's not the money, which has been both very good and horrifically bad.
This networking certification advice was one of the winning articles selected from SearchNetworking.com's CCNP Video Mentor contest.
About the author:Article author Jeremy Otsap is currently A+, i-Net+, Network+, CCNA, MCSA-2000, and MCSA-2003 certified. He has just recently attained the Cisco Information Security Specialist, the NSA/CNSS 4011 InfoSec, and Security+ certifications.
This was first published in August 2007