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Traditional, emerging topics unite in the new CCNA exam

As of Feb. 24, all eyes are on the CCNA 200-301 exam -- Cisco's latest update to the CCNA track. Here's a look at what's on the exam and how it compares to previous CCNA exams.

While Cisco's updated Cisco Certified Network Associate -- or CCNA -- certification track shrunk to a single path and single exam, CCNA hopefuls must know a broad range of both networking basics and emerging networking technologies in order to pass the exam.

Cisco announced sweeping changes to its certification tracks in June 2019, and the new CCNA exam derives from one of the largest changes in Cisco history, according to Cisco author Wendell Odom. Odom, author of every CCNA Official Cert Guide, wrote two new volumes of his guides for the CCNA 200-301 exam. The singular path of the new CCNA exam is smaller overall compared to past exam versions, yet the extensive amount of material -- both old and new -- necessitated two volumes.

Both Volumes 1 and 2 cover various traditional networking topics, such as virtual LANs (VLANs) and basic IP services, as well as newer networking technologies, such as network automation. Odom said the new CCNA exam includes a lot for engineers to learn but also contains relevant and useful material for the current job market.

Editor's note: The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Can you compare details of the former and the new CCNA exams?

Wendell OdomWendell Odom

Wendell Odom: If you took the old CCNA Routing and Switching exam blueprint, about half those topics are in the new CCNA exam. The literal words are there. It's not just the same topic -- it's copied-and-pasted topics from the old to the new.

Then, the new exam has topics that weren't in any of the old. It has a few you might say came from CCNA Collaboration or CCNA Data Center. For the most part, the new topics [show] the world is changing and IT changes quickly. These are new things Cisco finds important for routing and switching, like automation and cloud. Now, it introduces intent-based networking to CCNA for the first time.

If you view the old as 100 points in volume, the new is about 75% of that -- 75 points. Fifty points are old exam topics that stuck around: VLANs, VLAN trunks, IPv4 and IPv6 routing, Layer 3 filters, sub-Layer 2 filtering with port security, security protocols, basic IP services, like SNMP [Simple Network Management Protocol] and NTP [Network Time Protocol].

CCNA Guide book coverClick to learn more about
this book.

Now, there's more OSPF [Open Shortest Path First] -- particularly, OSPF network types. On an Ethernet interface, you've got two or more routers that run OSPF connected to the same Ethernet. They elect a designated router, which causes OSPF to model the connected subnet differently. It changes OSPF operation on that LAN.

That's typical on a LAN, but if you use Ethernet in WANs -- particularly point-to-point WAN links -- you don't want LAN-like OSPF behavior electing a designated router. To change that, in Cisco routers, you change the OSPF network type to point-to-point instead of the default broadcast type, which is what causes it to act like a LAN.

The new Volume 1 has four chapters on wireless LANs. It's basic: What's an access point [AP]? What are the different wireless standards? How would you configure an AP to be a stand-alone AP? How would you do it with a wireless LAN controller? To a networker, it's not very deep, but it's your first step, and there's a lot in CCNA that are first steps in learning technologies.

Now, there's DHCP [Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol] snooping and dynamic ARP [Address Resolution Protocol] inspection. And the new CCNA exam mentions TFTP [Trivial File Transfer Protocol] and FTP specifically.

People will enjoy the topics they learn, both for learning and for how it matches real jobs today. Cisco did this particular exam right.
Wendell OdomAuthor

The old had basics of what I call 'controller-based networking;' there's more now. It talks about underlays and overlays, which now gets you ready for software-defined access. The old and new CCNA exams have a lot about the old way to do LANs -- how you build switch networks, Spanning Tree Protocol, etc.

Now, there's REST, JSON [JavaScript Object Notation], specifically mentioned comparisons of Ansible, Puppet and Chef, as far as how they work under the covers. It doesn't get into how to manipulate the tools, but more of which uses a push model, which uses a pull model, etc.

If you studied now for everything except newer technologies, which is 10% of the exam blueprint, it'd seem like traditional networking technology. Then, you get into newer, evolving technologies. Now, we're pushing the baby birds out of the nest because … you're going to get a lot of this in the CCNP Enterprise Core, etc. I'm glad some of it is in CCNA.

What questions have you gotten about the new CCNA exam?

Odom: Oddly enough, there's not much worry about new topics. 'Do I need to know Python?' That's probably most common because exam topics don't mention Python. You think automation, and you think your first step is a programming language. You can actually learn everything in CCNA for automation without knowing Python.

People quickly zero in on technical questions: Layer 2, Layer 3 interactions. People get confused about encapsulation. OSPF concepts are more common -- typically, LSAs [link-state advertisement], what those mean and whether that's important. 'Do I need to understand what a Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 LSA is?' I don't know how important that is for the exam depending on the version. But if you're going to use OSPF, you need to know what it is for real life.

I'm happy with how [the new CCNA exam] balances newer automation features and technologies -- not overwhelming newbies with too much new and giving the foundation they need to get a real job. I think Cisco hit the right balance. People will enjoy the topics they learn, both for learning and for how it matches real jobs today. Cisco did this particular exam right.

Next Steps

12 common network protocols and their functions explained

This was last published in January 2020

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