Your networking certification game plan

If you're interested in a network or security certification, this advice details what to study for and when, and which certification path you should start with, and it maps out materials for a lab setup. Wondering where to begin your network certification endeavors? View this certification guide from one of our CCNP Video Mentor contest winners for information on CompTIA A+, MCSE, Network+, MCSA, CCNA and Linux+.

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

The main concern, besides the investment of your money, is your time. Time is precious. We can make more money, but time wasted is gone forever.

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.

Practice exams 

The main players in this game are the following:

Tier 1: Your certification starting point

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+

Recommended reading: 
Mike Meyers' A+ Guide: PC Technician (Exams 220-602, 220-603, & 220-604)
ISBN: 007226358X

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 or 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 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.

Recommended activities:

  • Build a PC
  • Repair a friend's or family member's PC
  • Practice reinstalling Windows
  • Practice backing up and restoring a person's profile and personal data
  • Get familiar with updating firmware on motherboards
  • Learn to configure and optimize BIOS settings

Microsoft Certified Professional: Exam# 70-270

Recommended reading:
MCSE Windows XP Professional Exam Cram 2
ISBN: 0789733609

Recommended lab setup: Your current A+ lab setup is sufficient for this exam.

Recommended activities:

  • Practice destroying/repairing/copying/modifying/customizing user profiles in as many ways as you can.
  • Set up your XP machine as a small file server. Configure share permissions and NTFS permissions.
  • Observe file permissions and attributes. See what happens when you copy encrypted files on one volume into compressed folders on another volume.
  • Make your own local groups and test permissions and logon rights.
  • Become familiar with optimizing the install process. Do an unattended install and a sysprep install several times. Observe the answer files when you create a setup manager.
  • Become comfortable setting automated maintenance with Task Scheduler.
  • Learn to monitor your system with Task Manager, Performance Monitor, Logs & Alerts and Event Viewer.
  • Practice configuring Windows built-in firewall.
  • Become familiar with Microsoft Knowledge Base and with TechNet.


Recommended reading:
Network+ Exam Cram 2 (Exam Cram N10-003) (2nd Edition)
ISBN: 0789732548

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.

Recommended activities:

  • Gain familiarity with the troubleshooting process and commands on the Internet. Do ICMP and DNS lookups on Web sites. Find the IPs of your favorite sites by doing NSLOOKUP, setting the server to both of your ISP's DNS servers. Take that IP over to and do a whois query.
  • Set up your home network. Use both DHCP and Static IP. Throw Counter-Strike or Quake LAN parties. Test connectivity with everyone's machine using tools like PING, TRACERT and NETSTAT. Set up Internet Connection Sharing.

Tier 2: The next step

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

Recommended training materials and lab activities:

  • Inside Windows Server 2003 ISBN: 0735711585. This is a monstrous technical reference that covers every topic you will need in order to pass both the 290 and 291 exams.
  • Train Signal's video training series is, in my opinion, the best. The excellent screenshots and included labs/lab manual are perfect hands-on for the neophyte administrator. Be forewarned, however. They are not cheap.
  • I would highly recommend the following:
          Windows File Servers
          Active Directory Fundamentals
          DNS Server Essentials
          Managing Group Policy
          Routing & Remote Access Server


  • Microsoft's Server 2003 Virtual Labs: There's a lot of good stuff on Active Directory and Group Policy in this lab -- and hey, it's free!
  • Microsoft's TechNet. There's a lot of material here as well. And again, it's free.
  • 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

    Recommended training materials and lab activities:

  • I'd recommend you go to and do the following:
                -- 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.

  • Also, Chris has made a video series for the CCNA on Train Signal, which follows along quite nicely with his Ultimate CCNA Study Package.
  • As with Microsoft's, you should gain familiarity with Cisco's Web site and product documentation. I will say that it is a little bit more difficult to navigate than Microsoft's site, and it will definitely take some adjusting.
  • 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 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+

    Recommended training materials and lab activities:

  • Absolutely, Train Signal's video lab hits the mark: Installation, GUI and Command Line tasks, User/Group Permissions in the Linux environment, Samba configuration for compatibility with Windows systems, and Apache configuration for hosting Web sites. Also included are 120 practice questions.
  • Linux+ 2005 In Depth
    ISBN: 1592007287
  • There is simply more free online documentation, and more tutorials, how-to's and so on, than you could read in your entire lifetime:

    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

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?

NOTE: For network engineering resources view's Network Engineering All-in-One Guide.

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's CCNP Video Mentor contest. 

Networking certification advice from the trenches

Certification preparation: Locate good reading material, resources, and practice tests for any networking exam.

How to pass your exams: No matter which exam you're trying to pass, this bulleted advice will help.

CCNA exam plan: Know the best CCNA resources, and read how to mentally prepare for your CCNA.

Network+ exam plan: Learn how to study and read your Network+ material.

Your certification game plan: This covers online tests, lab setups and lists of activities to complete A+, Network+, CCNA, MCSA and Linux certifications.

CCNA studying: Understand studying time restraints here.

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 last published in August 2007

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