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With CCIE Data Center, can network engineers become data center gurus?

With its new CCIE Data Center certification, Cisco offers training that allows network engineers to work across IT silos.

In the world of the next-generation data center, the skills that once sustained an engineer's career just aren't enough anymore. In enterprises where virtualization and cloud computing are putting new demands on the network, an engineer must know more than routing and switching.

Cisco Systems acknowledged this trend recently when it announced its new CCIE Data Center certification program. It's a departure from some of Cisco's other advanced CCIE certifications, which focus on specific technologies like routing and switching, security or wireless. CCIE Data Center will ask network engineers to develop a relatively deep understanding across storage and server technologies as well.

"I think the data center is becoming a discipline unto itself," said Zeus Kerravala, principal and founder of ZK Research. "If you look at the data center today, it's significantly more network-dependent than it ever has been in history."

In turn, IT organizations are seeking network engineers who can collaborate with server and storage teams more effectively, according to Howard Hooper (CCIE #23470), an independent network engineer based in the United Kingdom.

"It's moved on from the days of just architecting a network, where you make sure routers and switches had the correct amount of capacity and quality of service [QoS], to actually making sure you're fulfilling the requirements of the storage team and making sure your [FCoE] connectivity works within the network as well," said Hooper.

Hooper, who plans to sign up for the beta CCIE Data Center exam, is working on a large server virtualization installation that will likely require a network built on Cisco's Nexus 7000 and Nexus 5000 switches. Running Fibre Channel over Ethernet [FCoE] on this network is requiring a lot of collaboration with the storage team.

"I'm liaising with the storage team daily to make sure their requirements are met, the customer's requirements are met and that we come up with a solution that works between us," he said.

CCIE Data Center: Tests the gamut of Cisco data-center technology

The CCIE Data Center written and lab exams will test engineers on a variety of familiar networking gear, including the Catalyst 3750, the Nexus 7009 core chassis, the Nexus 5548 switch and the Nexus 2232 Fabric Extender. Beyond traditional routing and switching, the certification will test applicants on their skills with the Nexus 1000v virtual switch and its application delivery controller, the Application Control Engine (ACE).

CCIE Data Center aspirants will also have to study up on Cisco's storage area network (SAN) switch, the MDS 92221, and the company's blade-server technology, the Unified Computing System (UCS).

The CCIE Data Center certification will be generally available in September. Beta tests will be available from May 1 to June 15, including at Cisco Live in San Diego.

Studying Nexus 7009 without a home lab? Yikes

Finding time to develop skills on some of the higher-end products in the CCIE Data Center exam, particularly the Nexus 7009 and the UCS servers, will be hard for many network engineers. You can't build a home lab by buying these products on eBay because they are too new.

"I'm lucky in the position I am in because I have access to that equipment. But I have seen a number of people asking where they can get access to it, especially for training providers," said Hooper.

So far, Learning@Cisco hasn't provided a solid solution to this problem.

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"The components with the data center tend to be very high-end equipment, and we are building out the lab capacity ourselves," said Tejas Vashi, a product manager with Learning@Cisco. "How we're going to roll that out? We're not talking about that right now. But we want to make sure our learning partners can help address talent gaps in the industry without putting too much additional burden on them."

Note that Cisco, and other vendors, have started experimenting with cloud-based network labs recently.

CCIE Data Center a ploy for network engineers to take over the world?

Cynics might say that Cisco's effort to certify network engineers as master data-center architects is a ploy to position its core customers as the key decision-makers in the data center, Kerravala said.

"But someone's got to own this," he said. "I don't see any of the compute vendors stepping up to do this. I think Cisco has an opportunity to grab the bull by the horns and educate the market on how to build out these network-dependent data centers. That's clearly the direction the industry is going, and Cisco lives and feeds off market transitions. The shift to the cloud is a big one."

On a less cynical note, Cisco's Vashi says, "Cisco does not introduce a career certification of any level unless we are seeing an absolute need for a job role and we see a talent gap in the industry. When hiring managers need to hire folks for a specific job role and are having trouble figuring out who can do this job, we make sure there is a certification to help people qualify and help hiring managers make decisions."

"It is getting harder and harder to silo the different parts of the data center," said Antonella Corno, the data-center product portfolio manager for Learning@Cisco, Cisco's education division. "More and more the different teams that participate in the data center need a way to communicate and a common understanding of the technologies. There is a need for an individual that is really able to understand all those different [technologies]. They may well be more well-versed in one area versus another, but they need to be able to move with agility across all of them."


Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Director

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