Cisco became the de-facto standard for networking not only by its innovative products but also by the growing passionate community of engineers and technicians around it. Part of the reason that attracted engineers and students to Cisco is its certification scheme enabling them to be effective and real-world from day one on their job. Over the years, Cisco has refined its certification path making it ever so robust and real-world. Let’s take a closer look at the fundamentals of Cisco certification.
First Step: Routing and Switching
Big picture: you start Cisco certs by learning the basics of IP routing and LAN switching. Cisco started out as a routing company in the 1980s, added switching in the early/mid 1990s. Since that time, Cisco has added other technology areas, so as you walk through this journey, you will have opportunities for Cisco certs in Wireless, Security, Voice, Service Provider, Data Center, and maybe other areas. But to start with Cisco, you start with routing and switching.
Requiring that you start with some route/switch oriented cert is both good and bad. If you don’t know a lot of networking when you start, you don’t have to choose a technology area before you learned much about Cisco networking. To start with Cisco, you start with route/switch. But if you already know another area, say voice, and you really just want Cisco voice certifications, you still have to start with route/switch, at least from a certification perspective.
The basic process to get a Cisco cert is to take and pass the exams associated with that cert. Each cert has one or more exams associated with it. You take the exams sitting at a computer at a facility affiliated with the Vue testing service (vue.com). That is, you register for an exam, pay some Rupees, and on that day, you show up on site to take your exam. So, to be ready for a particular exam, you need to know the technology of course, but you also need to know as much as you can about the test environment. Most of your prep time will need to focus on the technology, but you should also use the tools at cisco.com to help you understand the testing environment.
Now let’s zoom in a bit on one specific certification: Cisco Certified Network Associate. Announced in 1998, this cert acts as the pre-requisite for all the other Cisco certs. So if you want to start your Cisco certification journey so you can get certs on other Cisco technology areas, or to get deeper certs like CCNP and CCIE, then you need to get your CCNA.
Cisco provides two paths to get your CCNA certification: a 2-exam path, and a 1-exam path, as shown in the figure. Cisco names each exam, and gives each exam a number as well. Each time Cisco makes a revision to the certification, Cisco re-numbers the exams. The current CCNA cert is the 5th major version of the CCNA certification (although Cisco doesn’t give certs version numbers).
Focusing on CCNA, you just choose to take one of the two paths. Both paths cover the same topics to the same depth. The 2-exam path lets you split the topics into two separate exams. At some point, you will need to choose one of these two paths. I’ll hit the pros/cons at the end of today’s post.
An important aside as you start this journey, note that most of the Cisco cert exams have one Cisco authorized course, often with the same name, associated with them. For instance, the ICND1 exam is associated with Cisco’s ICND1 course. You don’t have to take the course, but if you do, it helps you prepare for the exam. ICND1 and ICND2 are both 5-day courses – so taking the CCNA exam, that includes topics from both courses/exams, can be a lot to tackle at once. In general, most Cisco cert exams that have associated courses are 4 or 5-day courses.
The next wrinkle to add here is that Cisco includes another certification that at first glance appears to be Cisco’s entry-level cert: the Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician (CCENT). You get a CCENT cert for passing the ICND1 exam. So, you can think of a CCENT cert as being on the first half of the CCNA topics.
As for pure mechanics, CCENT can only be attained by passing the ICND1 exam, and CCENT is not a prerequisite for any other Cisco cert. So, if you really want CCNA, and if you use the 2-exam path to CCNA, you will get a CCENT cert when you pass the ICND1 exam. However, if you take the CCNA exam instead, you do not get a CCENT cert.
CCENT vs. CCNA
So, once question you have to ask yourself is whether you want to go after CCNA or CCENT as an end to itself. First, CCENT as an end-goal makes sense if:
- You want to have much broader skills, so you want just a little more networking knowledge
- You want jobs that require the ability to talk with network engineers, but you don’t want to be one
- You want to test the waters, and this is the least time/$ to get at least one Cisco cert
Otherwise, you’ll want to pursue CCNA. CCNA – not CCENT – is the prerequisite for most other Cisco certs. And CCNA is typically the minimum you can list on a resume’ to get the hiring manager’s interest for a job that includes networking.
To be complete, I must at least mention Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA). This certification has no pre-requisites, so technically, you could start here instead of either CCENT or CCNA. However, while Cisco does not require a CCNA cert as a prerequisite, the Cisco web site states that you need to have CCNA skills as a prerequisite. CCDA includes topics about routing and switching, but from a design perspective. So, to get a CCDA, you would most likely learn the stuff you need for CCNA anyway – so most people start with CCNA.
You may have noticed that I didn’t list cost as a pro/con for either path. First, the cost varies depending on where you are in the world. In the USA, the ICND1 and ICND2 exams are $125 each, with the CCNA exam at $250. However, because you cannot predict how many you might fail, it’s hard to predict which path is cheaper. For instance:
- No fails: $250 either path
- Fail the first, pass the rest: $500 for the 1-exam path, and $375 for the 2-exam path
- Fail the first take, pass the 2nd, for each exam: $500 for both paths
So, it’s hard to make a choice of 1-exam or 2-exam based on exam cost. However, there is a time cost, and potentially a travel cost. Depending on where you live, getting to a testing center may require more travel time and cost. To find the closest testing centers that support Cisco exams, check out www.vue.com and set up an ID. Then, go ahead and follow the registration process, but don’t complete it. Along the way, you’ll be able to see a list of the closest testing centers.