Author Archives: jonrhayward

Thoughts on the CompTIA Linux+ Exams

A couple of months ago, I successfully completed both of the required tests to obtain the CompTIA Linux+ certification:  the LX0-103 and  LX0-104 exams.  I made the decision to pursue the certification as recent job opportunities have moved me slightly away from the enterprise networking I had been embroiled in, to instead working with Linux servers far more than I previously did.

The exams are the standard CompTIA format 60 questions in multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank.  You have a generous 90 minutes to complete them, and I certainly wasn’t hard up against the clock when question 60 rolled around.  A 500 on a scale from 200-800 is required to pass, the scoring system remains as opaque as it always has been.

I’d say there was as great of a need to split the material into two separate exams as there was for A+, which is to say, there is no need at all.  Let’s not mince words here, it feels like a cash grab and it probably is.  $400 US is a lot of money for someone to pay for a CompTIA certification if the cost comes out of their own pocket.  Obtaining the LPIC certification afterwards, which I discuss more a bit later, carried no additional cost.

In terms of content, I feel like the Linux+ study guide I purchased (LPIC-1/CompTIA Linux+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide by Robb Tracyprepared me well enough for the exams.  I labbed with the OpenSUSE virtual machine image provided on the book’s included CD, a Ubuntu Server VM I have had for some time, and a CentOS Digital Ocean droplet I’ve been experimenting with.  As with any of these blogs, I won’t discuss any specific questions on the exam.  Overall, I’d say it was a mixed bag, it probably could have had more general admin best practice questions and less (or none) of the neckbeard-y interrogations about command minutiae.
The Linux+ certification does not currently expire.  I would expect, should that change in the future, that existing Linux+ holders will be permanently grandfathered while they likely add a minor “Continuing Education” designation to anyone who obtains the new, expiring version of the cert.   Additionally, I applied for the Linux Professional Institute LPIC-1 System Administrator certification, the Linux+ examinations are based on LPIC-1 content, and I would be curious to know how similar the exams were, had I the money and the time for such endeavours.  There is a simple form that one needs to fill out to link the Linux+ achievement on LPI’s site and the process was fairly painless.

More information about the Linux+ exams, and the process to obtain your LPIC-1 certification after achieving Linux+, can be found on CompTIA’s site here.

New CompTIA Certification Renewals Options for A+ and Network+

comptia-logoThe A+ exam series has moved onto exams 220-901 & 220-902, replacing 220-801 & 220-802 which were retired in June. Network+ has also progressed to the N10-006 exam, which replaced the N10-005 exam in February 2015. CompTIA has recently started to offer “bridge” exams, much like Microsoft has famously provided when they have decided to update their certification offerings.  However, the availability of the CompTIA exams is quite limited, for now you must be provided a Private Access Code (PAC) from CompTIA via email, so make sure correspondence with the group is enabled in your profile!  The other availability factor, although is a very minor one, is that the bridge exams are not available for those who have obtained their A+ and/or Network+ with the current exams.

These bridge exams are the RCO-903 and the RCO-N06, for A+ and Network+ respectively.   The A+ exam is 50 questions and the Network+ is 45, both indicate that they feature the typical CompTIA multiple choice questions.  The cost of the RCO-N06 is $100 USD versus $175 for the RCO-903, my assumption is that the higher price of A+ exam reflects the fact that it allows you to recertify a typically two-exam cert with only one test.  Passing the exam will also waive any Continuing Education fees that would be required if you are actively participating in the CE program.

I have not completed either of these exams as it is my intent, and my recommendation, to always recertify at the highest level of the linked CompTIA linked exam hierarchy (found in this FAQ) as you can.  As an example, I have obtained my CASP certification, so when the time comes, my plan is to renew that, taking care of all of the “lower” exams.  However, everyone learns at a different pace, has different certification goals, and different resources such as time and funding available to them so having more certification renewal options is always good thing.  In this regard, CompTIA has strong offerings, as the CE program has been around for years now as an alternative to booking an exam to recertify.

The exams must, of course, be completed before your current certifications expire, otherwise you will essentially be started from scratch in your CompTIA certification chain.   Employ whatever method works for you when it comes to keeping track of your cert expiration dates, be it calendar reminders in your calendar app, sticky notes on your monitor, etc.!

I’m curious as to what kind of market there will ultimately be for these renewal certifications.  As of now, there is no study material specifically for the bridge exams, but the exams are based around the objectives of the current entry exams in the certification, with adjusted weights for the various competency categories.  So any available study guides for the current series will work, but you may be able to save time by focusing less on areas that have seen little change from the last versions of the exam objectives or are areas that you are currently very strong in.

The Growing CCNA Family

CCNA Certified

Cisco’s CCNA certification, and once upon a time it did start out just as one, has become one of the most readily recognized and desired tech certs out there. As I begin my preparations for my CCNA Data Center studies, I became curious as to what other new CCNA specializations had been added since I first started to get into tech certifications a few years ago. When I obtained my CCNA there were also a few specializations that you were able to obtain. At that time you had to obtain your CCNA Routing and Switching before you were able to obtain one of the CCNA specializations: Wireless, Security, Video, Voice, and the newly added Service Provider among them. When the ICND1 exam was expanded to include more topics, essentially making it “tougher,” the policy changed to allow one to challenge for most of the CCNA specializations after just obtaining your CCENT. Nowadays, they aren’t even really thought of as specializations, they are simply CCNA certs covering a different topic than Routing and Switching. And the available topics to obtain a CCNA in began to expand even further, take a look for yourself. There are currently ten current CCNA certifications, eleven if you include CCDA, that’s certainly enough to keep you busy for a while!

CCNA Service Provider was still very new, only having been around for about a year, when I obtained mine. One of the things I worried about as I worked towards obtaining the cert was if I was spending time on a cert that’s right for me. I think everyone will have that moment, or many moments, of doubt at some point during their cert studies about if they are focusing on the right thing. I’ve had this happen a good month or two into my studies, and once, I actually decided to drop that topic and change over to something else entirely. Was it wasted time? I try not to think of it that way, it’s true I didn’t obtain a cert from that time, but I still gained some useful knowledge that I can apply to my work.

Another thing to keep in mind when pursuing a relatively new cert is that there will not be a wide variety of study material for it. If you are not able to obtain training from a provider like Global Knowledge, assuming they even have a course for the new cert, you often have limited options: one or two study guides, and maybe video training. This can be a bit of shellshock after you leave the safe, warm confines of CCNA Routing and Switching training, where there is absolutely no shortage of study guides, practice labs, and training videos from a multitude of vendors. When I started CCNA SP, the only material available was the training guides from the classroom-based courses I was fortunate enough to attend, and the Cisco recommending reading of two of their Cisco Press books: MPLS Fundamentals and Cisco IOS-XR Fundamentals. There was also no way to effectively sim IOS XR for home studies (some limited options have seen come around), so only my limited time with in-class labs and poking around (very carefully!) with our production routers at work.

It’s also interesting to see existing certifications can change in response to changes in the IT world, the obvious example is that CCNA Voice and CCNA Video have now been rolled into CCNA Collaboration, and those who possessed either one of those certs will need to complete a new Collaboration exam to move to the new exam, while those that have completed both previous certs will be awarded the new one. The latest newcomers to the family are CCNA Cloud and CCNA Industrial. CCNA Cloud, much like Service Provider, does NOT list CCENT as a prerequisite, it requires that you complete two exams specific to it. It also will likely attract the attention of those who are hoping to get their skillset ready for the jobs that will make themselves available as more knowledgable people are required to design and maintain cloud infrastructure. CCNA Industrial is a bit of a curiosity to me, after reading the synopsis I have a hard time imagining there is a large target audience for such a cert. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that Cisco planned, developed, and released the cert and its material in a vacuum. It’s a cert I can safely say that I will never acquire.

Another topic that I foresee starting to become more popular is Software Defined Networking. Large vendors such as Cisco and Juniper already have implementations of SDN available for sale, and Cisco has some SDN certifications available. I expect that this topic will start to move more toward the mainstream of networking, with more study material and certs to be made available as the need for SDN experts begins to grow. I’m going to guess that it won’t be long before we see a CCNA branded Openflow or SDN cert!

Thoughts on the CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CAS-002) Exam

It’s been a long time since my last blog update, but as a young father, it’s been a struggle to find cert study time in between all of my new parental duties. I imagine there are a lot of IT professionals, not to mention other career paths, that have to come to grips with the fact that with a new child, or perhaps children, in your life there is a definite change in your priorities that takes place. With that said, this has been the first cert study/exam cycle I’ve been able to complete, and I hope to get things back on track, albeit at a little more relaxed pace!

CASP Logo

CompTIA’s Advanced Security Practitioner cert currently lies at the top of their CompTIA Certification Hierarchy, thought it’s worth noting that not all of their offerings are linked into that same ladder. As my CompTIA certs are now into their last year before expiration, I decided that I would choose a new cert from their catalog to work towards and renew everything below it. My choices were Storage+. Cloud+, and CASP. Storage+ has definitely been of interest to me in the past, but I decided that with my background of security certs that I should just go for the gusto and take a shot at their highest ranked cert.

As with any cert exam, the NDA prevents one from getting too in-depth about the exact content of the questions, so I will keep things fairly general. The exam documentation mentioned that simulations were a part of the exam, and it turned out they were all at the beginning. I definitely have mixed feelings on these sims, but I do think it’s important for exams, especially those that are for “higher level” certifications, to challenge people beyond simple multiple choice questions. To that extent, the simulations in this exam are somewhat successful. There are some clever tasks that challenge you to complete a set of objectives in the most secure many possible. Conversely, I found some of the other tasks to be a little vague, with no clear way to tell you if you’ve completed your goal or not, or even if you’re on the right track. An example of what I was looking for was what would be found in many Cisco certifications tests where they provide a simple tool, such as a ping test simulation, to verify that you have completed the necessary steps. The biggest issue I have with the CAS-002 sims is that the background documentation for all of the questions could be more in-depth. Maybe CompTIA believes that having to infer what some subnets in a network are used for is part of the challenge, but it came across as incomplete documentation. You shouldn’t have to attempt to guess at information that you need to complete the task, the challenge of the sim should be to put your knowledge to use to complete the task with either all of the needed information, or at least a clear understanding of what missing information you must gather as part of the process of completing the task.

Following the simulations, the remainder of the exam was made up of the typical multiple choice questions that you would expect to find on a CompTIA exam. These felt more challenging than the Security+ questions, but sometimes the challenge came from large amounts of acronym memorization or, worst of all, vague wording. I will give credit where it is due in that there didn’t seem to be any eye-rolling easy “gimme” questions in the pool I was presented with. I have no idea what the weight of the multiple choice questions is versus that of the sims, but I suspect it was my performance in the multiple choice section that allowed me to squeak out a pass.

In an interesting change from most certification exams, you do not get to see a final score, only a simple Pass or Fail statement. The exam will tell you what exam objectives were related to questions that you got wrong. In some ways, it is better than the vague percentage of correct answers you selected for a particular category (a la Cisco), but ultimately still somewhat obfuscates what you need to focus on if you need to rewrite the exam, mostly because exam objectives don’t always get mapped one-to-one with sections of a study guide. However, if you were to tell me that I did really lousy in the Encryption category, I would easily know where to start my refresher studies.

Lastly, and this is something I try to avoid focusing on, but I feel needs to be addressed in this case, is the cost of the exam. CompTIA also does not currently offer the Deluxe packages that can be purchased for A+, Net+, and Sec+ that provides a re-take voucher and access to CertMaster training material (which I have briefly reviewed previously). There is currently no CertMaster material for CASP, so that makes sense, although a retake voucher sure would be nice! The current cost of the exam voucher is $402 US, which came out to nearly $500 Canadian with our current exchange rate. I was fortunate enough that my workplace covered the cost for me, but many others will not be able to take advantage of such a situation. It really is a high asking price for an exam that frankly is not as desired in the job marketplace as CCNP Security or the grandmaster of them all, CISSP.

It was good to get into the swing of cert studies again after too long a hiatus, and I hope to keep the momentum going. My overall impression of the CASP study experience is middling, however, I’m always happy to learn new things and I will certainly explore any opportunities to apply my new found knowledge and use CASP to further my career!

Excellent Global Knowledge Article: Six Certification Exam Mistakes to Avoid

Just a quick post for now, I wanted to pass along a link to an article from Global Knowledge that I really enjoyed, Six Certification Mistakes to Avoid, no registration or anything like that needed! My favorite point is definitely Number 3. I’ve sat in a number of interviews where the hiring manager has brought along a Subject Matter Expert for the very purpose of sniffing out what are sometimes referred to as paper tigers, people who have plenty of cert paper but no significant real word experience to back it up. If you’ve truly earned your certifications through the right mix of learning experiences then challenges like this shouldn’t sweat you too much. Anyways, there’s some good advice in this article, and if you aren’t already practicing the recommended principles in your studies, I highly recommend that you consider doing so.

Is Global Knowledge trying to sell you on one of their (sometimes quite pricey) training courses in this article? Of course, but they certainly are a valid cert study option for those that can stomach the cost.

Network+ Training Lab Recommendations – A Look At Software

Previously, this blog has looked at both software and hardware recommendations for the CompTIA A+ exams, today we will take a step further up on the ladder and tackle Network+. For this article, please note that I am using the CompTIA Exam Objectives for the most recent update to the Network+ exam. One important thing to remember as you browse the objectives is to keep the old saying, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” in mind. The exam, as the objective list will plainly tell you, can throw questions at your from a wide range of topics, but the chances are many of them don’t go beyond a simple “What does acronym X or concept Y really mean?” You won’t be tasked with correctly complex BGP routing issues in a simulated environment or anything like that. Working from the list of types of software to be familiar with (beginning on page 32 of the objectives document), here are my recommendations for each category:


Protocol Analyzer and Packet Sniffer: Wireshark

Wireshark is a powerful packet analysis tool, and although it can look daunting when a packet capture session starts flooding information onto your screen, you won’t find another free tool that can offer you this kind of insight into exactly what’s in a packet.

Terminal Emulation Software: PuTTy

Good old PuTTy has never failed me, and although there are some really strong alternatives such as SecureCRT if you are willing to spend some money, PuTTy is rock solid and totally free. Learn it, use it, develop a Stockholm Syndrome-like love for it!

Linux/Windows OS
I’d recommended sticking with Windows, either 7 or 8.1, if you’re not already a Linux user. All of my other software recommendations in this article will be for Windows. Focus your work on configuring your network connections (IP addressing, DNS servers), and common troubleshooting/information gathering commands such as: ipconfig, netstat, tracert, and nslookup.

Software Firewall, Software IDS/IPS, and Antimalware Software
With too many vendors and offerings to choose from, I highly recommended you stick to mastering general knowledge of these items, specifically their strengths/weaknesses and when it is appropriate to use them based on an analysis of network security requirements.

Network Mapper – Spiceworks

I don’t have a lot of experience with Spiceworks, or really any network mapping software. But, for the price, or lack thereof, I have heard good things about this offering. This is another topic where you will want to know the general purpose of such software.

Virtual Network Environment – Virtualbox and GNS 3

The business of virtualization is a topic that has spawned dozens of websites and millions of conversations all by itself. Virtualbox is free, runs on a variety of platforms, and most importantly, can support a wide range of guest OSes. There’s a bit of a learning curve in creating virtual disks and controlling your keyboard/mouse input across multiple windows, but it is a very effective tool.

While many vendors will offer paid virtualized network labs, Cisco VIRL would be an example of such a thing, GNS 3 has served me well all the way through to my CCNP studies. You’ll likely come upon some difficulties as you configure a lab in GNS 3, so be sure to use the support of the software’s very active community for help.

WiFi/Spectrum Analyzer – Acrylic Wifi Free

Again, not a tool that I often use on a Windows PC, so I will refer to the consensus pick of Acrylic Wifi Free. Network World has an article containing recommendations Network World – 7 Free WiFi Tools.

Network Monitoring Software

“Network monitoring” is something of a nebulous term, and there are a lot of product offerings that all offer different scopes of feature sets. This is another topic where you should focus more generally on the benefits of monitoring software and when/where to best implement it. Here is an article with recommendations for free network monitoring software.

A Look at CompTIA CertMaster

CertMaster Trial

In the summer of 2014, CompTIA launched a new learning system called CertMaster, which was a fairly large step for them. They have offered official training in the past, but it was always through the use of authorized third party vendors for live training or providing their stamp of approval for guides from publishing companies.

CompTIA’s information page for Network+ CertMaster

CertMaster is an interesting idea, you begin by taking a multiple choice test with clickable buttons for the answers. You indicate you are sure about an answer by clicking the selection twice to completely fill the circle. If you are unsure, you must select at two different answers (creating half circles) before you can submit your response. You can also simply choose the option that you do not know the answer. If you answer incorrectly, even partially, or that you do not know, the system will flag that question and you will eventually cycle back to those incomplete questions to re-attempt them. During this second (or third, or fourth…etc.) attempt, a “What You Need to Know” section with appear at the bottom, with a bite-sized blurb of information of a suitable length for a flash card about the question. An “Additional Learning” section is also available that delves deeper into the question’s subject matter.

I selected Network+ as my test unit, and it allows you to complete nine questions in the trial. In my limited exposure to the additional learning material I thought it was generally well done, expanding on the topic but still making sure to keep brevity in mind. I tried the course through a browser and the iOS app, and both worked extremely smooth. Once you have completed a module you can review your answer history, and it will show the complete log of how many times you answered for the questions that you did not get completely right on the first try. You can jump to the learning material for each question from this section as well. You can also refresh yourself by retaking the section as many times as you like.

CompTIA believes that the learning methods and theories used to construct CertMaster provide advantages to both the speed of reaching an understanding of the material and of the ability to retain information. Referring to Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle I believe that it focuses too heavily on Concrete Experience (useful for actual exam situations, to be sure) and Reflective Observation, while being weak on Abstract Conceptualization and offering basically no Active Experimentation at all. You’ll still need to supplement the course with practical hands-on work when possible. These criticisms can be applied to almost any online training, but I bring it up to highlight some of the issues I have with CompTIA’s “revolutionary learning tool.”

At the price of $139 US dollars, the cost of an individual CertMaster course feels a little steep. One of the issues that spring to mind is the question of how one would use this as an ongoing study resource. I can refer to a section of a paper study guide or go back to Professor Messer video at almost any time (with an internet connection, admittedly) without logging into anything, and without having to worry about a license expiring on me. I remain unconvinced about the value of the program in relation to other options out there. Really, is it more interactive than books or videos? I don’t mean to come across as too reductive, but what you are doing is taking a pre-assessment test that takes you directly to the written study material that deals with the question at hand. It’s definitely convenient, but the issues I have all come back to the current price.

It’s always good to have options when it comes to training material, and despite what I feel are the flaws in CertMaster, CompTIA has a competent offering here, if you can stomach the cost. I hope to revisit the product at a later time, perhaps I will consider buying a license if CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner becomes available through it so that I can provide a thorough review of a full course.

Thoughts on the ITIL Foundation Exam

ITIL Image

Just a month ago, I obtained the ITIL Foundation certification. While I don’t have any current aspirations to branch out into IT management, I do some project work in my current role and I thought it would be a good idea to familiarize myself with ITIL’s widely accepted set of IT best practices. The subject matter, mostly talking at a very high level about the processes and relationships between different sections of IT management, didn’t really strike a chord with me. This is a common issue in certification studies, sometimes you come to topics that you just cannot bring yourself to care about, and that usually creates problems with regards to your motivation to keep on going through your study material. ITIL Foundation truly felt like a slog to me.

I began by reading the ITIL Foundation Exam Study Guide by Liz Gallacher and Helen Morris. A perfectly good study guide, to be sure, but again, the material was so dry that I almost felt it physically draining to complete reading a page and then move on to the next. This made for slow progress, and there’s no one really to blame but myself. I also made use of the CBT Nuggets ITIL Foundation video series, which features Michael Shannon as the instructor. I will say that I found some of the graphics used to explain some of the theories, such as the Service Lifecycle, that were featured in the CBT Nuggets videos to be superior to their equivalencies in the paper study guide. I did find myself getting distracted and having to rewind portions of the videos at times, a problem that was caused almost as much by the multitasking power of my computer and much as my boredom with whatever the current topic happened to be.

Now, what training topics an individual finds interesting is a purely subjective thing, and I don’t mean to run down the cert or imply that it isn’t worth your time. I thought it was worthwhile enough to put dozens of hours into studying the material necessary to obtain the cert, after all. I do, however, have to bring up a point of frustration with gathering information about the how and where to write the exam. The ITIL Foundation information page provides links to training partners and exam institutes. While I’m not surprised they didn’t include direct links to vendors such as CBT Nuggets, it was very odd there was no readily available link to their officially sanctioned study guide. In addition, it took a Google search and some reading to put together the fact that I needed to select EXIN as the company to find the ITIL Foundation exam within the Pearson Vue catalog.

The exam itself proved to be a very minor obstacle, it consisted of forty multiple choice questions (always choosing one correct answer, though said answers may encompass several choices from a list), and I only encountered one question that I felt was worded poorly enough to cause confusion. I will say that I didn’t feel like any questions came out of left field, they all seemed to draw on knowledge that could be obtained from commonly available training material, which is not something that can be said about every cert exam. With only 65% (26 out of 40) required to pass, you have plenty of room for error. I believe that an exam’s difficulty can heavily effect the prestige of a certification, and while this is an entry level cert, I felt a bit more challenge would have been appropriate.

There is no current news about the current ITIL Foundation 2011 (the previous version was v3) material being phased out in the near future, but as with any cert, practice due diligence and try to determine if you might be writing an exam that you have to essentially rewrite in less than a year. It appears than in previous changes to the material, a bridge exam was needed to keep your cert valid.

A general overview of the ITIL qualifications can be found here.

As always, feel free to post your own thought regarding ITIL Foundation in the comments section!

Thoughts on the Juniper Networks Certified Associate Junos (JNCIA-Junos) JN0-102 Exam

Juniper Certification Logo

I very recently completed the requirements to achieve the Juniper Networks Certified Associate (henceforth referred to as JNCIA in this article) certification. Well, it was a singular requirement, and that was passing the JN0-102 exam, which I managed to do on the first attempt.  As with every certification exam, I cannot go into detail about specific questions or anything like that, but I did make a few general observations as I proceeded through my studies and my test attempt.

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a two day Juniper training classes through my work to help me prepare for this exam, so I studied and labbed with official Juniper materials.  Having experience with both Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent entry level networking certs I noticed that Juniper`s material for JNCIA focused quite heavily on how to configure and maintain Juniper devices, with surprising little networking theory involved.  Now, this did not really bother me as I have my CCNP in Routing and Switching, so I feel confident that I have my basic networking down pat at this point.  In that regard the training fulfilled my needs quite well, as I was there solely to learn about how things work in Juniper`s neck of the woods.  However, if you are just starting in the networking world (and you went with Juniper over Cisco), I would strongly recommend starting with Network+ as a primer, even just studying the material if not necessarily obtaining the cert.   I should note that I also attended a two day course regarding switching that made up one half of their JNCIS-ENT (roughly the equivalent of the CCNA Routing and Switching cert) recommended training, and that did cover a reasonable amount of switching theory, so it is not as though Juniper leaves you to figure out the theory yourself as the material gets deeper.

Onto the exam, Juniper is up front about what to expect.  The exam consists solely of multiple choice questions and for those of us who decisively select their exam and move on, makes for a short affair.  Juniper, unlike Cisco, will let you return to questions to review them, which is nice for those that fret over possible wrong answers.  In my opinion, over-thinking a question is a recipe for disaster, but everyone should stick with the test-taking approach that they feel comfortable with.  Speaking very generally, the test leaned heavily on Juniper configuration questions, with some “gotcha” moments about knowing when to be in operational or configuration mode.  The only other significant category of question was subnetting, and the difficulty of those questions was right around what you would encounter at the CCNA level.

I now have my JNCIA for the next two years, a shortened period (compared to other vendors) that I am not particularly crazy about, but not really sure if I am going to pursue Juniper certifications any further as this point in time.  I already need to keep two different vendors`operating systems (and all their variations) fresh in my mind for my job and I struggled to keep the Juniper method of doing things fresh in my mind as my study time flowed into my work time.  As always, I will chronicle my further study with whatever vendor I happen to select next!