A new section of CertManiacs launches, introducing Study Guides!

One of my early ideas for this site was to upload the study guides that I create for myself as I prepare to write a certification exam, today I’m ready to begin fulfilling that part of my vision and I hope it serves you all well!

Without any further ado, I present the first in my series of study guides, one that was created as a final study reference for the Cisco CCNA Service Provider SPNGN1 640-875 exam, it and any further guides can be found at the Study Guide link at the top of the navigation bar, or just follow this link.

Commit to Cert Training in 2015!

Happy New Year 2015

We are only two days away from 2015, so let me propose a New Year’s resolution for everyone (yes, even me). Let’s all commit to obtaining at least one new certification in the calendar year. I’ve got a modest initial goal: Completing the Juniper Networks Certified Associate (JNCIA-Junos). From there, I’m hoping to complete at least one exam towards my CCNP Security and one or two exams for my Alcatel-Lucent NRS II. If possible, perhaps I’ll even obtain that ITIL Foundations cert I keep pushing to the sidelines!

So let’s all wish ourselves luck over the next twelve months. Remember that it doesn’t matter if you are going for your A+, your MCSE, or your CCIE R&S, the important thing is to work on improving your skills and knowledge, empowering yourself to take your career where you want it to go!

Interesting White Paper About Cisco Certifications

Just a quick link today to a white paper that I found to be quite an interesting read for anyone wanting to learn a bit more about the history of IT certifications. The paper focuses on the history of Cisco’s certification and where they all stand today. Global Knowledge, the company publishing the paper, is an IT training firm that I’ve had positive experiences with in my professional career. This isn’t a comment on the company either way, but I should mention that their training is generally priced out of the range of the beginning learner who’s cautious about investing too much into the process early on, especially when they might not yet have a plan as to where they want to ultimately take their studies.

Follow the link below to obtain the PDF file of the white paper, be aware that Global Knowledge will ask for some registration information (name, business address, email address, and more) to complete the download, so fill out the form as you see it fit:

Global Knowledge White Paper About Cisco Certifications by Johnny Bass

Why Network+?

Network Plus Certified

When considering a cert to study, you need to make decisions on what you hope to learn and accomplish as a result of your studies. But sometimes I think a little more meta and I wonder, “Why does this certification exist?” Network+ is one of those certs that I have pondered that exact question. Do we NEED Network+? I mean, think about, we have our Cisco certifications, we have our Juniper certifications, and there are plenty of more networking vendors of all shapes and sizes that also offer their own certification program. So if I can just push forward and get my CCNA, not wasting my time with these “lesser” certs, then why wouldn’t I?

Well, if you have got the motivation and means to jump past Network+ and CCENT, then you should do it. In my experience, however, I think that some people underestimate how big an endeavour getting their CCNA cert is, especially if you are completely green in the networking field. It covers a lot of ground, and even though the depth of some of the topics only goes down an inch or two, the combined pool of them is a mile wide. I have worked with people that have failed the test(s) anywhere from once to over a dozen times, those people that have had to reattempt the exams multiple times clearly made errors in their judgment of whether or not they were actually prepared to write the exam. In truth, many of those people would have been better served by focusing on learning networking basics, protocols and standards, before even worrying about the ins and outs of any particular vendor.

So that’s a really long winded way of saying that yes, I think that Network+ has a place in the certification world. CompTIA is a vendor-neutral cert organization, a fact that they quite proudly tout, and if you follow the Network+ curriculum, it will walk you though the basics of things like Spanning Tree Protocol or the seven layers of the OSI model. When you are comfortable with these concepts and can apply them to vendor specific procedures, things will fall into place that much easier for you. Network+ is an achievable exam, I don’t mean to imply that it is easy, but it can be a milestone in your cert study path that you can reach in a reasonable time frame and build off of.

One bit of advice I would like to include in this article is to try and think ahead in your cert study pathway, that is to say, what are the next two certs that you study for going to be after you obtain your currently targeted one? Network+ gets you quite far allow the path to your CCENT, and with the increased difficulty of the ICND1 (the exam to obtain your CCENT) in the 2013 update , if you pass it you will be well on your way to the full CCNA. Network+ is less likely to be a specific requirement for many IT jobs out there than say, CCNA would be, but it is a way to validate networking knowledge to recruiters, and in my case, helped develop the specific knowledge I needed to obtain my current position in my industry.

CompTIA’s landing page for Network+ information

My next series of articles will take a look at Network+ study resources, both paid and free, that are available out there.

Certmail arrives at CertManiacs!

Sept 2014 CertMail

You might find it a little odd that I actually look forward to receiving new certification guides in the mail. What I’m actually looking forward to is the opportunity (and since money was paid for the books, a bit more motivation) to expand my IT skills and possibly obtain new certs. When it comes to educational guides and textbooks I still prefer paper versions as opposed to eBooks. The main reason is that in my job I stare at monitors all day long, and I often find myself staring at them when I get home, which is pretty common nowadays for most people. It is nice, however, to take a break from a backlit screen now and then and these paper guides help me do that. In fact, you see that I purchased a CCNA Security command guide, that will be a companion to the electronic CCNA Security study guide that I’ve been reading through, with my intention being to basically lab through all the commands via GNS3 following my complete reading of the study guide. Truth be told, it’s been painful trying to read through what’s really just a big PDF and I’m looking forward to being done with it, and that is not at all because I find the subject matter dis-interesting.

I also picked up an ITIL Foundations study guide, that purchase was motivated solely because it is something that HR representatives for technical jobs love to see it in your resume, I’m really unsure how I feel about the ITIL principles in general. Perhaps I’ll become a believer, we shall see. And the last thing to note, that Alcatel-Lucent NRS II guide is over 1400 pages! It will definitely keep me busy.

Whatever certs you pursue and whatever guides you buy, the most important thing is to keep pushing forward: learning new skills and obtain new credentials! It will only net positive results!

A+ Training Lab Recommendations – Focusing on Software

My last article looked at a few simple recommendations for putting together a low cost hardware solution for your A+ lab activities, so now I’ll take a look at software. By software I generally am referring to operating systems, youe studies will mostly focus on maintenance and administrative functions that are built into operating systems, but will also look at general questions regarding things like anti-virus, anti-malware, and virtualization software. My hardware recommendation was to buy or build a system that would run Windows 7, the newest version of Windows listed in the A+ exam objectives. So, we’ll look at installing Windows on a physical PC first, and then a virtual one.

If you have built a lab PC, then you’ll need to have your Windows installation ISO on a DVD or USB drive. If it’s your first time installing an operating system from scratch, here is a guide for Windows 7, and one for Windows 8 (this one includes instructions on getting a USB drive prepped). Since I recommend that you do not attempt this (at least as a first timer) on your main personal computer and most definitely not on any kind of work production system, you might even want to just wing it without a guide, jump in! The Windows installation process is pretty refined at this point, and you should be able to get through it with relative ease.

An even safer way to experiment with Windows installation, and certainly any of the other administrative tasks that the A+ exams want you to know, is via a virtual machine. My personal recommendation is to use VirtualBox, remember that to run an OS like Windows well on a virtual machine, you’ll need a decent PC. Here’s a good walkthrough on installing Windows 8 to a virtual machine in Virtual Box. I recommend learning VirtualBox or another virtualization tool, not only because it’s a handy lab tool, but IT is trending towards virtualization and you should take any experience, however far removed from commercial use it may be, that you can.

Virtualbox Windows 7
Windows 7 running on Virtualbox

The resource I was hoping to refer you to use for evaluation operating systems was Microsoft Technet, but I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see that Windows 7 is no longer available for download there, instead they have a 90-day trial of Windows 8.1 Enterprise. Now, you can make Windows 8.1 work for you, most of the tested functions lie with the same System and Control Panel paths. An example would be that you might need to use Ctrl+Q to bring up the search for your Command Prompt instead of simply navigating from the Start Menu to Accessories to the Command Prompt as you would in Windows 7. Windows 8.1’s menu that appears when you right-click on the Start button contains a lot of shortcuts that will be useful to you in your A+ labbing.

I did find a Windows 7 trial link, but I recommend to use extreme caution if you choose to download from the site, and make sure that you do not install any “helpful” add-ons they might offer you: Softpedia

Now that you’ve got Windows installed, what’s next? Well, start working through activities related to the A+ exam objectives. Some things that stand out to me to try include: partitioning a hard drive, creating new user/group accounts, tinkering with file and folder permissions, driver/firmware updates, and learning the command line interface. Only you know when you feel comfortable with a topic, so begin with walking through what you see in a training video or read in your guide, and then just try to experiment with different settings from there!

You’ll notice that in the 220-802 objectives that iOS and Android are mentioned, these questions should hopefully be very general (Note: I have sat the 220-701 and 220-702, not the current exams), hopefully your familiarity with whatever mobile devices you happen to own currently can see you through. There is a general trend I’ve noticed regarding A+ that they are attempting to make it more relevant in the dying age of the desktop PC by covering more mobile computing topics. If you experience a large number of smartphone or tablet computing related questions I would sure like to hear from you in the comments section!

A+ Training Lab Recommendations – Focusing on Hardware

An important part of any technical certification is completing practical lab work, whether it’s a lab you design yourself or access to a professionally maintained training lab that you have purchased. Lab work falls strongly into the Experience quadrant of the Adult Learning cycle, and for many people, it’s the most productive part of the learning process. Even if you do nothing but simply parrot a step-by-step Windows process that you see in your study guide, you are increasing your engagement in the study process. How much this hands-on work benefits you depends on what kind of adult learner you are (this is a big topic, but some reading can be found at this link) , some people can pretty much just internalize what they see or read and translate that into a successful exam attempt. For the rest of us, lab early and lab often.

Now, a lot of people who attempt the A+ exams already have a lot of experience in building PCs, installing operating systems, and troubleshooting components. If that describes you, you’re in great shape for the exams already. This advice is for mainly for those people that may not have dabbled in those topics as much. I would still recommend that veterans scan the A+ exam objectives and consider labbing any subjects that they may feel a little weak on.

So how do you “lab” (from this point on I will simply use lab as a verb) for A+? Well, to start I would recommend getting your hands on a cheap used computer that you don’t mind potentially being sacrificed if some of your hardware and software experimentation goes irreversibly wrong. Check for cheap machines on Craigslist, Kijiji, or whatever popular used goods site is in your area. Another option to consider is a PC retailer that sells cheap off-lease PCs that have been returned and refurbished from businesses. Try to spend as little as possible, but make sure the system you pick up can at least run the current versions of Windows that you will be tested on. For the current 220-801 and 220-802 exams you can potentially be tested on Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7. Additionally, the more cards (video, sound, or network) and drives (SSD, hard disk, and CD or DVD ROM) the system has, or spare ones that you have to attempt to install, the better. I would not recommend buying new components for a lab if you can avoid it, there is no need to spend excessive amounts of money to lab for the A+ exams.

For a person that has not assembled a PC before, I recommend a complete teardown and rebuild of your lab PC as a start. If you still feel a little hesitant about the process, Youtube has both disassembly and reassembly videos. This practical work will help you gain much needed confidence in handling hardware, which may not necessarily benefit you on the exam, but will benefit you in entry level IT jobs (if that is your goal after obtaining your A+).

Now, will these activities cover all of the hardware that you will potentially be tested on? Sadly, they will not, but I believe if you attempt to seek out old CRT monitors, printers, and tablets that you will begin to experience diminishing returns. I did not attempt to get hands-on with the more obscure hardware and I don’t believe it was a significant hindrance when it came to test time.

Here is one of the machines that I used to lab for my A+, it was a simple refurbished unit that was purchased cheaply used from a private seller. It’s nothing fancy, but it was something to rip apart, reassemble, and install operating systems on:

Lab PC Complete

Next time, I’ll take a look at what software you can use to prepare you for the A+ exams.

The Alcatel-Lucent NRS I Certificate Arrives!

Just a quick update today, one of the things I look forward to after successfully completing the requirements for a tech cert is the arrival of the physical certificate (and, in some cases, certification wallet card). It’s a nice token to show your accomplishment, but it’s very likely you’ll never show it to a potential employer. Rather, all certification offerings have a way to send an electronic proof of your employment to any hiring staff that may require it.

With all that said, here’s a look at the paper for a cert that a lot of folks probably haven’t seen, the Alcatel-Lucent NRS I.

Alcatel Lucent NRS I Cert

Maybe I’ll be able to add the NRS II to the collection in the next year or so? I have a couple of other cert goals to reach first, but I’m definitely considering the possibility!

Thoughts on Preparing for the CCNP Routing & Switching Exams

Recently, Cisco has announced updates to the CCNP: Routing and Switching exams, with the old exams being phased out as of Jan 29. 2015. All discussion in this blog post refers to the previous versions of the exams: 642-902 ROUTE, 642-813 SWITCH, and 642-832 TSHOOT.

GN3 Capture
Pictured: One of the CCNP troubleshooting topologies available from GNS3 Vault

The blog has already jumped between multiple topics, but I’ll change gears yet again to talk about my preparation for the Cisco Certified Network Professional – Routing & Switching cert, which has been going on since the beginning of 2014.

Since the Cisco exams lean heavily on simulations, working with a training lab becomes the most important thing you’ll do in your Cisco exam preparation. While working with equipment, physical or virtual, in a hands-on scenario is important for any technical training, it will be the difference in an exam where the simulations make up a large portion of your mark. And sure enough, if you can’t pass the labs on a Cisco exam, it’s very unlikely you’ll pass the exam proper. Cisco does reward partial credit for lab questions, so even if you’re completely lost, you’ll want to complete as much configuration that you believe to be correct as possible. Cisco will provide a percentage achieved in each category of the exam, so if you happen to fail a lab related to that section, discovered by a low percentage in that category, it gives you at least one thing to focus on as you prepare for your next exam attempt.

Cisco Packet Tracer, a simulation tool for simple Cisco switched and routed networks, served me extremely well in my CCNA Routing & Switching preparation, it featured support for most if not all of the protocols and features that the exam will test You on. If you’ve used Packet Tracer then you know there are several idiosyncrasies in the program that you don’t find on actual production routers and switches, the most common example being that show run int will not work, forcing you to use show run and filter through to the interface information. It’s not a show stopper, none of the differences in the way the virtual equipment works, but it does slow you down. The trouble with Packet Tracer is obtaining it, I won’t advocate software piracy or using exam dumps on the is blog (in fact, to be clear I outright condemn them), so know that the only legitimate way to obtain Packet Tracer is to enroll in Cisco Networking Academy courses, more information on that can be found here.

So, if that option is a non-starter for a lot of people, what other ways to create a practice lab are there? Well, of course you can purchase actual used routers and switches through places like eBay. This is a fairly popular option, but while there is a lot of reward is working with the real thing when it comes to labbing, there is also a lot of risk. When you purchase a switch or router from eBay, you get whatever version of IOS happens to be currently installed on it, and because you purchased it second hand, you don’t have a software license that would enable you to download a backup or perhaps even newer version of the OS from Cisco. As for what equipment you’ll want to gather, well, Wendell Odom has excellent write-ups about creating your own lab with real equipment on his blog, so I’ll defer to the master on the subject. Head over there and read up!

What I’ve probably used the most in my personal lab studies is another virtual solution, an alternative from the exclusive (and by that nature, expensive) Packet Tracer. That solution is GNS3 (www.gns3.net) a set of emulators that recreate Cisco IOS routers (but not only Cisco devices) to allow you to build a virtual lab. There are some limitations, the biggest is that switching using ASICS (read about GNS3’s switching capabilities here) . Some Cisco platforms allow you to add in switching modules that will emulate some switching functions, but not enough to cover the full topic list that Cisco will test you on. The other big limitation is that you must provide the copies of IOS software yourself, which can be done by simply removing the Compact Flash card, provided that router uses one, and placing it unto a card reader to copy the image file, if you happen to have access to a suitable router. Cisco also lists some alternative methods for copying IOS images here. I used GNS3 quite heavily for my ROUTE training and now that I’ve completed my readings for TSHOOT I’ve actually begun to use the TSHOOT labs available for free at GNS3 Vault for practice, and they can be found here.

Sticking with your lab work, self-analysis of your work to identify the topics you struggle with, and then subsequently spending additional practice time on those topics all require a lot of dedication. I believe that those that stick with it, especially at the CCNP and above level, will be rewarded in time. With only a couple weeks to go, I am eager to complete my CCNP: Routing and Switching and move onto my next big goal, which will NOT be a networking cert to allow me a chance to both expand my own skillset and provide some interesting new material for this blog!

A+ Video Training Resources

Two posts ago, I took a look at three CompTIA A+ study guides for the current 220-801 and 220-802 exams. A study guide makes a good foundation for your exam preparation, but adults learn in a variety of ways and hacking away at a thick text book isn’t for everyone. One alternative to consider is training videos, but to be clear, I believe videos works best as a supplement to a study guide and not as a complete replacement. If you find the multimedia presentation alone serves you better, you should play to your own strengths. However, reading, watching videos both serve the same essential function in the adult learning cycle, and even if you both read a study guide and watch a full video course it’s not likely to be enough to achieve success when writing a cert exam. I’m going to drop my first mention of the adult learning principles that I follow, and these are principles that I plan on becoming quite important on CertManiacs going forward. While I don’t want to stray too far from the titular topic, consider this, studying a guide or passively watching training videos qualify as Experiences in this four stage process:

Experience – Something happens.
Reflection – What happened?
Generalization – Why did it happen?
Application – Make that thing happen yourself.

I’ll be returning to that process quite a bit in the coming months, but back to training videos. Today, I will take a look at two excellent A+ training video sources today, one free and one that can be a little pricey, depending on your point of view.

Professor Messer

I discovered Professor Messer when I first began searching for A+ training material during the very start of my certification career. I was thrilled to find FREE video training to complement my study guide (see my A+ study guide reviews here). As it turns out, it turned out to be quality content, Professor (James) Messer has created a comprehensive course that he updates for each new revision of the A+ exams, when I first used his content it was still for the 220-701 and 220-702 versions. He keeps each video segment fairly short (most are under 15 minutes) and very on point for the target concept, which helps keep the content digestable. The videos follow a fairly simple format, a camera records a full face shot of him speaking, which plays in a small window in the corner over his presentation, which is often a slideshow but he does live capture processes in action when it’s appropriate. At a total video run time of 19 hours, there’s a fair bit of content to be watched, but if you do, it will go a long way to preparing you for the exams. In addition to the videos, Messer will run A+ pop quizzes and study groups. I noticed there was a lull in his site updates over the past few months, but it appears he’s back in full swing. I should note that he seems to be working on updating his Network+ and Security+ content at the time of this writing. You are able to view replays of old study groups, and I recommend that you check out at least one to see if they will be of any benefit to you.

The only issue is that the videos must be accessed online (via Youtube), which depending on your mobile data capability, may be something of an issue. The site does offer a solution to this problem in the form of a downloadable training course for $200 that includes: the video training on DVDs, MP3s of the audio from them, and his slides in PDF format. The price seems a bit steep compared to the cost of one of the printed study guides I’ve previously review, however, Messer does offer PDF study guides of his own for $10 each, certainly a reasonable price and likely a good supplement to the video course. I cannot say how the guides stand on their merit (or for that matter as a companion to the videos) based on the small sampling provided, but they appeared to be formatted in a “quick study” manner to concisely review exam topics. If you’ve purchased them then please feel free to comment and add your opinion.

CBT Nuggets

We go from a free resource to one that has a subscription fee. CBT Nuggets is a reputable video IT training provider that covers a large number of vendors. I’ve been lucky to enough to get access to a subscription through my workplace, but the first thing we should discuss is the cost for their training. For individual learners who don’t believe they’ll need ongoing access to the catalogue, the cost is $99/month for the Basic plan, and while what “expensive” is for everyone is relative, it’s not an insignificant cost if you’re paying out of pocket. For that fee you get access to the complete video catalogue (must be viewed online (mobile apps are available) and their NuggetLab supplementary materials. I signed up for the 7 day trial to take a look at the A+ videos and unfortunately they do not make the NuggetLab material for the course available for trial so I cannot comment on the quality of that content. There is a higher tier plan available that requires a 12 month commitment that is actually cheaper per month and includes extra features such as offline video viewings (allowing you to download up to 20) and practice exams.

CBT Nuggets puts something of a focus on their trainers as personalities, and I will say for IT trainers, the CBT Nuggets instructors are pretty good. Jeremy Ciora is perhaps the most famous (or is it infamous?) instructor from the site, but James Conrad, the instructor for the A+ material, is a well spoken and engaging guide through the material. I’d give him the edge in presentation skills over Professor Messer. The video course, as with Messer’s, is comprehensive but between the two I’ll give the free course the nod in terms of layout. Its videos are shorter and dedicated to more focused topics than the CBT videos, which often exceed 25 minutes in length. The formatting of the videos for CBT is largely the same Messer’s, the instructor has a slide deck or whiteboard running as they lecture and will bring up pictures or live screen captures as necessary. Nothing revolutionary, but it works. I tested out the CBT Nuggets mobile app for iOS on my iPhone and it synced up my video progression from my PC to the mobile device perfectly, the app is simple to use and seems to work quite well.

So why bring up CBT Nuggets as the pay option? Well, it’s the one that I am most familiar with. Do not take my review of it or Professor Messer’s site as any kind of endorsement over any other free or paid option, my goal is to simply make you aware of training resources that are available for your A+ studies. While I’m not thrilled that you have to supply a credit card for their free 7 day trial, which does NOT automatically start a subscription when it lapses, I understand the barrier exists to stop people from repeatedly abusing the trial period.

You might ask, “Between these two options, which should I use?” For the A+ exams, I believe Professor Messer’s free video training will serve you quite well, and I can’t recommend paying the subscription fee solely for just the A+ material on CBT Nuggets.