Connect to the red-hot hiring realm of network security with these top certs
Posted on
November 30, 2016

This feature first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

The right cert can help you master network security.

New network security threats arise on almost a daily basis, as users explore new ways of working and hackers develop increasingly sophisticated tools and techniques. Modern users expect the ability to bring their own smartphones and tablets to the workplace and interact with sensitive business information seamlessly from their home or office, and while on the road.

At the same time, the network security threat landscape has shifted significantly over the past decade. The greatest risk to enterprise network security is no longer the isolated individual in a basement seeking the thrill of breaking into a new environment. Instead, today's adversary is most often an organized, highly skilled team of attackers with a clear objective.

These changes in usage patterns and threat landscape place significant demands on the technology professionals responsible for protecting the safety and security of enterprise networks. Most organizations now employ network security experts who focus their time and talent on these issues, creating a lucrative new career path for technologists seeking to broaden their experience and find new opportunities.

Technologists coming from either networking or security backgrounds may develop complementary skills that increase their marketability, while those without experience in either field may work to develop this specialization. Fortunately, there are a number of certification programs designed to provide aspiring network security experts with the credentials they need to demonstrate their knowledge to potential employers.

Following the Cisco path

The first place to turn for network security training and certification is the networking vendor that provides the majority of an organization's infrastructure. Attaining vendor-specific certification ensures that individuals are ready to hit the ground running with the hands-on knowledge required to perform network security functions. Technologists seeking positions in organizations that use Cisco infrastructure should explore Cisco's network security certification career path.

The first credential on the Cisco path is the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Security certification. This entry-level credential requires that candidates demonstrate knowledge in assessing network security threats, developing the security infrastructure required to combat those threats and remediating network security vulnerabilities.

Technologists seeking this certification must pass the Implementing Cisco Network Security exam, Cisco exam number 210-260. This test asks candidates to answer between 60 and 70 questions over a period of 90 minutes. After passing the exam, candidates earn the CCNA Security credential.

The next step on the Cisco path is earning the more advanced Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) Security certification. Earning this certification requires significantly more knowledge than the CCNA Security program. Candidates must successfully complete four Cisco exams:

  • Implementing Cisco Secure Access Solutions (exam 300-208) covers topics related to network access control, including 802.1x and the Cisco Identity Services Engine.
  • Implementing Cisco Edge Network Security Solutions (exam 300-206) includes questions on the secure configuration of Cisco switches, routers and firewalls.
  • Implementing Cisco Secure Mobility Solutions (exam 300-209) covers the design, implementation and monitoring of Cisco VPN solutions.
  • Implementing Cisco Threat Control Solutions (exam 300-207) covers a wide range of threat management controls, including the use of firewalls, intrusion prevention systems and email/web security solutions.


Candidates who pass all four exams earn the CCNP Security certification.

The highest rung on the Cisco security certification ladder is the prestigious Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) Security certification. This certification, renowned for its difficulty (and low pass rate) requires that candidates demonstrate expert knowledge in all areas of network security. Earning the credential requires passing both a two-hour written exam and an eight-hour hands-on lab. This certification is not for the faint of heart!

Juniper's security certification roadmap

Technologists targeting network security positions in organizations that use a Juniper Networks infrastructure also have an educational path that allows them to demonstrate their skills. Juniper offers a four-tier security certification specialization that is similar in structure to the Cisco certification path.

The entry-level Juniper certification is the Juniper Networks Certified Associate Junos (JCNIA-Junos) certification. This credential is not security-specific but it is a prerequisite for earning Juniper's security-centered certifications. Candidates for this credential must have a beginner-level knowledge of the core functionality of Juniper's Junos network operating system. The exam (JN0-102) includes 90 questions on networking and Junos fundamentals delivered during a 90-minute testing period.

After earning the JCNIA-Junos credential, candidates may move on to Juniper's security track by earning the intermediate-level Juniper Networks Certified Specialist Security (JNCIS-SEC) credential. This program requires a solid understanding of Junos security features, the use of VPNs, unified threat management, firewalls and other Juniper security products. Candidates take an exam similar in structure to the JCNIA-Junos exam. The JCNIS-SEC exam (JN0-332) contains 65 multiple-choice questions administered during a 90-minute test.

Candidates who successfully complete the JCNIS-SEC prerequisite may choose to continue their certification path by earning the Juniper Networks Certified Professional Security (JNCIP-SEC) credential. This certification requires knowledge of advanced network security topics, including application-aware security, intrusion prevention, virtualization and network security troubleshooting.

Unlike Cisco's professional-level certification, Juniper candidates are only required to pass a single exam to earn JNCIP-SEC. This exam (JN0-633) contains 65 multiple-choice questions but candidates are given more time than the other certifications. The two-hour testing period is meant to accommodate the additional difficulty of the exam questions.

Similar to the Cisco program, Juniper's certification path also contains a pinnacle certification: The Juniper Networks Certified Expert Security (JNCIE-SEC) is considered the Juniper equivalent to Cisco's CCIE Security credential. Unlike CCIE Security, JNCIE-SEC does not require a written exam but does require successfully passing a rigorous eight-hour hands on practical exam under the supervision of a Juniper Networks testing center.

Other specialized network security certifications

In addition to the certification programs offered by the manufacturers of core networking products, vendors providing specialized network security devices also offer their own certification paths. For example, F5 offers a three-tier certification program for users of its BIG-IP networking platform. Earning the top-tier F5 Certified Solution Expert (CSE) credential requires earning five prerequisite credentials and passing a total of eight exams.

Similarly, Palo Alto Networks offers the Palo Alto Networks Certified Network Security Engineer (PCNSE) certification program for network professionals who work with Palo Alto's firewall solutions. Many other network security vendors offer similar programs for users of their products.

One particular certification program of widespread interest to network security professionals is the Wireshark Certified Network Analyst (WCNA) credential. Wireshark is an open-source network analysis tool used widely among network engineers. The WCNA credential is offered by Wireshark University and requires that candidates successfully complete a two-hour exam containing 100 questions that use a mixture of true/false and multiple choice formats.

Network engineers holding the WCNA credential are well-suited for a wide variety of network security and troubleshooting roles that require a deep understanding of network packet analysis.

Vendor-neutral certifications

A variety of vendor-neutral certifications complement the many network security certifications offered by networking vendors. These certifications provide a way for network security specialists to demonstrate their skills in a manner that transcends specific technologies and is portable to many different enterprise networking environments.

The SANS Institute's Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) certification program is one of the most well-known security certification programs. GIAC offers many specialized security certifications, some of which are of direct interest to networking specialists. Earning each credential requires passing a single proctored examination.

The GIAC Certified Perimeter Protection Analyst (GPPA) certification focuses on the use of routers and firewalls to create strong network perimeter defenses. The GIAC Systems and Network Auditor (GSNA) credential provides assurance that an individual is capable of conducting network audits. Finally, the GIAC Assessing and Auditing Wireless Networks (GAWN) focus specifically on assessing the security of wireless networks.

The right cert can help you master network security.

Engineers wishing to develop a specific focus on wireless security may also consider earning the Certified Wireless Security Professional (CWSP) credential. This certification program focuses on deeply technical wireless security issues, including 802.1x authentication, wireless encryption, secure wireless network architectures and the security management of wireless LANs. Candidates wishing to take the 60-question CWSP exam must first earn the entry-level Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) certification that covers the fundamentals of wireless networking.

Opportunity awaits

Network security is one of the hottest fields in information technology. As organizations build out their networking and security teams, they are actively seeking skilled professionals with demonstrated knowledge in securing enterprise networks.

Candidates seeking to position themselves well for one of these jobs will benefit from building a well-rounded résumé that contains a mixture of work experience and one or more network security certifications.

About the Author

Mike Chapple is Senior Director for IT Service Delivery at the University of Notre Dame. Mike is CISSP certified and holds bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in computer science and engineering from Notre Dame, with a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Idaho and an MBA from Auburn University.

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