This feature first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
For my money, the two “go-to” entry-level computer networking certifications are CompTIA Network+ and Cisco’s Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT). Those credentials are fine for information technology (IT) newcomers, but today I want to discuss a more pointed question: What are the networking certifications that are most difficult to achieve?
Notice my clause “difficult to achieve.” The seven networking certifications I describe in this article are all considered advanced or expert-level titles, so you can reasonably expect their subject matter to be difficult. I also, however, considered complications such as an expensive lab or classroom training requirements in my calculus.
In point of fact, I know people who work with VMware every day who are unable to certify because they cannot afford the time and cost required in sitting for an authorized VMware training class that partially fulfills the certification’s requirements.
These expert-level networking certifications are neither for the Ethernet networking newcomer, nor for the faint of heart. They target job roles such as the following:
- Information Systems Director
- Network Infrastructure Engineer
- Network Solutions Architect
- Senior Network Administrator
- Senior Wide-Area Networking (WAN) Specialist
Note that I present these seven advanced networking certifications in alphabetical order; the first one listed does not mean that I think it’s the most or least difficult. Moreover, I provide a link to each certification’s page at the vendor’s site. We don’t have the scope to break down every single exam requirement in this single article, so you can learn those details from the vendor.
My job is to give you an executive summary of what’s available in this niche certification space. Let’s begin!
Amazon Web Services (AWS) Certified Advanced Networking – Specialty
Why it’s hard: Previous AWS certification required; five years of advanced AWS experience required
Let’s face it — for many IT professionals, Ethernet networking can be complicated enough to master. Add to that the software-defined networking (SDN) that works in public clouds like AWS or Microsoft Azure, and you find yourself faced with a significant learning curve.
The AWS Certified Advanced Networking certification is a specialty add-on title that can only be achieved once you’ve attained one of the following AWS certs:
- AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner
- AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate
- AWS Certified Developer – Associate
- AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate
According to Amazon, the Advanced Networking credential requires one computer-based exam that uses a multiple-choice format. Here are the six exam content domains, for your reference:
- Design and implement hybrid IT network architectures at scale
- Design and implement AWS networks
- Automate AWS tasks
- Configure network integration with application services
- Design and implement for security and compliance
- Manage, optimize, and trouble shoot the network
Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)
Why it’s hard: All-day lab practical exam required in addition to a written exam
The CCIE has typically been described as the “Ph.D. of networking certifications” by industry veterans. Cisco originally had only one CCIE title, in routing and switching, but nowadays you can choose your specialty from the following credential list:
- CCIE Data Center
- CCIE Security
- CCIE Wireless
- CCIE Collaboration
- CCIE Service Provider
As you might expect, all the Cisco certifications center their focus on designing, implementing, maintaining, and troubleshooting Cisco-based internetworking solutions. As a matter of fact, in the advanced networking certification realm, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) vendors typically rule the day in that regard.
Cisco cuts candidates a break in that they are not required to have any associate- or professional-level Cisco credentials to qualify for the CCIE. On the other hand, you need to not only pass a traditional computer-based exam, but also sit for an eight-hour lab exam hosted at a Cisco CCIE lab location.
Yes, the lab exam involves working with real Cisco gear and solving real-world internetworking problems. This is one reason why the CCIE is such a highly valued credential — it’s practically impossible to memorize your way to this credential.
As of this writing in fall 2018, the CCIE lab exam costs $1,600 per attempt, and you are responsible for your travel and expenses to and from the lab location. Cisco also offers a Mobile CCIE Labs option for candidates who do not live near a CCIE lab location.
Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
Why it’s hard: Number of exams required; overall difficulty of the exams
Cisco has two entry-level networking certs: Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA). People who hold one or both of those certs and who want to gain further validation of their Cisco internetworking expertise often turn to one of the professional-level titles.
Like the CCIE, the CCNP comes in many “flavors” — actually, the very same specializations as Cisco offers for the CCIE. To use CCNP Routing and Switching as an example, you need to pass the following three exams:
- Implementing Cisco IP Routing (ROUTE)
- Implementing Cisco IP Switched Networks (SWITCH)
- Troubleshooting and Maintaining Cisco IP Networks (TSHOOT)
These exams are legendary in their difficulty level. Not only is the subject matter itself intense, but also Cisco includes several simulation items that require you to perform router, switch, and firewall configuration in a simulated “live” network environment. The TSHOOT exam uses the case-study format, requiring you to think and act like a Cisco network architect or solutions consultant.
Certified Wireless Network Expert (CWNE)
Program page: https://www.cwnp. com/certifications/cwne
Why it’s hard: Number of exams; industry experience requirement
The CWNE is the only vendor-neutral title on this list. This title and its related credentials are hosted by an organization called Certified Wireless Network Professionals (CWNP). Confusingly, the group also hosts a certification with the same name (minus an S at the end of “Professionals”) and initials.
At any rate, the CWNE is their top-tier certification, and its requirements are accordingly strict. First, you need to already hold one or more of the following CWNP credentials:
- Certified Wireless Security Professional (CWSP)
- Certified Wireless Analysis Professional (CWAP)
- Certified Wireless Design Professional (CWDP)
As you might expect, any of the previous professional-level titles requires you already hold the Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) cert. In addition, the CWNE requires documented industry experience.
Specifically, you must submit evidence of at least three years of enterprise wi-fi implementation experience, as well as provide essays to describe three representative projects. You also need to obtain three professional endorsements of that experience. All these materials are reviewed by the CWNE Board of Advisors.
You may exclaim, “Hey, doesn’t the CWNE present a ‘chicken and egg’ problem? I want certification to get into the wi-fi industry full-time!” My response is that today we’re concerned with advanced-level certification: Unless you already possess at least three years of full-time experience, you shouldn’t consider this title in the first place.
Juniper Networks Certified Internet Expert (JNCIE)
Program page: https://www.juniper.net/us/en/training/certification/
Why it’s hard: All-day lab practical required in addition to a written exam Juniper Networks is a titan in the internetworking space and is often spoken of in the same breath as Cisco. Like Cisco, Juniper Networks offers their expert-level certifications along the following specialization tracks:
- Data Center
- Enterprise Routing and Switching
- Junos Security
- Service Provider Routing and Switching
The Enterprise Routing and Switching Expert (JNCIE-ENT) credential has requirements that are perhaps suspiciously similar to those of Cisco’s CCIE. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” anyone? Yes, to earn your JNCIE-ENT, you need to pass both a traditional computer-based exam as well as an eight-hour lab exam at selected Juniper Networks testing centers. As of this writing, the lab exam costs $1,400, which again is close to the Cisco CCIE lab exam cost.
Finally, no associate- or professional-level Juniper Networks certification is required for you to pursue the JNCIE.
VMware Certified Professional 6.5 – Data Center Virtualization (VCP6.5-DCV)
Why it’s hard: Expensive training class requirement
You cannot escape server virtualization nowadays, and I think that’s a good thing for the industry and for our careers. Given that VMware is a market leader in the virtualization space, it makes sense why you may want to attain one or more VMware Certified Professional (VCP) credentials.
The VCP 6.5-DCV certification has two prerequisites for taking the actual DCV exam:
- Passing a foundation-level exam (vSphere 6 Foundations or vSphere 6.5 Foundations)
- Attending a VMware-provided training course
The training requirement represents quite a hurdle for some candidates. How many of us have employers who would excuse us for five days to attend an instructor-led class?
In (somewhat of) a concession to busy working professionals, VMware does offer some of its courses in an on-demand, computer-based training environment. Note that these courses are expensive. For example, as of this writing the Configure VMware vSphere: Install, Configure, Manage [V6.5] – On Demand course costs $4,125 for a one-month access subscription.
Wireshark Certified Network Analyst (WCNA)
Program page: https://www.wiresharktraining.com/certification.html
Why it’s hard: Deep knowledge base required, both of Ethernet networking and the tool itself
Wireshark is a “go-to” tool for most networking professionals. What better way to improve your effectiveness with the tool and validate your skill set than to certify? The WCNA is Wireshark University’s only credential, but I consider it advanced because to be successful you must demonstrate the following:
- Deep knowledge of network protocol analysis
- Expert-level familiarity with Wireshark and all its capabilities
What’s cool is that you can sit this exam in an online proctored version, so you could feasibly certify from the comfort of your work or home office. Or bedroom, if you’re so inclined.
Well, there you have it! Frankly, more than a few of my senior colleagues in IT fall into the trap of believing certifications irrelevant to their career. My counter to that pitfall are the following points to consider:
Anything you can do to “future-proof” your IT career is a good thing.
Some professional engagements (contract work with your government, for example) might require one or more certifications.
IT is moving faster than ever. Why not give yourself an incentive to keep current by studying for and earning an expert-level credential?
As I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, I encourage you to study the certification pages for the vendor(s) from whom you want to seek certification. Pay particular attention to their exam expiration and recertification policy. Nowadays, most certification vendors require periodic recertification (typically every three years) in order to ensure you are keeping your skills current.
IT certification exam preparation requires strategy. In closing, I encourage you to have a look at the free Microsoft Virtual Academy course I designed “Mastering Microsoft Certification Exam Prep.” Although I presented that course for Microsoft, I humbly submit that all the cert prep advice I provide is relevant to any vendor’s (or vendor-neutral) certification program.