Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Exam tips and preparation: Cisco CCNA certification

The Cisco Certified Network Associate Routing and Switching (CCNA) is one of the most respected Associate level certifications in the world. It’s ideal for entry-level network engineers working with Cisco technology - the earlier you can achieve it, the more knowledgeable and ultimately employable you will be.

It pays well too – the average advertised salary of a CCNA professional is £38,500 according to itjobswatch.co.uk.

Plus, the CCNA certification has received a Gold certification from the IPv6 Forum's Education Certification Program. This means that if you gain this certification, you can display the IPv6 logo, which shows that you have attained IPv6 knowledge and skills.

Perhaps more importantly, the CCNA Routing and Switching is a prerequisite to the expert Cisco certifications, like the CCNP Routing and Switching (CCNP holders earn an average salary of £47,500!)

But in order to gain this certification, you’ll need to pass one of two testing options:

  • ICND1 and ICND2 exams
  • CCNA 640-802 exam.

CCNA 100-101 ICND1 Exam

90 minutes (50-60 questions)

This exam qualifies you as a Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician (CCENT). So, if you’re only interested in gaining the CCENT, you’ll only need to pass the ICND1.

The ICND1 tests knowledge and skills required to install, operate and troubleshoot a small branch office network.

This exam covers the basic topics related to modern networks, this includes:

  • IP data networks 
  • LAN Switching technologies 
  • IPv6 Routing technologies 
  • IP Services (like DHCP, NAT and ACLs) 
  • Network Device Security 
  • Basic troubleshooting 

The exam also covers the protocol knowledge of LANS, WANs, hardware basics, and subnetting. As well as introducing the Cisco Command Line Interface (CLI) - used to configure, monitor and trouble shoot problems on Cisco devices.

Questions can come in a variety of formats from multiple-choice, drag-and-drop, to hands-on sims, simlets and testlets. Bear in mind, unlike other exams (like CompTIA’s A+), you’ll not be able to skip questions and go back later.

CCNA 200-101 ICND2 Exam

75 minutes (50-60 questions)

This exam picks up where the ICND1 exam left off but with greater depth and a wider variety of configurations.

You’ll be tested on your knowledge of installing, operating and troubleshooting a small-to-medium sized enterprise branch network.

The ICND2 covers more advanced topics related to modern networks, this includes:

  • Advanced LAN switching - such as Spanning Tree Protocols, VLANs and VLAN Trunking 
  • IP Routing technologies 
  • IP Services (FHRP, syslog, SNMP) 
  • Troubleshooting 
  • WAN Technologies 

Just like the ICND1, questions come in a variety of formats: multiple-choice, drag-and-drop, and hands-on sims, simlets and testlets. Again, you’ll not be able to skip questions and go back later.

Both ICND exams cover a wide variety of topics. This makes it an inherently tough exam. And it’s important you fully understand it – most of what you will learn on the ICND serves as the basis for all other Cisco CCNA track exams.

CCNA 640-802 Exam

90 minutes (45-55 questions) 

Here’s your second option. The 640-802 exam essentially combines the same topics as both ICND1/ICND2 into one exam.

As mentioned previously, you’ll have the option to take this longer exam instead of taking both the ICND1 and ICND2 exams.

This exam covers topics related to modern networks:

  • TCP/IP 
  • IP Routing and addressing 
  • Cisco router and switch CLI 
  • LAN switching 
  • WLANs 
  • Spanning Tree Protocols 
  • VLANs and VLAN Trunking 
  • NAT 
Questions can be multiple-choice, drag-and-drop and hands-on sims, simlets and testlets. Just like ICND exams, you’ll not be able to skip questions and go back later.

Tips for difficult areas

Get a concrete knowledge of the following topics – here’s where most students slip up:

Note: these tips apply to both the ICND1/ICND2 and the 640-802 exams.

IP Subnetting
– It can be hard to memorize the terminology and understand the mathematics behind subnetting. Ensure you fully understand it and can apply it effectively before taking the exam.

Remember which processes to use and how to use them. Memorize how to apply the IP addressing and routing concepts while working with the math.

Time – This is particularly crucial as you will not have the option to skip questions and go back to them later. As a result, you might find yourself spending longer than you typically would on each question. This can quickly add up, you don’t want to find yourself rushing through the last questions.

Take particular care of the sim, simlets and testlets as these can take the most time.

CLI - Practice using commands on the CLI to become familiar with the configurations. It’s worth investing time into understanding the router and switch commands.

Variable Length Subnet Masks (VLSM) – This introduces the possibility of subnets with overlapped address ranges which cannot easily be identified.

Spanning Tree Protocol – Most people have STP enabled and believe there isn’t much need to understand it. They would be wrong – it’s a complicated topic which can take time and repetition to learn. Check out this useful explanation.

Access Control Lists (ACLs) –Knowing how to match TCP and UDP port numbers, both source and destination can be very difficult.

Preparation Hints

Don’t neglect the power of studying with others. That doesn’t mean you have to join a study group - there are plenty of forums online where you can get involved; ask questions or help out others. Either way, you’ll get to interact with people in your situation and you’ll have the opportunity to exercise your own knowledge in an active way.

The CCNA covers a huge range of topics. Consider this when planning out your revision and preparation; it will take a considerable amount of time for you to learn every topic back-to-front.

Make sure to read practice exam papers and gauge how comfortable you feel with them – if you’re uncertain, now may not be the time to take the exam. 

We recommend reading:

How do you study?

Obviously you want to learn the way that suits you best. The two most popular routes for achieving your CCNA Routing and Switching cert are split between self-study and attending a training course.

You have undoubtedly committed to some form of self-study in your life and you’re probably aware if this works for you. Studying for the CCNA will certainly take dedication and a considerable amount of time (assuming you have a job and other obligations). You’ll also need a variety of equipment to test apply your learning in a practical way.

If you want a simpler way of learning, attending a course will likely appeal more. You won’t need to worry about buying your own hardware, or trawling the internet for that one nagging question you have about the ICND2 exam. Attend a course and you’ll be able to interrogate your instructor about every last detail.

What’s more, a training course will provide a structured approach to learning. Having somebody else to guide you will save you masses of time, energy and money.

Firebrand’s accelerated CCNA course is just 6-days – how is that possible?

Excellent resources

Internetworking Technology Handbook – a handy resource from Cisco themselves

CCNA Tutorials Ebook – slightly cumbersome but useful online tutorial/ebook

CCNA Version 5-draft by Matt Basham – another free Ebook

Online Cisco Courses – a well-put together resource covering both ICND exam topics

Free CCNA Cheatsheet (not literally of course)

You should also take advantage of the Cisco learning network

And check out this great YouTube series:

Router simulators

…all that’s left is for you to put in the effort, Good Luck!