Your networking certification game plan

To pass your networking certification exams, use these suggested lab setups, activities and reading materials to CompTIA A+, MCSE, Network+, MCSA, CCNA and Linux+ certify.

The following would be my advice to any IT neophytes looking to start their networking certification paths -- and, hopefully, a successful career.

 Table of contents:


 Setting a networking certification plan - Back to top ↑

The main concern, besides the investment of your money, is your time. Time is precious. We can make more money, but time wasted is gone forever.

At the end of the day, between supporting yourself (and possibly a family), running errands, and trying to have a life of some kind, how much time do you have in a week to devote to uninterrupted study? 10 hours? Eight? It's important that you maximise the use of your study time. And for the record, you need at least two- to three-hour consecutive chunks. Twenty minutes between commercials, or between finishing lunch and clocking-in, are really only suitable for taking practice exams. The actual studying and lab work require larger blocks of time during which you can completely focus.

Therefore, the sequence in which you study for these exams can shave weeks or possibly months off your training time, depending how far you go with your training.

 Practice exams - Back to top ↑

The main players in this game are the following:


 Starting point: Tier 1 - Back to top ↑

So where is a good starting point? I completely agree with the masses on this one: CompTIA A+. This will give you a good grounding in what a computer is: the hardware, the OS, some basic networking and some basic troubleshooting.

Passing this test also lays a good foundation for becoming a Microsoft Certified Professional for Windows XP. There is quite a bit of crossover, and most exam topics should already be familiar to you.

Finally, the A+ also covers basic networking, which can be further developed with CompTIA's Network+ certification.

After achieving all three of these certifications, you've reached what I refer to as Tier 1. Jobs you should be capable of performing are tech support, help desk I, large-scale rollouts and PC depot technician.

 CompTIA A+ http://certification.comptia.org/a/ - Back to top ↑

Recommended reading:

Mike Meyers' A+ Guide: PC Technician (Exams 220-602, 220-603, & 220-604)
ISBN: 007226358X

Recommended lab setup:
The components needed to assemble a PC: motherboard, CPU, RAM, HD, CD-RW/DVD-ROM, a floppy, power supply, case and case fans. Hit staticice and grab yourself a bunch of stuff.

A copy of XP Pro, not Home. XP Home does not support domain membership or dynamic volumes and as such will be useless to you later on in your certification path. Again, try staticice.

NOTE: I would recommend XP over Vista. Two years from now, that may not be the case; but considering how many XP systems there are and the fact that most IT managers have no immediate plans to upgrade, I would say XP is your best bet.

Recommended activities:

  • Build a PC
  • Repair a friend's or family member's PC
  • Practice reinstalling Windows
  • Practice backing up and restoring a person's profile and personal data
  • Get familiar with updating firmware on motherboards
  • Learn to configure and optimise BIOS settings

 Microsoft Certified Professional: Exam# 70-270 http://www.microsoft.com/learning/exams/70-270.mspx - Back to top ↑

Recommended reading:
MCSE Windows XP Professional Exam Cram 2
ISBN: 0789733609

Recommended lab setup: Your current A+ lab setup is sufficient for this exam.

Recommended activities:

  • Practice destroying/repairing/copying/modifying/customising user profiles in as many ways as you can.
  • Set up your XP machine as a small file server. Configure share permissions and NTFS permissions.
  • Observe file permissions and attributes. See what happens when you copy encrypted files on one volume into compressed folders on another volume.
  • Make your own local groups and test permissions and logon rights.
  • Become familiar with optimising the install process. Do an unattended install and a sysprep install several times. Observe the answer files when you create a setup manager.
  • Become comfortable setting automated maintenance with Task Scheduler.
  • Learn to monitor your system with Task Manager, Performance Monitor, Logs & Alerts and Event Viewer.
  • Practice configuring Windows built-in firewall.
  • Become familiar with Microsoft Knowledge Base and with TechNet.

 Network+ http://certification.comptia.org/network/ - Back to top ↑

Recommended reading:
Network+
Network+ Exam Cram 2 (Exam Cram N10-003) (2nd Edition)
ISBN: 0789732548

Recommended lab setup:
A small router, with at least four 10/100 ports, which supports NAT & DHCP. D-Link and LinkSys make some models for under US$50. For a little extra money, you can find models that also include features for basic firewall, URL filtering and VPNs.

Recommended activities:

  • Gain familiarity with the troubleshooting process and commands on the Internet. Do ICMP and DNS lookups on Web sites. Find the IPs of your favorite sites by doing NSLOOKUP, setting the server to both of your ISP's DNS servers. Take that IP over to Arin.net and do a whois query.
  • Set up your home network. Use both DHCP and Static IP. Throw Counter-Strike or Quake LAN parties. Test connectivity with everyone's machine using tools like PING, TRACERT and NETSTAT. Set up Internet Connection Sharing.

 The next step: Tier 2 - Back to top ↑

So now that you have an understanding of system and network fundamentals, what's next? At this point, you have to start training yourself to think beyond the individual client PC. This is where you need to look at the network as a whole - such issues as accessibility to network resources (i.e., printers, files/shares, databases, Web applications) and basic security issues surrounding that access (permissions, authentication, auditing, etc.).

This is serious stuff. You must now begin to align your thinking with business goals and understand concepts such as availability, business continuity and disaster recovery for both the individual user and the company.

The most clearly defined path is Microsoft's Certified System Administrator certification. This is because A+, Network+ and MCP all count toward your MCSA, leaving you only two additional tests to pass: 290, Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment; and 291, Implementing, Managing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure.

After this, you should really open your eyes to the world outside of Microsoft. Cisco's CCNA is a good follow-up. About 25% of the exam brushes over the same material covered in the Network+; also, 291 (from above) gives you an introduction to routing and subnetting, which is expanded on with the CCNA. As of this writing, the CCNA also covers ISDN and frame relay, which is nice to know, but chances are that any corporate network you administer will be using DSL for its branch offices and dedicated leased lines for the data center at headquarters.

Finally, I'd recommend obtaining the Linux+ certification. This focuses on basic system administration and interoperability.

Once you've completed these, you should be well-rounded enough to handle a majority of issues in the day-to-day administration of a network. Keep in mind that you cannot know everything; what separates a good IT worker from a mediocre one, however, is the ability to research an issue. You'll see throughout this article that I make several references to TechNet (Microsoft's online documentation and knowledgebase).

Jobs that you'd be capable of performing would be help desk II, tech support II, server/backup operator, and junior administrator.

 Microsoft's MCSA 2003 http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/mcsa/windows2003/default.mspx - Back to top ↑

Recommended training materials and lab activities:

  • Inside Windows Server 2003 ISBN: 0735711585. This is a monstrous technical reference that covers every topic you will need in order to pass both the 290 and 291 exams.
  • Train Signal's video training series is, in my opinion, the best. The excellent screenshots and included labs/lab manual are perfect hands-on for the neophyte administrator. Be forewarned, however. They are not cheap.

I would highly recommend the following:

  • Windows File Servers
  • Active Directory Fundamentals
  • DNS Server Essentials
  • Managing Group Policy
  • Routing & Remote Access Server

Recommended lab setup:
This is where it starts to get expensive. You need to get two additional PCs (giving you a grand total of three), each with 512 MB of RAM, two HDs of 20+ GB, and two NIC cards. These two are going to function as your servers.

Server 2003 Trial Software can be downloaded here:
http://technet

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