Do Your IT Certifications 'Stack' Up? Find the Right Path for Your Career

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There are so many IT certifications in the industry today that it can be difficult to understand which ones you should spend your time and money on. Knowing which skills you want gain is important when choosing an IT certification path. If you have a certification, you know how much effort they demand, so it's important you choose which ones to pursue wisely.  Are you aiming to be a specialist and just focus on one specific technology's certification track?  Or, do you pick the generalist path and go for three or four different vendor certifications?  Both paths can make for a lucrative career, but I want to point out what I believe is the new certification path: “The Stack.”


What's The Stack?

No, it's not just a bunch of certificates piled up on your desk or littering your walls; it's much more than that. Taking "The Stack" certification path means you approach your certifications the way a company approaches the technologies in their racks and how they interact with each other. It is designed to provide you with the best combination of skills to have in your IT career. Imagine we're in a datacenter right now and staring down a row of racks filled with equipment. If you opened one of those racks and looked inside, what kinds of hardware would you see?  In a typical rack, you might see your top of rack switches and maybe a firewall or two. Underneath that, you might find a load balancer or some type of WAN device.  Moving on down the rack you would find servers, either blades in a chassis or rack mount servers, affectionately called “pizza box” servers. Even further down the rack, you'll most likely find some type of shared storage, either a SAN or NAS piece of hardware.  At the bottom, you might find some PDUs, unless of course the PDUs are vertical and on the side of the rack.  In about 90 percent of racks in the world today, you would find this type of technology stack.

Of course, there are some datacenters with racks and racks full of SAN equipment, but for the sake of this article, let's focus on the rack I described.  Just as the technologies in this rack work together to create a functional infrastructure, obtaining the cloud certifications pertinent to those technologies will create functional knowledge of how they interact. This will give you the working knowledge that you will need as an IT certified professional.


Which Certifications in “The Stack” Should I Focus On?

The quick and easy answer is simply: all of them. I know, that sounds like a lot of money and a ton of your time spent up, but I promise it pays off.  So the next question is where to start? It would be best to start with a networking certification. Why networking?  Without networking, none of the equipment would be able to talk to each other.  How would you replicate data from your server to your SAN?  You wouldn't; networking is the single most important piece in an infrastructure.  There are several networking certifications you could obtain, and this is the best path to being certified in cloud networking.


Networking Certifications

CompTIA Network+

This is an entry-level networking certification. For this certification you will learn about the OSI model, networking hardware (switches, routers, etc.), IP addressing and a brief overview of binary math and subnetting.  You will even learn how to make your very own patch cable and crossover cable.  This is where you should start with networking certifications.  There are no prerequisites to obtaining this certification, although if you are new to networking you should find some classroom training or CBTs to help you prepare.  You must re-certify every three years with CompTIA to maintain your Network+ certification.

Other certifications:  CompTIA A+

Cisco CCNA

The CCNA certification is the industry standard for networking certifications.  Cisco owns a large part of the market share for networking equipment.  From Cisco ASA firewalls, switches, and routers, you are bound to come across some Cisco networking equipment in your IT career.  With the CCNA there are two routes to take in order to become certified.  You can go after the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) first, which you achieve by passing the ICND1 exam.  Once you pass that exam, you must then take the ICND2 exam, which will certify you as a CCNA.  For those of us with a little more experience who want to just take one exam, there's the CCNA composite exam, which consists of content from both ICND1 and ICND2 rolled into one exam.  It's up to you to decide which route is best for your learning style and test-taking ability.  The CCNA goes further in depth on networking topics such as routing and switching, interconnecting Cisco devices, subnetting, binary math, VLANs, network security and much more.  There are no prerequisites to taking either route to get your CCNA, but like the Network+ certification, you must recertify every three years.


Other certifications:  CNE:  Netware6 Certified Network Engineer  (Novell), CWNP: Certified Wireless Network Professional (Vendor Neutral)




Server Level Certifications


Microsoft has really set the standard for server operating systems.  There are still companies out there running Windows Server 2003, which says something about the longevity of its software.  You are more likely to see Windows Server 2008R2 and maybe a sprinkling of Windows Server 2012 on infrastructure servers today.  Microsoft has gone back and forth with its certifications.  At first, it had the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.  For some reason, the certifications changed to Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional (MCITP).  In 2012, the company re-released the MCSA and MCSE, but this time they stand for Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate, Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert, along with the addition of Microsoft Certified Solutions Master (MCSM).  What it really boils down to is non-systems engineers not liking the moniker of engineer on a tech certification.  Each of these requires several exams in order to achieve certification, but none of them have any classroom training pre-requisites.  I could write an entire post on all of the different Microsoft certifications, instead here's a graphic explaining the certification path for each one.


Other certifications: RHCE: Red Hat Certified Engineer (RedHat), CompTIA Server+


VMware VCP5-DV

Yes, VMware is a server level certification; however it is one certification that relies on having the knowledge of several other technologies in order for it to function properly.  VMware's ESXi is the industry leading bare metal (type 1) hypervisor.  With VMware, you can build virtual machines with Windows or Linux as the guest operating system. You must also understand how networking works to understand the configuration of virtual networking within VMware.  In order to have a robust VMware infrastructure and one with all of the best features of VMware, you must have shared storage such as a SAN or NAS.  It's easy to see how much you must already know in order to configure and build out your VMware environment the right way.

Today there are many VMware certifications (for a full list you can read the certification roadmap here).  In the certification roadmap there will be many choices, but you will want to take the entry-level certification, VMware Certified Professional on vSphere 5-Datacenter Virtualization (VCP5-DV).  By passing the VCP5-DV exam you will have illustrated that you understand how to build a VM, attach and configure shared storage, build clusters, configure VMware High Availability (HA) and Fault Tolerance (FT) and a whole lot more.  This exam is tough, but passing it means you know your stuff.

There is a prerequisite to obtaining the VCP5-DV certification.  You must complete a VMware-approved in-person or live online classroom course.  The general course is VMware vSphere: Install, Configure, Manage [V5.0].  VMware does not require that you re-certify every three years, but a new version comes out just about every other year, along with the accompanying certifications.  Below you will find a graphic of VMware's certification roadmap.


Other certifications:  MCITP: Virtualization Administrator (Microsoft), CCA: Citrix Certified Administrator for XenServer 6 (Citrix), RHCVA: Red Hat Certified Virtualization Administrator (RedHat).


Storage Level Certifications


If you really want to scale your infrastructure, you need to get off of local storage and employ some sort of SAN or NAS equipment in your rack.  I'm talking about shared storage here; it's become a necessity in the datacenter, especially with technologies like VMware taking off.  Where there used to be a couple hundred gigabytes in our datacenter, the data that we collect now demands hundreds of terabytes. For a good entry-level certification on storage, the NetApp Certified Data Management Administrator (NCDA) certification is at the top of the list.  Yes, there are other storage centric certifications out there, but the NCDA is a good place to start.  There are no pre-requisites to obtain the NCDA, and you are not required to re-certify every three years like other certs.  Passing the NCDA exam means that you have a firm understanding of NetApp's storage systems.  As an NCDA, you can comfortably navigate NetApp's Data ONTAP operating system in either NFS or CIFS environments, configure storage controllers, disk shelves, fibre channel networking, build aggregates, volumes and create LUNs.  There are advanced certifications with NetApp, but first things first, get NCDA certified.  Below is the NetApp Certification roadmap.

Other certifications:  HDS CSM: Hitachi Data Systems Certified Storage Master (Hitachi), EMCPP:  EMC Proven Professional (EMC), DCEE: Dell Certified Enterprise Engineer (Dell)


What About Other Certifications?

There are so many other professional certifications out there that are just as valuable as the ones that I have mentioned, but the focus of this article is to point you in the direction of mastering “The Stack.”  If you follow this certification roadmap, will have the skills you need to open up the rack in your datacenter or closet and know how everything works together.  Having all the knowledge you gain from training and achieving these professional certifications will elevate your ability to troubleshoot advanced issues in the technology stack.  Certifications are a great training program to teach you important IT skills. They do require a lot of effort, but by putting in the time and effort to obtain these professional certifications, you will see a return on investment that is simply immeasurable.

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Greg Stuart

Greg Stuart is a vExpert and systems administrator/network administrator by trade, who has worked a slew of IT jobs in his career. He's put his time in with certification training, obtaining A+, Network+, Security+, MCP, CCNA, VCP4, VCP5 and NCDA. He now works as an IT consultant and runs the blogs, vDestination and vLATAM.