The CCDE Journey

CCDE :: Why Did I Decide

After 20 years in the networking business, I’ve decided to start chasing the Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) credential. I haven’t held a technical certificate since my early days trying to break into IT, and haven’t taken an exam since seminary—about 10 years ago. I earned my MCP+I on the Windows NT 4.0 Enterprise track when I parlayed that into a full-fledged career. Honestly, I approach the CCDE with some fear and trepidation!

Cisco Catalyst 2950
Cisco Catalyst 2950

I had been a Systems Administrator at Cannondale for about a year when I decided data networking was more interesting to me than administering a Windows domain. I had finished a project upgrading our core infrastructure from Nortel/Bay Networks switch stacks to a couple Cisco Catalyst 5500 and 2950 switches. I even moved from static routes on our frame-relay routers to RIP! I was hooked! When that project ended, I ravenously read every white paper I could on Cisco’s web site.

I had figured out that there was no opportunity for me to advance a networking career with Cannondale and ended up in a professional services organization (Callisma) after a brief stop in the dot-com space. I was being exposed to a ton of technologies and was learning how each piece related. I’m reminded of the line in the Princess Bride when Wesley describes his experience with the Dread Pirate Roberts to Buttercup. “It was a fine time for me. I was learning to fence, to fight, anything anyone would teach me.” I would ask some silly questions, but the more senior folks didn’t mind answering and were willing to teach. I did my best not to ask dumb questions more than once, and they did their best not to heckle me when I did. I’ll mention the cross-over cable story one of these days.

At the mid-point of a one-year consulting contract at State Street Bank I sat for the CCIE written exam. Way back in the year 2000 we still had to know IPX/SPX, AppleTalk, and token ring to pass. I missed passing the written by about 20 points because of token ring and IPX/SPX and I’ve hated that technology ever since. When the the dot-com bubble burst and September 11th happened, I found myself employed at Genzyme after being laid off from Callisma. Unfortunately, Genzyme was a Nortel shop and I knew there would be no way to pass the CCIE lab without getting my hands on Cisco devices. My “expert” track was put on hold and for over 15 years I’ve found that I never really needed the credential.

CCDE :: Is It Necessary?

So why do I think it’s necessary now? At this time in my career? Honestly, it does seem like a difficult goal that will suck up a lot of time in an already busy life. I’ve never been a man who would sit back and let things happen. I’ve also never backed down from a challenge. I love driving to proper solutions and I love fixing things that are broken. When my wife is having a problem and needs to blow off steam, she has to tell me she doesn’t need me to fix anything, just listen. Good to know in a marriage, but corporations need fixing.

I’ve built and transformed a good number of networks in my day, but nothing gives me as much satisfaction as designing solutions. It’s easy to toss bandwidth, a “faster” router, or server at a problem. All you’re doing is masking an issue. Burying your head in the sand. Kicking someone in one knee because the other hurts. I like having a good-better-best plan with pros and cons enabling business units to make informed decisions. It may not be in the budget to install $1 million in data center upgrades, but $25,000 can make improvements until the following year when the spend is allowed. When I look at the CCDE requirements, I see Cisco is acknowledging this skill and are testing candidates on vendor-agnostic concepts.

The CCDE isn’t designed to test how well you bang on a keyboard to configure a router or switch. It’s designed to test the understanding of network and virtualization technologies, across the enterprise-service provider spectrum, and make the best recommendation for a given situation. This certification fits perfectly with my career progression as a network designer, and my passion to see broken pieces fixed. If this is your passion too…keep reading.

CCDE :: What’s Tested

The CCDE is broken into two parts, like the CCIE; a written exam must be successfully passed, then the candidate is able to sit for the laboratory exam. There are five topics covering a wide range of technologies. You can read it from the link, or, you can read it here and have a summary.

Layer 2 Control Plane (24%)

This section tests knowledge of switching technologies including loop-prevention, fault-detection, and segmentation. How do you keep a broadcast domain operational and loop free? Here you will be tested on spanning-tree, first-hop-redundancy-protocols (FHRP), and how to prevent or circumvent network faults. Please don’t underestimate Cisco’s ability to screw you over with layer-2 questions!

Layer 3 Control Plane (33%)

Many network engineers will struggle in this section, not because of the concepts, but because of the technology sectors you have to understand. The test will cover routing in both the enterprise and service provider arenas. I’ve talked with enterprise folks who have passed and said there were too many service provider questions, and vis versa because they had a one-sided career experience. Routing protocols will include BGP, EIGRP, OSPF, and IS-IS. Much of my experience has been with the first three so I already know where I should study for this topic.

This section will also cover IPv6 concepts, security techniques, and transition from IPv4. Again, many network engineers I know are still struggling to see a use-case for IPv6 and would prefer staying in the tried-and-true realm of IPv4. If that’s your mindset, hate to break it to you, but too many providers are moving to IPv6 and testing platforms on IPv4 is becoming less and less stressed in R&D. Microsoft, VMWare, and Apple are innovating with IPv6 and Cisco is hammering it on the exams, IPv4’s days are getting short. But that’s another discussion…

Network Virtualization (15%)

This section tests expertise in network tunneling technologies. Think of GRE, VRF-lite, MPLS-VPN, and how—don’t forget the why—they may be used across the LAN and WAN. The topic is viewed holistically, so the test will cover additional topics of 802.1x from the access layer to centralized policy enforcement. One item that may help with understanding the need for these virtualization technologies is to realize Cisco’s roadmap and goals for network architecture. If you’ve not heard of the Service Oriented Network Architecture framework (SONA), it would help to get familiar with it. It’ll be helpful with conceptualizing some of the topics in this section, if you can see the trajectory of vendor solutions.

Design Considerations (18%)

In the Design Considerations section candidates will be reviewed on their understanding of topics like identity management, QoS design and monitoring, optical-wireless-SAN deployment, and securing the L2/L3 control planes. The entirety of the test is for the engineer to view designing a network in all its facets. If you fail to consider SAN integration, then you’ve not allowed for a business to grow and optimize their storage requirements. This, in turn, affects technologist who can’t add more discs to support users space requirements and disaster recovery/business continuity planning. Short-sightedness tends to be a common problem among technologists (and business people) alike.

New OSI Model
New OSI Model

Evolving Technologies (10%)

Way back in the 90’s many organizations were creating positions for Emerging Technologies. It was literally a paid position for people to be technological visionaries. They were to help decide what tech was important and what wasn’t. While those titles seem to have gone the way of parachute pants, evolving technologies is something you will be tested on.

The network landscape is in a state of rapid change. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you’re not keeping up you’re getting left behind. I know that sounds profound, but I remember managing some technologists back at Guaranty Bank. I had two gentlemen that administered the old Rolm PBX and both refused to train on the new VoIP technologies. When Guaranty was bought out, these two guys couldn’t find a job because they didn’t know the new technology. Emerging or Evolving Technologies is critically important if you want to stay employed, let alone meet customer demand.

CCDE :: Study Strategery

A study methodology is definitely important for such a nasty exam. In fact, trying to find practice tests and methods is darn near impossible. It’s not like the CCIE where everyone has a roadmap; that certification has been around for a long time. The CCDE saw it’s beta exam in the Fall of 2007 compared to the CCIE in the Fall of 1993. Time seems to fly if you’re mashing keyboards, but for the designer, it’s a slow process for study guides.

My strategy right now is to focus on two areas where I know I’m weak. The first is the Service Provider side. MPLS for me, means an Ethernet hand-off and BGP peer to the provider. Easy breezy and a far cry from the days of frame-relay when  you had to remember encapsulation type and clocking! It hasn’t been necessary for me to read up on the labeling and path selection of MPLS.

The second area is the virtualization side. Virtualization started a long time ago with VLANs. Need I point out the obvious that it stands for VIRTUALIZED Local Area Network. Unfortunately, networkers in general have been very slow to progress toward automation and virtualization. The old adage that says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has been pervasive and it’s coming home to roost. We’ve forgotten that the network is the enabler for other stacks in the OSI model and vendors are starting to code around the network rather than leverage it.

So how does a CCDE candidate address the shortcomings in their background? We first start with those who have been there before. Leverage the experience of a successful student. Many are quick to share their experiences and are eager to help. That’s the great thing about the Information Technology sector. If you’re willing to learn there are plenty of teachers willing to help.

My plan is to blog through this experience so I can help others in the technical community. I’m getting more excited about technology after a long dry spell. Mainly because I’m targeting a personality trait that fits with technological advancement…design!

For those interested in pursuing this credential, I do have some Google space with helpful documents. I’m happy to share, just reach out through the contact page.

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