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Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Changes to CompTIA’s Network+ Certification

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On a rotating basis every year, there is a new version of one set of the IT certification exams from CompTIA that are tied to ISO certification: A+, Security+, and Network+. This year, the updates are to the Network+ exam (expected to go live by the end of the year) and while sometimes these revisions can be described as revolutionary, the changes from the current version of Network+ (known as N10-004 and/or “2009 Edition”) to N10-005 are merely evolutionary. Aside from a few new technologies that have been added to keep the coverage current, most of the changes center on a rearrangement of the domains and objectives. What once was covered beneath a particular domain is now covered beneath another, and so on.
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On a rotating basis every year, there is a new version of one set of the IT certification exams from CompTIA that are tied to ISO certification: A+, Security+, and Network+. This year, the updates are to the Network+ exam (expected to go live by the end of the year) and while sometimes these revisions can be described as revolutionary, the changes from the current version of Network+ (known as N10-004 and/or “2009 Edition”) to N10-005 are merely evolutionary. Aside from a few new technologies that have been added to keep the coverage current, most of the changes center on a rearrangement of the domains and objectives. What once was covered beneath a particular domain is now covered beneath another, and so on.

In this article, we will look at the changes and then some of the key specifics.

Change in Purpose

The exam is still aimed at authenticating knowledge of those working in IT networking with 9-12 months of work experience. While A+ certification—or equivalent knowledge—is not a requirement, it is still recommended. A slight tweak in what CompTIA defines the purpose of the exam to be has occurred and is worth scrutinizing.

In the older version, the certification “ensures that the successful candidate has the important knowledge and skills necessary to manage, maintain, troubleshoot, install, operate and configure basic network infrastructure, describe networking technologies, basic design principles, and adhere to wiring standards and use testing tools.”

With N10-005, this exam “will certify that the successful candidate has the knowledge and skills required to implement a defined network architecture with basic network security. Furthermore, a successful candidate will be able to configure, maintain, and troubleshoot network devices using appropriate network tools and understand the features and purpose of network technologies. Candidates will be able to make basic solution recommendations, analyze network traffic, and be familiar with common protocols and media types.”

As minor at it may at first seem, it is worth noting the change in purpose from focusing on the certification to the exam. The purpose of the exam is to authenticate now, instead of that being the purpose of the certification. A leading reason for this can be linked to the new limitations on the life of certification. Instead of being good for life, as of January 1st of this year, the certification has a life of three years, during which candidates must continue their education in order to keep it from expiring (see the policy here). By making the exam “certify” instead of the certification “ensure” it redirects to this moment in time and the transitory nature of “knowledge and skills.”

The second item of note is that the word “security” failed to appear in the older definition and is included in the very first sentence defining purpose now: “with basic network security.” The biggest change in all the domains is a 73% increase in the weighting of the Network Security domain. Most of the topics (with the biggest exception being wireless) in the domain on N10-005 were there on the older version of the exam as well but the domain was not considered nearly as valuable as it is now. Not only does this make the A+ a recommended certification prior to attempting Network+, but I would also recommend studying for Security+ as well, since so many of the topics overlap with knowledge you are now expected to know for this exam.

The verb soup (“manage, maintain, troubleshoot...”) has fundamentally been reduced to three key areas: implement/configure, maintain, and troubleshoot. The ability to analyze network traffic has increased in importance and “testing tools” has been further defined as “network tools.”

Change in Domains

The biggest visible change is in the reduction of domains from six to five, one of which is a completely new title. This has caused a lot of the objectives/topics to be moved about to fit into the new categories. The following table shows the domain and weighting for the current exam and the upcoming edition:

Domain

Current Edition

N10-005

Network Technologies

20%

21%

Network Media and Topologies

20%

17%

Network Management

20%

20%

Network Security

11%

19%

Network Devices

17%

No longer a domain

Network Tools

12%

No longer a domain

Network Installation and Configuration

Not a domain

23%

Among the items of note, in the purpose discussion it was pointed out that “testing tools” is now “network tools”, but the domain devoted to it has completely disappeared. Beneath here resided software tools (arp, dig, ping, and so on), network scanners, and hardware tools (multimeter, punch down tool, etc.). The majority of these topics have been moved to Network Management.

The other domain to go away, Network Devices, covered wireless components, hubs, switches, load balancers, and the like. Some of this material found its way into Network Management, and some into Network Technologies. A sizable portion of it, however, became the starting point for the new Network Installation and Configuration domain.

In addition to looking at hardware components (network devices), the new Network Installation and Configuration domain also includes wireless and other problems (previously in Network Management) and one new objective: Given a set of requirements, plan and implement a basic SOHO network. Topics beneath this small office/home office objective are:

  • List of requirements
  • Cable length
  • Device types/requirements
  • Environment limitations
  • Equipment limitations
  • Compatibility requirements

While it can be argued that these topics existed scattered throughout the domains in the previous version of the exam, this is the first time they appear together with the SOHO limitation attached.

Tool List

New to this edition of the exam, CompTIA has created a proposed hardware and software list that can be helpful when studying for the exam. The tool list is divided into the following six categories:

Equipment

Patch panels


Punch down blocks


Layer 3 switch


Router


Firewall


Two basic PCs


Access point


Media converters


Configuration terminal (with telnet and SSH)

Spare hardware

NICs


Power supplies


GBICs (Gigabit Interface Converters)


SFPs (Small Form-Factor Pluggables)

Spare parts

Patch cables


RJ-45 connectors, modular jacks


RJ-11 connectors


Cable spool


Coaxial cable spool


F-connectors

Tools

Telco/network crimper


Cable tester


Punch down tool


Cable stripper


Coaxial crimper


Wire cutter


Tone generator

Software

Packet sniffer


Protocol analyzer


Terminal emulation software


Linux/Windows OSs


Software firewall


Software IDS / IPFS


Network mapper


Virtual network environment

Other

Sample network documentation


Sample logs


Defective cables

To this list, I would add a multimeter, loopback plugs, and access to an environmental monitor (simply to understand fully how to configure and work with such). In an ideal world, it would also be preferable to have access to a honeypot to be able to understand it more fully, but while that topic does appear here, it is tested on more fully in Security+.

Final Thoughts

Just because N10-005 is an evolutionary change to the exam rather than a revolutionary one, the change does not signify a negative. Rather, a better way to look at it is that Network+ is a very solid exam—one that is well recognized in the marketplace by employers and by other networking vendors—and it did not need a major overhaul but merely a few tweaks.

Refocusing the “purpose” to the exam, as opposed the certification, and offering such additional information as an equipment list are both positives. Choosing to move security to the center of attention keeps the certification current and follows trends that those working in IT are seeing daily.

This edition updates some technologies, reorganizes a number of objectives/topics, and makes certain the certification will continue to remain strong and valuable until the next revision several years from now.

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