Comparing Cisco CCENT to CompTIA Network+
One type of question I field frequently from entry-level IT workers deals with good starter certifications. In particular, I’m often asked whether the CompTIA Network+ is a better startup credential, or whether candidates should go after the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) instead. The answer to that question depends strongly on whether or not certification candidates want or plan to work in a Cisco-based network environment, or if they’re simply looking for a good general introduction to networking terms and concepts, tools, and technologies. Those who are headed down the Cisco path (or who simply want to try it out) will be best suited by pursuing the CCENT as a first step, whereas those who either may be less certain where they’re headed or who simply want a good general overview of networking should pursue the Network+.
CompTIA takes a much broader view of networking than Cisco, in some ways, but its coverage of individual topics tends to be more shallow as well. Thus, it makes sense to think of Network+ as several miles wide, but perhaps only a few feet deep in the range of material it covers. A quick overview of the topic domains covered in the Network+ (shown with their percentage of inclusion in the exam, from the CompTIA Objectives document) will help to illustrate this point quite convincingly:
Table 1: The Network+ Exam covers all of networking’s major bases
% of Examination
1.0 Network Technologies
2.0 Network Media and Topologies
3.0 Network Devices
4.0 Network Management
5.0 Network Tools
6.0 Network Security
As you start to dig into the various domains (you can download the Network+ objectives from the CompTIA Network+ page, but registration with the site is mandatory), you’ll encounter an 11-page list of topics covered, or just about two pages of items for each domain. Here’s a brief and very condensed summary by domain name:
- Network Technologies: Common networking protocols and services from the TCP/IP suite, default TCP and UDP port numbers, addressing formats for IPv4, IPv6, and MAC addressing, a discussion of addressing technologies (subnetting, CIDR, supernetting, NAT, PAT, and so on), IPv4 and IPv6 routing protocols, a general discussion of routing, and a review various wireless standards for communication, authentication, and encryption.
- Network Media and Topologies: Standard cable types and properties such as transmission speeds, distances, duplexing, noise immunity, and frequencies used; common cable connector types; and common physical network topologies (star, mesh, bus, ring, and so forth). Numerous wiring standards are covered, along with LAN and WAN technology types and properties plus wiring distribution systems and components.
- Network Devices: Covers the gamut of networking gear from hubs, repeaters, modems, network interfaces, and media converters, to switches, bridges, wireless access points, routers, firewalls, and DHCP servers. Functions of specialized networking devices come next (various switches, intrusion detection and prevention systems, load balancers, DNS servers, and so on). Switch details (power over Ethernet, spanning trees, virtual LANs, trunking, port mirroring and authentication) get deeper coverage, and there’s a primer on implementing basic wireless networks here, too.
- Network Management: Describes management at the seven layers of the OSI model, covers configuration management and its documentations, and explains how to use that documentation to evaluate a network. Remaining sections deal with network monitoring for performance and connectivity, methods for network performance optimization, networking troubleshooting methods and typical problem-solving cases.
- Network Tools: Covers various types of software and diagnostic equipment used to assess and troubleshoot networking issues and failures. Starts with basic command-line IP tools, covers various network scanners, explores a broad range of diagnostic hardware (everything from cable testers, protocol analyzers, and TDRs to basic electrical tools such VOMs, temperature monitors, and various hand tools).
- Network Security: Starts with an overview of security device features and functions (firewalls, IDS/IPS, and VPN concentrators), then digs into firewall features and functions, network access security and user authentication methods. Moves into device security issues, such as logical and physical access, and secure vs. unsecure network access methods. Concludes with a laundry list of common security threats and security mitigation techniques.
In the final analysis, Network+ is best regarded as a certification that ensures candidates know a little something about most aspects of networking, and that they can find their way around most modern networks and related equipment. Given the breadth of the credential, coverage is perforce also fairly shallow on most topics.
Given that Cisco is behind the CCENT, it should come as no surprise that this credential is Cisco-oriented and focused, first, foremost, and last. The name of the related Cisco exam is ICND1 (short for Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices Part 1), which directly stresses its Cisco centricity. (Note, as with the CompTIA Network+, candidates must register with the Cisco site to access the details on its certifications; as certifications sought become more advanced, Cisco cert candidates must also meet pre-requisites[md]often in the form of other, more junior credentials[md]to obtain access to exam objectives, syllabi, sample practice questions, and other exam information).
The CCENT is actually the first of two exams that candidates must take and pass to earn the Cisco Certified Networking Associate (CCNA) certification. Here an overview of the Exam Topics for this credential summarized from the Cisco Blueprint page for this credential:
- Describe the operation of data networks: Review purpose and function of numerous network devices, then select components to meet basic network specifications. Use OSI and TCP/IP models and associated protocols to explain network data flow; describe common networking and Web applications; describe purpose and basic operation of protocols in OSI and TCP/IP models. Describe the impact of applications such as VoIP On networks; interpret network diagrams; trace the path between two hosts across a network; differentiate between LAN and WAN operations and features.
- Implement a small switched network: Select appropriate media, cables, ports and connectors to interconnect switches, network devices, and hosts. Explain technology and media access control for Ethernet types; explain network segmentation and basic traffic management concepts; explain operation of Cisco switches and basic switching concepts. Perform, save, and verify initial switch configuration tasks; verify network status and switch operations using basic utilities; implement and verify basic switch security; work through media, configuration, auto-negotiation, and hardware failures on switched networks.
- Implement an IP addressing scheme and IP services to meet network requirements for a small branch office: Describe the needs for and roles addressing plays on networks; create and apply an addressing scheme to a network. Assign and verify valid IP addresses for hosts, servers, and networking devices on a LAN. Explain basic use and operation of NAT on a small network with a single Internet link; describe and verify DNS operation; describe the benefits and operation of private and public IP addressing. Enable NAT for a small network with a single ISP and connection using SDM; verify operation using CLI and ping. Configure, verify, and troubleshoot DHCP and DNS operation on a router; implement static and dynamic addressing services for LAN hosts; identify and correct IP addressing issues.
- Implement a small routed network: Describe basic routing concepts (packet forwarding, router lookup); describe operation of Cisco routers (router bootup process, POST, router components). Select appropriate media, cables, ports, and connectors to interconnect routers with networking devices and hosts. Configure, verify, and troubleshoot RIPv2; access and use router CLI to set basic parameters; connect, configure, and verify device interface operational status. Use various commands and utilities to verify device configuration and network connectivity; perform and verify routing configuration tasks; manage IOS and IOS configuration; verify network status and router operation.
- Explain and select the appropriate administrative tasks required for a Wireless LAN (WLAN): Describe wireless media standards (Wi-Fi, ITU/FCC); identify and describe components in a small wireless network. Identify basic parameters and configuration needed to ensure devices connect to the correct access point on a wireless network; compare and contrast wireless security features (WPA-1/2, WEP, no encryption). Identify common issues in implementing wireless networks.
- Identify security threats to a network and describe general methods to mitigate those threats: Explain network security threats and how comprehensive security policy helps to mitigate them. Explain general methods for mitigating common security threats to devices, hosts, and applications. Describe functions of common security appliances and applications; describe best recommended security practices including initial steps to secure network devices.
- Implement and verify WAN links: Describe various methods for connecting to a WAN; configure and verify a basic WAN serial connection.
It’s much harder to summarize and abridge the CCENT objectives, primarily because they are much more about configuring, implementing, troubleshooting, and verifying specific components, services, addresses, etc. As with most of its credentials, even at the entry level, Cisco certifications are very much hands-on, and very much about applying learning and skills to recognizing and handling specific situations.
Network+ and CCENT Compared and Contrasted
On the face of things, Network+ and CCENT look[md]at least superficially[md]very much alike. Indeed, they even cover many of the same topics. Both exams run 90 minutes long (the CCENT has 40-50 questions, while the Network+ has 100). While the CCENT costs $125, however, the Network+ runs from $209 to $246 (discount vouchers may be available, lower prices are available to those who work for CompTIA member organizations).
But as you dig deeper, you quickly realize that the CCENT is really for those who want to get down and dirty working on and with (primarily Cisco-based) networks, with a strong emphasis on configuration, implementation, and troubleshooting details. The Network+ is more general and theoretical and puts more emphasis on understanding concepts rather than putting those concepts to work.