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Knowing Windows May No Longer Be Enough

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One of the latest trends with Microsoft certification exams is that some of the Windows Server exams have begun to ask questions about entirely separate products such as System Center Operations Manager or System Center Essentials. This article explains why this is happening and just how much you need to know about these types of products in order to pass a Windows Server exam.
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There was a time when Microsoft focused exam questions solely on the topic at hand. For example, if you were taking a Windows Server exam, you could expect to see questions like:

  • Which command is used to promote a server to a domain controller?
  • How many servers within a failover cluster must remain available in order for the cluster to retain quorum?
  • Which encryption method should you be using if you want to encrypt the server’s boot drive?

Although none of these questions have been taken from actual exams, they are all examples of questions that focus specifically on Windows Server.

More recently, however, I have been noticing that Microsoft certification exams have increasingly begun to include questions related to subject matter that you might not necessarily expect to encounter on the exam.

Windows Server 2008 vs. Windows Server 2008 R2

At some point last year for example, Microsoft began updating all of their Windows Server 2008 exams to include questions related to Windows Server 2008 R2. One of the first exams that to be updated was Exam 70-640 (TS: Windows Server 2008 Active Directory, Configuring). When the update first occurred, the message boards became flooded with posts from people who had taken the exam only to fail it because they weren’t expecting to see Windows Server 2008 R2 content.

Microsoft eventually confirmed that the Windows Server 2008 exams were being extended to include Windows Server 2008 R2 content, but the exam objectives do not make it obvious that R2-specific questions have been added to the exam. As of July 29, 2011, Microsoft’s training catalog still lists the Technology for exam 70-640 as Windows Server 2008. The Skills Measured section of the exam catalog does not specifically mention Windows Server 2008 R2. This could obviously be a big problem for anyone who purchases a Windows Server 2008-specific study guide for any of the Windows Server 2008 exams.

Testing on External Components

Another thing that I have been noticing about some of the Microsoft certification exams is that they are increasingly focusing on products and components beyond the core competency that is being tested.

I first noticed this trend when I was researching exam 70-646 (Pro: Windows Server 2008, Server Administrator). As I was reading over the exam objectives, I noticed that while the bulk of the exam questions focus specifically on Windows Server 2008 (and presumably Windows Server 2008 R2), there were also stated objectives related to things like the Windows Server Update Service (WSUS) and System Center Configuration Manager.

In case you aren’t familiar with these technologies, the Windows Server Update Service is a Microsoft patch management solution. Although it is something that Microsoft makes freely available, it is not a part of the Windows Server operating system.

Likewise, System Center Configuration Manager is an entirely separate product. It is a system management tool that is designed to deploy and update servers, clients, and workstations on your network.

In all fairness, exam 70-646 is a Pro-level exam on server administration. System Center Configuration Manager and WSUS are both server administration tools, and Microsoft clearly states in the exam objectives that you can expect to see questions around these two topics. Even so, I just can’t help but feel that it is a little strange for Microsoft to ask questions about loosely-related products on a Windows Server 2008 exam.

Keep in mind that Exam 70-646 is not an isolated incident. There are other Microsoft exams in which Microsoft goes beyond asking questions about Windows Server and tests candidates on other products. Another such exam is 70-659 Windows Server 2008 R2, Server Virtualization. The title of this exam makes it clear that the exam is based around Windows Server 2008 R2, and being that the exam focuses on server virtualization, you can expect the bulk of the questions to focus on Hyper-V (which is Microsoft’s hypervisor). However, Microsoft includes questions on several other products and technologies.

One area of this exam focuses on managing non-Hyper-V aware virtualization hosts. The host types that are listed within the exam objectives include VMware ESX/VI3 and Virtual Server 2005 R2. Even though VMware is a Microsoft competitor, having a few questions on VMware and Virtual Server management doesn’t actually seem that far out of line. Microsoft has always had coexistence and migration related questions on their exams. For example, some of the very first Windows Server exams contained questions about sharing file system resources with Apple and UNIX systems.

What is interesting about the VMware and Virtual Server-related questions is that they focus around the use of System Center Virtual Machine Manager, which is a separate product that is designed for managing Hyper-V in enterprise environments. Hyper-V’s built in management tool (the Hyper-V manager) does fine for local server management, but lacks the ability to manage multiple servers. This and other capabilities are built into System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

While I will be the first to admit that anyone who is managing a large scale Hyper-V deployment needs System Center Virtual Machine Manager, this is one more example of a Windows Server exam that contains questions about separate products.

Of course, Exam 70-659 doesn’t just stop with asking questions about System Center Virtual Machine Manager. You can also expect to see some questions related to System Center Data Protection Manager, which is Microsoft’s enterprise backup tool[md]and is also a separate product.

Exams 70-646 and 70-659 are just two examples of Microsoft exams that include questions related to separate products and technologies. Such questions show up in some of the other exams as well, and posing questions related to multiple products seems to be Microsoft’s latest trend. So with that in mind, the big question becomes how much you really need to know about the separate products and technologies in order to pass the exams.

The depth of knowledge that you will need varies from one exam to another. In the case of Exam 70-659, the questions centering on System Center Virtual Machine Manager play a major role in the exam. Microsoft tests on your knowledge of deploying System Center Virtual Machine Manager agents, using System Center Virtual Machine Manager for allocating resources to virtual machines, and performing several other tasks. My honest opinion is that it seems as if Microsoft combined a Hyper-V exam with a System Center Virtual Machine Manager exam when they created exam 70-659, and I dare say that a candidate probably would not be able to pass this exam without a good working knowledge of System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

On the other hand, you probably won’t encounter very many questions related to System Center Data Protection Manager on this exam. Ensuring High Availability and Recovery is only one of six exam objectives, and only about twenty five percent of the questions in this objective revolve around backups. Furthermore, Microsoft indicates that some of the backup-related questions focus on Windows Server Backup and on the Volume Shadow Copy Service.

My point is that you probably won’t encounter many questions on backup and recovery on this exam, and the few questions that you do encounter may or may not actually address System Center Data Protection Manager. As such, it is a good idea to learn about System Center Data Protection Manager, but you probably won’t fail the exam if you don’t.

In the case of exam 70-646, the exam objectives only mention System Center Configuration Manager one time. However, this one reference makes it sound as though candidates could potentially be tested on any number of System Center Configuration Manager-related topics. While I would expect to see references to System Center Configuration Manager sprinkled throughout the exam, the bulk of the questions clearly focus on the core Windows Server 2008 (or Windows Server 2008 R2) operating system.

Preparation Advice

If you are going to be taking an exam that includes questions related to a separate product or technology, then you should ideally spend some time with the product and getting some hands-on experience. In some situations, however, hands-on experience might not be an option. In these situations, I recommend going through the exam objectives to get a feel for exactly the types of questions that you are likely to encounter. Once you determine what you need to know about the product, try looking for videos on YouTube. I have found YouTube to be an invaluable resource when I quickly need to learn about a product or technology that with which I am unfamiliar. Of course traditional exam study guides can also prove to be an invaluable resource for those with limited experience.

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