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CCIE: Cisco's Expert-Level Certification

This article provided courtesy of Certification Magazine. It appears in the February 2002 issue. Visit www.certmag.com for more information.

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For nearly a decade, one certification program has consistently set the standard for rigor and prestige in the networking industry: Cisco Systems' expert-level Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) program. Underscoring its stature among businesses and hiring professionals is the fact that individuals with CCIE certification status command an estimated 75 percent salary premium over their non-certified counterparts--the greatest return on investment by a considerable margin when compared to other certifications, according to the Computer Reseller News 2001 Salary Survey. What drives such premiums, and what makes the CCIE program different from any other?

It starts with the mission, according to Lorne Braddock, senior manager for the CCIE program. "The CCIE program is designed to help individuals, companies, industries and countries succeed in an era of increasing network reliance by distinguishing the top echelon of internetworking experts. If that sounds like a lofty mission, then the standards for excellence are equally high."

While Cisco does not disclose exam pass rates, they are rumored to be the lowest in the certification industry. In defense, the company asserts that to achieve CCIE certification is to ascend the pinnacle of technical excellence in the information technology profession. While individuals inevitably gain extensive product knowledge on the way to certification, product training is not the program objective. Rather, the focus is on identifying those experts capable of understanding and navigating the intricacies and potential pitfalls inherent in end-to-end networking, regardless of technology or product brand.

Individuals must first qualify by taking a challenging written exam designed to assess their knowledge across the complete range of technologies and topologies relevant today. If their scores indicate expert-level knowledge, candidates become eligible to take part in the CCIE Certification Lab Exam. Administered only by Cisco, this exam truly distinguishes the CCIE program from all others. Candidates must demonstrate true mastery of internetworking through a series of hands-on, performance-based exercises under intense conditions simulating today's mission-critical IT world.

The CCIE program has evolved in step with the industry, adding new technologies and features based on market acceptance and need. Candidates can pursue certification with an emphasis in any of three areas: Routing and Switching, Communications and Services and Security. Regardless of emphasis, each track bears the CCIE name and, therefore, includes a healthy dose of what are referred to as "internetwork expert" topics. Considered the core curriculum for CCIE certification, these topics include but are not limited to Internet Protocol (IP), IP routing (for example, protocols such as Open Shortest Path First Protocol and Border Gateway Protocol), switching, ATM, frame relay, IP multicast, performance management and ISDN.

Each CCIE track has a specific written qualification exam reflecting its area of emphasis. There is one written qualification exam required each for the CCIE Routing and Switching and CCIE Security tracks. Following are the topic areas for these two exams:

CCIE Routing and Switching:

  • Cisco Device Operation
  • General Networking Theory
  • Bridging and LAN Switching
  • Internet Protocol (IP)
  • IP Routing Protocols
  • Desktop Protocols
  • Performance Management
  • WAN (addressing, signaling and framing)
  • LAN
  • Security
  • Multiservice

CCIE Security:

  • Security Protocols
  • Operating Systems
  • Application Protocols
  • General Networking
  • Security Technologies
  • Cisco Security Applications
  • Security General
  • Cisco General

The CCIE Communications and Services (C&S) track is a service-provider-oriented certification. In addition to the core internetwork expert topics, the C&S track includes "last-mile" or access technologies. The last-mile technologies that comprise C&S are optical, cable, DSL, wireless, WAN switching, dial, content networking and IP telephony. The CCIE team realizes that an individual will not be an expert in each of these eight areas, so there are eight written qualification exams for the C&S track. A candidate needs to pass only one of these written qualification exams to qualify for the C&S lab exam. Each C&S qualification exam contains questions from the core internetwork expert topics, while the remaining questions cover a specific technology.

The lab exams for the three tracks test topics from the core internetwork expert topics in addition to topics that are specific for a particular track. For example, the optical qualification exam contains approximately 50 questions from the core internetwork expert topics and 50 questions specific to optical technology. The additional topics for the three lab exams are:

CCIE Routing and Switching:

  • Core internetwork expert topics
  • Internetwork Packet Exchange (IPX)
  • Data-link switching (DLSW+)
  • Source route bridging (SRB)
  • Remote SRB (RSRB) CCIE Security
  • Core internetwork expert topics
  • Security protocols
  • Cisco PIX Firewall
  • Cisco security applications
  • CCIE Communications and Services

Core internetwork expert topics

  • Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS)
  • MPLS and virtual private networks (VPNs)
  • Traffic engineering
  • Multiprotocol Border Gateway Proto-col (MBGP)
  • Quality of service (service provider)

The C&S lab exam covers only the internetwork expert topics and the additional lab topics previously listed. The specialty or last-mile technologies such as optical and DSL are only covered in the written qualification exams. The C&S lab exam models a service provider core network with connections to customer sites to simulate the actual networking environment.

Becoming a CCIE requires significant investment in education and preparation by each candidate. Moreover, the commitment is ongoing with a rigorous and mandatory recertification process every two years, ensuring program integrity in the face of an ever-changing technology landscape. Recertification ensures that CCIEs are leaders with a proven and enduring commitment to their careers, the industry and the process of lifelong learning and meritocracy.

Individuals see the rigor involved with obtaining CCIE certification as a key reason for the program's success. "There’s no question that CCIE certification is difficult to achieve," said Shafik Hirjee, director, IP Engineering at Bell Canada. "The program's intensity sets it apart from other certifications and provides the standard by which expert-level knowledge and skills can be measured. When somebody achieves CCIE certification, you know that they're a very senior engineer because the program requires a true commitment to understanding and executing the technology. The rigor involved ensures that individuals emerge with the knowledge and execution skills necessary to drive our business forward."

As CCIE number 1,783, Hirjee believes that certification has not only increased his earning power, but also opened doors to new opportunities and enabled him to achieve greater career satisfaction. "There's no doubt that my CCIE certification has helped me along the course of my career," said Hirjee. "CCIE certification is widely recognized as an outstanding technical accomplishment which has an impact on one's earning power and value within the organization."

As a manager, Hirjee further says that he encourages others on his staff to pursue certification. "Encouraging our engineers to obtain certification helps us build a solid knowledge base within the organization, thereby enabling us to compete effectively with the best IP engineers in the industry," he said.

Hirjee explains why businesses are willing to pay more for CCIEs. "Staffing our team with individuals who are proven to have the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve our aggressive technology and business objectives provides upper management with a sense of confidence and security," said Hirjee. "Our goal is to use technology to redefine the way we do business and better serve our customers. Increasing the number of CCIEs on staff ensures that we create an environment of highly trained professional engineers who can learn and execute at lightning speed, which then allows our business to compete effectively in this dynamic global economy."

Higher salaries may also be a product of short supply. Today, there are less than 7,000 CCIEs worldwide and fewer than 2,500 in the United States. While recent changes to the program should result in greater seat availability for lab exams, Cisco indicates that pass rates and annual certification numbers should remain roughly constant.

"We don't impose quotas or numerical targets of any kind on the CCIE program," said Braddock. "Our mission is to identify the top echelon of internetworking experts. The only thing limiting the number of certifications we issue is the fact that very few individuals can demonstrate the expert-level knowledge and skills we require."

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Copyright © 2002 MediaTec Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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