Staying competitive in the ever-changing information technology market is a challenge. With employers trying to get more skills for their hiring dollar, competition in the market has become fierce. Today many employers are looking for IT professionals who are well versed in the many nuances of the field with desktop, server, and networking skills to provide comprehensive support skills. A major factor for remaining competitive in the IT field is the completion of industry certifications. Many certifications are available; however, one vendor is viewed by many as the leader in the certification market. That vendor is Cisco Systems.
There have been many debates in the IT market concerning the validity and the worthiness of industry certifications—the bottom line is that employers still value a certification from a reputable organization as a benchmark for both the interview process and for advancement into higher level positions. Of course the importance of the certification is not the piece of paper, the number, or even the title; the value is in the knowledge that one gains by preparing for and acquiring the certification. Much of what one learns in pursuing a Cisco certification is fundamental networking knowledge that can be applied to any networking environment, regardless of the vendor.
In pursuing a Cisco certification, the first mile marker one will encounter along the path is the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. This certification is designed to validate a solid foundation of networking skills, including a basic knowledge of the OSI reference model, networking protocols, Layer 2 switching concepts and protocols, routing concepts and protocols, and wide-area networking (WAN) connectivity. A person who achieves CCNA certification should have the skills necessary to provide basic network installations and level 1 troubleshooting skills.
The knowledge required to pass the CCNA certification exam is among the most valuable skills required in the networking field. The topics covered by the CCNA certification exam are the building blocks of all networking topologies and protocols. Without the proper grounding in these skills, a networking professional will find it difficult to understand many of the more complex technologies in the networking field. The most important aspects of the certification are the ways that devices communicate between each other in a networking environment using the different devices, such as Layer 2 switches and routers, to provide interconnectivity.
The key in preparing for the CCNA certification exam is not memorization of terms, but rather, learning the processes involved in passing traffic through Layer 2 switches and routers and the services provided by these devices. Most of the CCNA certification revolves around the fundamentals of switching and routing. Key to this understanding is the ability to "see" networking from the perspective of each device, to be able to identify an Ethernet Frame or IP packet, and to understand what each device must do to move the packet to the next device or "hop" in the network path.
Describing the protocols and encapsulation methodology used to communicate between different types of media and the addressing schemes used by different protocols are also keys to understanding this transportation process. Once an individual begins to understand how these processes are being accomplished, patterns begin to emerge. For example, a device that uses protocol addresses to identify networks will all have some scheme for identifying a network and a host on that network. Also, any devices that communicate directly on a media will have some addressing or mapping mechanism to identify other devices on the segment. These patterns go beyond the concepts of the foundations learned when starting out in networking and continue into some of the more advanced networking topics like Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) or Packet–over–SONNET (POS).
An understanding of the principles of networking also aids in day-to-day troubleshooting of network problems. The ability to identify and correct a problem lies in the understanding of how the network functions. Having a network technician who doesn't understand the basics of a network would be like having a doctor who didn't pass Anatomy 101. Sure the person may still be a doctor, but I wouldn't want him or her performing surgery on anyone I care about.
There is, however, one more piece to the puzzle, and that is the ability to demonstrate one's skills and expertise. What many industry certifications lack in testing is the capability to have candidates demonstrate their knowledge. Cisco has implemented changes in their most recent certification exams that require candidates to demonstrate their knowledge by using a simulator to configure and validate the operation of many fundamental networking functions. This is where the operating system portion of learning becomes a factor. Understanding fundamentals means a person knows exactly what must be done to make networks communicate, but performing those functions requires a knowledge of the devices and operating systems involved.
Two things are required for a person to pass the CCNA certification exam: a full understanding of networking fundamentals and the ability to configure and troubleshoot Cisco networking devices to operate in a network. These factors are the main reasons the CCNA certification is so popular among employers today. Cisco Systems has the largest install base of any networking vendor in the world and for an IT professional to show fluency with Cisco devices is a bonus, as many networks use Cisco products. There is also a common view that if someone understands networking enough to pass a Cisco certification exam, the person then only needs to learn a different vendor's operating system and products to perform the same tasks. These factors make the CCNA certification valuable and credible to many employers in determining which candidates are considered for hiring or promotion.