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How to choose the right IT Ops certs to stay competitive

Erik Sherman Journalist, Independent

Mention certifications in the IT world and you find three camps. There are those who are all for them, which generally includes those who create, administer, and grant certified status. There are many who say that certification is a fool's game because it rests on rote memorization and doesn't really prove ability.

And then there those who don't care about the debate—they just want to remain employable. This article is for you. As the computing world shifts and moves ever faster toward greater virtualization, cloud computing, and software-defined everything, you need new skills and knowledge to stay ahead and remain competitive. So here's an overview of infrastructure-related certifications and the specific areas that you should consider.


Certification pros and cons

Not everyone likes the idea of certification. Many say certifications show that someone passed a series of tests, not that he or she is good at actually doing the work of an IT infrastructure professional. The post-nominal letters literally spelling out a certification also don't address someone's work ethic, compatibility with a given corporate culture, inventiveness, or other characteristics that are critical in hiring.

It's a good point. Memorizing all the possible settings for a piece of hardware or software may save some time but fails to determine whether someone would be a good infrastructure employee.

Among the arguments for gaining certifications, the biggest is the HR department angle. The dynamics of hiring employees are difficult at many companies. Hiring managers tell HR professionals the characteristics they want in candidates for a given position. The HR staff looks for all the specific requirements the hiring managers mentioned, including certifications, for two reasons.

One reason is that no one in corporate America wants to be caught making a blatant mistake. If HR focuses on what the manager wanted, their actions are safe.

Another reason is the ability to reject candidates. This isn't a game or hard-heartedness so much as an action of self-preservation. An ad could bring in hundreds of résumés, and someone has to go through them. If they make certifications a requirement, then they can eliminate anyone who doesn't meet the profile. Of course, there will be some highly experienced people who could perform the job without having the certification, but the HR staff won't have the expertise to tell, and they don't want to pass along unknown quantities and turn the interview stage into a wild goose chase.

Even if it seems unfair or narrow, you'll likely need certifications to safeguard your future as an infrastructure professional who has access to the widest job market.

Future-proofing your certifications portfolio

The question is what types of certifications you will need in this changing realm of computing and infrastructure. Paradoxically, that means starting with what you need for traditional computing.

New approaches to computing don't eradicate all the investment in hardware and software that has taken place over the years. There's still a need for data centers at many companies, whether it's because of particularly strong security or regulatory requirements. Companies need networks, otherwise there's no way to connect to a cloud, or anything else.

But now there are multiple cloud services in use. Increasingly, aspects of infrastructure are falling into the "software-defined" camp, so much of the work is now done through scripting and not necessarily changing cabling among sets of equipment. Automation is decreasing the time it takes to deploy and reconfigure resources while also reducing the number of infrastructure professionals that may be needed by a company, which means that greater job safety comes with knowing how to create automation, not performing manual steps.

"In these new areas, certifications are becoming more and more important," said Bhaskar Ghosh, group chief executive of Accenture Technology Services. "We believe people need to change their skill sets and stay relevant." For example, his company has spent $841 million on skill development for people across different skill areas, including certification and training.

And then there is the issue of being able to migrate among different career options. "You don't want to box in," said P.K. Agarwal, regional dean and CEO of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley. "Everything is moving fast. What if this brand X is the darling tomorrow? I like the idea of certifications that also say you understand this industry and the subject of cloud."

Choosing the 'right' certifications

But, still, what certifications should you have? Ultimately, this is a matter of personal preference and your own career strategy. Certifications can become a time sink. You could pile one on after another until you retire, but it's not as though they are free to pick up.

Part of your decision is recognizing that there are two types of certifications. One is a more general type that says you are knowledgeable in a specific area of infrastructure. The tests check for skills that work independent of specific vendors, which is important. Computing is frequently heterogeneous.

Then there are the vendor-specific certifications, created and administered by the vendors themselves. Often, they can be self-serving.

"Every vendor is going to find a way to keep you as a captive customer so you cannot leave them," Agarwal said. Ones with greater market share—Cisco in networking is a great example—want to keep professionals close at hand because those are the people who have a lot of influence in what equipment and software companies will purchase going forward.

But the certifications continue to expand, making decisions difficult. "There are nine CCNA exams [now]," said Kimberley Parsons Trommler, now a product evangelist but formerly a senior systems engineer also involved in certification and training for Paessler, a provider of network and IT monitoring products. "It makes it very difficult for someone just starting out to know what they should do. And it makes it complicated for the employer. They probably need routing and switching and security, but people applying will probably have only one of those. Which is more relevant to the position they're trying to fill?"

What if you want to keep your options open and be able to work for a company that uses networking equipment from a different vendor—for example, Jupiter or Brocade? Trying to cover all possibilities is wildly impractical. There are also entirely new types of certifications coming out that you may need to consider, even though they initially don't seem to be about infrastructure.

"As we move toward software-defined everything, the capabilities that companies require are more aligned with dev practices and less aligned with operational practices," said Chris Ciborowski, CEO of Nebulaworks. And yet developers don't understand all the needs of deployment at scale. "If you're going to be a scripting or tool developer, you have to understand those things and translate the tools and monitoring solutions the developers need to use," he said.

For example, Jenkins is a popular open-source continuous integration automation tool that can merge all development work into a mainline body of code. CloudBees offers a platform-as-a-service delivery of Jenkins and created the first certification for the technology.

"Some products are so important for the market that it means something for them to be certified," said Francois Dechery, CloudBees' vice president of customer success. "You cannot be certified on our certification without being knowledgeable and having hands-on experience with Jenkins."

Then there are technologies that may not currently have certifications but might soon. Docker, for example, automates application deployment inside of software containers in a virtual hosting environment.

Developing your certification strategy: Seek balance

In short, this is a game with a bewildering number of choices and high personal stakes. Your decisions have to depend on developing a personal strategy in the context of technology and market trends. However, here are some principles that will come into play:

  • You need a balance between vendor-specific certifications and those that cover concepts in a vendor-neutral way.
  • Another balance you need is between proven areas that have become a baseline requirement for many employers and those that represent the future and can act as competitive differentiation in the market.
  • A third type of balance to seek is across the spectrum of resource types. You're looking at your future as an infrastructure pro, so be sure you can navigate from an in-house data center, across whatever network architecture you might face, to a cloud, and then across cloud services if necessary.
  • Remember that software increasingly controls configuration of infrastructure hardware, including virtual resources, so don't neglect important development skills. (Check out my guide to coding bootcamps.)

What follows are some of the top certification categories for the expanding concept of infrastructure along with specific ones for in-demand technologies. Popularity was largely the driving factor in choosing specific certifications, with more advanced versions of certification taking precedence over lower-level ones. However, remember that a less-sought certification can still be the difference between an interview invitation and radio silence on the company's part if that business has standardized on a given vendor's technology.

Also remember that a given certification may require that a candidate has previously passed other specific tests. Prices are in US dollars; testing costs in other countries may vary.

Cloud certifications

Cloud is the future of computing—not all computing, but so much that you won't be able to avoid it.

Certification: AWS Certified Solution Architect - Professional (AWS-CSA)

Vendor: Amazon

Structure: Multiple-choice and multiple-answer questions in a 170-minute exam available in English or Japanese. Amazon sets passing scores by statistical analysis and does not make those scores public.

Recertification: Two years

Cost: Practice exam, $40. Exam, $300

Description: Shows advanced skills and experience designing distributed applications and systems on Amazon's AWS cloud platform. Should have the AWS-CSA - Associate certification and at least two years of hands-on experience designing and deploying cloud architecture. Understand best practices on design across applications and projects.


Certification: CompTIA Cloud+

Vendor: CompTIA

Structure: Ninety-minute test with 100 multiple-choice questions. Passing score is 750 on a 100-to-900 scale.

Recertification: Three years

Cost: $285

Description: Shows vendor-neutral expertise in implementing and maintaining cloud services. "[C]overs competency in cloud models, virtualization, infrastructure, security, resource management and business continuity." Should have two to three years of networking, storage, or IT data center administration and be familiar with any hypervisor technology.


Certification: MCSD: Azure Solutions Architect

Vendor: Microsoft

Structure: A series of three tests. An exam can contain any of a number of question types, including short answer, multiple choice, case studies, and more. Microsoft regularly introduces new testing techniques and updates content.

Recertification: Two years

Cost: $495 (three tests, $165 each)

Description: Certifies the ability to manage the "full breadth of architecting, developing, and administering Azure solutions."


Certification: MCSE: Private Cloud

Vendor: Microsoft

Structure: A series of five tests. An exam can contain any of a number of question types, including short answer, multiple choice, case studies, and more. Microsoft regularly introduces new testing techniques and updates content.

Recertification: Three years

Cost: $825 (five tests, $165 each)

Description: Certifies that the person can manage and implement Microsoft private cloud computing technologies.


Certification: Certified OpenStack Administrator (COA)

Vendor: OpenStack Foundation

Structure: A hands-on, 2.5-hour test. Candidates must provide own hardware running a Chrome or Chromium browser and should have at least six months of OpenStack experience.

Recertification: Three years

Cost: $300

Description: Demonstrates that a person who passes "has the skills required to provide day-to-day operation and management of an OpenStack cloud."


Data center

Even with companies taking advantage of public clouds, there are still data centers for processes considered mission-critical or too sensitive to run on shared services.

Certification: MCSE: Server Infrastructure

Vendor: Microsoft

Structure: A series of five tests. An exam can contain any of a number of question types, including short answer, multiple choice, case studies, and more. Microsoft regularly introduces new testing techniques and updates content.

Recertification: Three years

Cost: $825 (five tests, $165 each)

Description: Holder has the skills "to run a highly efficient and modern data center, with expertise in identity management, systems management, virtualization, storage, and networking."


Certification: Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE)

Vendor: Red Hat

Structure: Two tests that are hands-on, practical exams.

Recertification: Generally three years, but requirements can change depending on version of Red Hat used in original certification and current version.

Cost: $800 (two tests, $400 each)

Description: Highest level of Red Hat certification.


Certification: CompTIA Server+

Vendor: CompTIA

Structure: Ninety-minute test with 100 multiple-choice questions. Passing score is 750 on a 100-to-900 scale.

Recertification: No required recertification.

Cost: $285

Description: Addresses such topics as system hardware and software, disaster recovery, configuration, documentation, best practices, and troubleshooting.


Certification: Data Center Design Consultant (DCDC)

Vendor: BICSI

Structure: Two-hour exam with 100 multiple-choice questions.

Recertification: Three years

Cost: $645 for non-members for application and exam fees ($395 for members)

Description: Covers mechanical, electrical, and telecommunications systems in addition to data center requirements, including reliability, security, and building requirements.


Network certifications

You have to tie together various parts of a company's infrastructure, and that requires networking.

Certification: Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)

Vendor: Cisco

Structure: Two-hour written exam (between 90 and 110 questions) and eight-hour practical exam.

Recertification: Two years

Cost: $2,000 (written exam, $400; practical exam, $1,600)

Description: Demonstration of wide-ranging and high-level skills in all aspects of network engineering. Multiple specialty variations are available.


Certification: Juniper Networks Certified Expert Enterprise Routing and Switching (JNCIE-ENT)

Vendor: Juniper

Structure: Hands-on practical exam.

Recertification: Three years

Cost: $300

Description: Requires JNCIP-ENT certification as a prerequisite. Designed to "validate the networking professionals’ ability to deploy, configure, manage and troubleshoot Junos-based enterprise routing and switching platforms."


Certification: CompTIA Network+

Vendor: CompTIA

Structure: Ninety-minute test with maximum of 90 multiple-choice questions, drag-and-drops, and performance-based assessment. Passing score is 720 on a 100-to-900 scale.

Recertification: No required recertification.

Cost: $285

Description: Examines the "the essential knowledge and skills needed to confidently design, configure, manage and troubleshoot any wired and wireless networks." Requires a CompTIA A+ certification and nine months of networking experience.


Virtualization certifications

Server and desktop virtualization have become popular ways to centralize administrative control of resources.

Certification: VMware Certified Professional 6 – Data Center Virtualization (VCP6-DCV)

Vendor: VMware

Structure: Depends on background. If you are new to VMware certification, you would need to attend a training course and pass two examinations: the 90-minute, 65-question vSphere 6 Foundations Exam, and the 100-minute, 85-question VMware Certified Professional 6 – Data Center Virtualization Exam.

Recertification: Two years.

Cost: $345 ($120 for foundations exam, $225 for VCP6-DCV exam)

Description: "Validates that you know how to administer and troubleshoot vSphere V6 infrastructures, leveraging best practices to provide a scalable and reliable virtualization platform for your company."


Certification: Citrix Certified Professional - Virtualization (CCP-V)

Vendor: Citrix

Structure: One test

Recertification: Three years

Cost: $300

Description: Requires previous CCA-V certification. Focused on desktop virtualization, not server.

As noted above, there are many certification choices you can make. What would you add or drop from the list? What do you think in general about certifications?


Image credit: Flickr


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