Network+

I recently sat CompTIA’s Network+ exam. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, and as I mentioned in 2012, passing this exam would give me 2 new qualifications: A+ ce and Network+ ce. I did pass the exam, but the CE side of it was sufficiently complex to warrant a separate blog post.

I had to pass the exam within 3 years of enrolling in the CE program, so this put me under a certain amount of time pressure. My original plan was to read through Mike Meyer’s study guide, since I liked his A+ book. I bought the 3rd edition of his Network+ book in 2004, then the 4th edition in 2009, then the 5th edition in 2012. Each edition corresponded to a different version of the exam: N10-003, N10-004, and N10-005 respectively. As you can tell, I’ve been procrastinating about this for a while!

CompTIA launched a new version of the Network+ exam (N10-006) on 2015-02-28, and it’s interesting to compare their approach to CWNP. When CWNP announced the new version of their CWSP exam, they said: “The new CWSP exam (CWSP-205) will launch 01 April 2015 at all Pearson Vue testing centers. The last day to take the current exam (PW0-204) will be 31 March 2015.” By contrast, there’s a 6 month overlap period for the Network+ exam: you can still take the English version of N10-005 up until 2015-08-31. So, between March and August you can choose whether to sit N10-005 or N10-006. There’s always a time lag before publishers can release new versions of their study guides, and most of the new Network+ books were published in May 2015, including Mike Meyers’ new edition. However, I had to take the exam by the end of April, so I chose to stick with N10-005. That means that some of my comments here may not apply to the newer version of the exam.

When I booked the CWTS exam, I bought a voucher from the CWNP website: that way, I saved $20 and I didn’t have to pay VAT. Obviously, if you’re booking the exam through a company (e.g. your employer) then this won’t be an issue, because they can reclaim the VAT anyway; it’s only an issue if you’re self-funding your studies. There is a similar option for CompTIA exams, but it’s not quite such a good deal. You can buy exam vouchers from the CompTIA Marketplace; despite the name, this is run by Pearson Vue, so you can’t log in with your usual CompTIA account there. The basic voucher for each exam costs exactly the same as booking it directly through Pearson Vue (£166 for Network+), and they charge the same 20% VAT. However, Professor Messer has a coupon code which gives you a 10% discount on exam vouchers: this works in the CompTIA marketplace but not on the Pearson Vue website. So, if you’re willing to jump through the extra hoop you can save about £20 that way. However, be aware that the discount code doesn’t apply to any of the bundles in the marketplace; if you want to get CertMaster training and a retake voucher then you’ll have to pay full price, but you may still save money that way (compared to paying for two exams separately). Caveat emptor… When I paid for a voucher in the marketplace, they said that it would take 3-4 hours to arrive, but I actually received an email about 50 minutes later. So, it’s not quite instant, but you won’t have to wait too long.

Prior to the CWTS exam, I read the study guide twice (cover to cover). So, my original plan was that I’d read through all 3 editions of the Network+ study guide: that would show me how much had changed, and also give me a recap on the parts that stayed the same. As it turned out, I didn’t have time for that. I read chapters 1-3 of the 5th edition fully; I also went through the practice exams from the CDs that came with the 4th/5th editions, and then looked up the relevant sections of the book for the questions that I got wrong. The main thing I struggled with on the practice test was remembering the colour pairs for 568A/B wiring, but then the book said “You don’t need to know this for the exam”! I don’t mind the book including extra content, but it seems a bit harsh for the practice exam to ask questions which are outside the syllabus.

This may sound as if I didn’t do much preparation. However, I have a lot of practical experience: I’ve been working on networks since 1994, back in the days of BNC connectors and null modem cables. I also did a module on networks during my undergrad degree (BSc Honours Computer Science at the University of Durham), where I tried to wade through Tanenbaum’s book; it’s heavy going, but it will teach you a lot. The preparation I’ve done for other vocational exams also came in handy. In particular, I was surprised at how many questions related to wireless networks, since I thought that CompTIA were leaving that side of things to the CWNP; however, the CWTS study guide covered everything that I needed to know there. Mind you, be aware that the Network+ syllabus treats MAC filtering as a good idea whereas the CWNP treat it as legacy technology which you should avoid. Hopefully this is one of the things that changed in the N10-006 exam; for now, I put down the answer that they want, even though I personally disagree with it.

Coming back to the study guide, this quote amused me:
RARP
RARP is such an old protocol that it’s been completely banished from the syllabus!

I went to LSA Training again to sit the exam; that’s the same test centre I went to for my CWTS exam in March. As before, I had to show various forms of ID. They then took a photo of me and asked me to sign an ePad: that’s an electronic signature (with a stylus slipping all over the place) rather than a digital signature (involving certificates and PKI). Apparently this is now standard for all Pearson Vue test centres, and I should only need to do it once; I assume that my details get stored centrally, so that anyone else can use them to verify my identity in a future exam and make sure I’m not cheating.

When I did exams at school/university, I’d take along my own stationery with me (e.g. a pencil case). However, they don’t like you to take anything into a computer-based exam aside from the clothes you’re wearing, so they normally provide a whiteboard and marker or a pen and paper for you to scribble stuff on during the exam. In this case, the member of staff logged me into the computer and then immediately left the room. When I sat down, I noticed that although there were some blank pieces of paper, I didn’t have a pen. I’ve very rarely needed to write anything during an exam, so I wasn’t too worried. However, it turned out that I really did need to make notes during this one! Fortunately there was an empty desk behind me, so I swiped the pen from there. It also occurred to me later that I could have waved my arm in the air; the staff are supposed to monitor the exam area through a video camera, so hopefully they would have come in to see what I wanted. Anyway, I advise anyone else who’s taking this exam to check for this right at the start.

I can’t repeat the specific questions from the exam, because I’m bound by a non-disclosure agreement. However, I can give some general advice. A few questions involved IPv4 subnet masks, and they were always written in “/n” format rather than a dotted quad, e.g. “/24” rather than “255.255.255.0”. That’s fine by me, and it’s consistent with IPv6, but make sure you’re comfortable with that syntax. Also, there were various lengths of subnet masks. For instance, here’s a question that I’ve made up which fits the style of the exam:

“Computer A has the address 192.168.63.5
Computer B has the address 192.168.65.7
They both have a /22 subnet mask.
Are they part of the same subnet?”

So, this question is really saying “Convert both IPv4 addresses into 32-bit numbers. Are the first 22 bits identical?” If necessary, I could do that in my head; there are some shortcuts, e.g. you can tell at a glance that the first 16 bits are identical and the last 8 bits are irrelevant, so you only need to look at bits 17-24 in detail. However, this will be a lot easier if you can write down the addresses, particularly when you’re under time pressure in an exam.

When I did the practice questions that came with the book, they were all multiple choice. However, the exam also contained some scenarios. CompTIA refer to these as Performance-Based Questions (PBQs), and they have some information on their website:

Essentially, these were a way to ask multiple questions about the same premise, and I think that they were a fair way to assess skills which are reasonably covered by the syllabus. However, I was surprised that each PBQ only counted as a single question. When I started the exam, I was told that I had 90 minutes to answer 86 questions, and it took me 30 minutes to answer the first 10 questions (PBQs); fortunately, it only took me another 30 minutes to answer the rest of the questions, which were almost all multiple choice. I don’t know whether the PBQs are weighted so that they count for more points towards the overall score. According to the CompTIA website, there’s a “maximum of 100 questions” for N10-005, so maybe each PBQ replaces 2 or 3 multiple choice questions? Anyway, if you are concerned about running out of time, it might be better to skip over the PBQs and do all the multiple choice questions first, then come back to the PBQs at the end. Personally, I spent another 24 minutes checking all my answers, so I still had 6 minutes left on the clock when I clicked the button to finish the exam.

I don’t know whether IT equipment is standardised across all test centres, but I found that the monitor size was a limiting factor, particularly for the PBQs. I kept having to drag windows around and minimise/restore them so that I could see the bits which were obscured underneath. Ideally, they would have dual monitors: one for the “exhibit” (e.g. a network diagram) and one for you to actually answer the questions.

I noticed that some questions covered the same information in opposite ways. Taking an analogy (because of the NDA), consider these questions about motor vehicles.

Q1: What type of fuel does the Prius use?

  • Petrol
  • Diesel
  • Battery
  • Hybrid

Q2: Which of these vehicles are hybrids?

  • Ford Transit
  • Renault Clio
  • Prius
  • Porsche 911

If you know that the Prius is a hybrid then you can answer both questions with a single fact. If you don’t already know that, you can hazard a pretty good guess based on the overlap.

Some other questions reminded me of logic puzzles, e.g. “A is taller than B but shorter than C. Who is the tallest person in the room?”

Some questions told a story to set the scene, typically involving Joe the technician, then asked what he should do next. I think it’s unfortunate that the protagonist in all these situations was male; although IT tends to be male-dominated, it doesn’t have to be that way. A better (and simpler) approach would be to say “You are a technician working for Acme corporation. [..] What should you do next?” That way, the exam could avoid any kind of gender politics and just focus on technical issues.

As I mentioned, there were quite a few questions about wireless networks. There were also some security questions which were fairly general, e.g. they covered social engineering rather than just asking about different protocols (WEP/WPA/WPA2). Related to that, there were a few small typos, e.g. “treats” was probably supposed to be “threats”, and “probably cause” should have been “probable cause”. When I’d finished the exam, I had to do a demographic survey, but there’s no opportunity for direct feedback (e.g. leaving comments on the questions or pointing out errata).

My score was 868 out of 900. The pass mark is 720, so that’s a comfortable margin. However, it doesn’t really make a difference whether you score 720 or 900: you still get the same qualification.

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