CCNA R&S

Cisco have offered the CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) since 1998, but it’s been through a few variations over the years. They’ve changed the syllabus and the number of exams:

Year Part 1 Part 2 Combined
1998 CCNA (640-407)
2000 CCNA (640-507)
2002 CCNA (640-607)
2003 INTRO (640-821) ICND (640-811) CCNA (640-801)
2007 ICND1 (640-822) ICND2 (640-816) CCNA (640-802)
2013 ICND1 (100-101) ICND2 (200-101) CCNA R&S (200-120)
2016 ICND1 (100-105) ICND2 (200-105) CCNA R&S (200-125)
2020 CCNA (200-301)

From 1998-2016, this all applied to Routing and Switching. Meanwhile, Cisco gradually offered a range of other certifications, e.g. “CCNA Wireless” and “CCNA Security”. In 2020, these all got merged together into a single CCNA certification (except for CyberOps). This blog post covers the old R&S syllabus (2013 and 2016), not the new 2020 syllabus.

ICND1

I started with the ICND1 exam (100-101) in March 2016, i.e. I chose to do 2 exams rather than 1. There were a few reasons for this.

  • Looking at the prices (ex VAT) for the 2013 syllabus, the ICND1 and ICND2 exams cost £91 each, while the combined exam cost £178. So, it would be slightly cheaper to take the single exam, assuming that I passed first time. However, suppose that I knew enough to pass ICND1 but fail ICND2. With the separate exams, I’d only have to retake the second half, costing £273 altogether (3 x £91); if I did the combined exam twice, it would cost £356 altogether (2 x £178). The same principle applied to the 2016 syllabus: the ICND1 and ICND2 exams cost £132 each, while the combined exam cost £259.
  • Passing the ICND1 exam gave me a separate qualification (CCENT = Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician), which I could put on my CV while I was studying for ICND2.
  • Passing the ICND1 satisfied the prerequisites for other associate exams. E.g. you could take 100-101 and 100-102 to get CCNA R&S, or you could take 100-101 and 640-722 to get CCNA Wireless. The combined exam (200-120) would also satisfy that prerequisite, but it might be overkill.

By contrast, the main advantage of the combined exam is that all 3 were the same length (90 minutes long). So, you could save some time by doing a single exam (1½ hours rather than 3 hours). You also need to consider the opportunity cost, e.g. if you have to travel a long way to reach the test centre and/or take a day off work. In those scenarios, it might be more cost effective to take the single exam. However, I would still favour doing separate exams: you could always book them both for the same day, as I did with the CompTIA A+.

I’ve been using Cisco equipment since 2006, so I had 10 years of experience when I took this exam. I also passed the CompTIA Network+ exam in April 2015 (11 months prior to ICND1), which acted as a stepping stone. However, there are some important differences between Network+ and ICND1:

  • In general terms, Network+ covered the abstract principles (“what”), while ICND1 covered the implementation details (“how”). For instance, in ICND1 you need to know the difference between “show ip interfaces” and “show interfaces” rather than just knowing that you need to check the IP address.
  • The Network+ syllabus includes wireless networks, whereas the ICND1 syllabus doesn’t. Some of the concepts in ICND1 (e.g. subnets) are relevant to both wired and wireless networks, but there’s nothing about data rates, encryption protocols, etc.
  • As I recall, the Network+ syllabus had more detail about the physical layer, in particular the different types of fibre-optic connectors.
  • ICND1 covers extra topics that aren’t in Network+ at all, e.g. ACLs (Access Control Lists).
  • The Network+ syllabus expects you to know which protocols are associated with particular ports (e.g. port 80 = HTTP), but the ICND1 syllabus also expects you to know whether those protocols use TCP or UDP.

Looking at the logistics, you have to book Cisco exams via Pearson Vue rather than Prometric. When I took CWNP and CompTIA exams, I bought vouchers for both of them rather than booking them directly through the Pearson Vue website. You can buy Cisco vouchers from Pearson Vue, but they have the same retail price as the exam. So, I can’t see any clear benefit to that. I think it’s only useful for companies who want to pay for several employees to take exams: doing one purchase order for several vouchers might be more convenient than dealing with multiple payments.

I used the Cisco Press study guide (by Wendell Odom) to prepare for this exam, which I’ve reviewed on Goodreads. I read that cover to cover, and I finished the final chapter on the day of the exam! I have a decent amount of hands-on experience with switches and routers, so I didn’t use any simulators.

As I mentioned above, the actual exam lasts (up to) 90 minutes. However, the allocated time at the test centre was 110 minutes, because they include time for a practice test at the start and a survey at the end. In Odom’s book, he recommended starting the practice test, then using that time to write notes on your marker board (e.g. binary/decimal conversions to help with subnets). I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that, because it felt a bit like gaming the system. As it turned out, I had 20 minutes left at the end of the exam, so I wasn’t pushed for time.

This is comparable to the Network+, where I spent 60 minutes answering the questions then another 24 minutes checking my answers. However, Cisco exams don’t let you go back and review your answers: you submit an answer, then move on. The exam won’t let you proceed unless you tick the correct number of boxes, so you can’t click “Next” by mistake.

As always, I can’t reveal specific details of the exam content, due to the Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA). However, here are some general thoughts:

  • I commented on 5 out of 47 questions, either for a badly phrased question or an impossible answer.
  • As well as the syntax for various commands, you also need to know the default behaviour. E.g. you can use “cdp enable” or “cdp disable” on a particular interface, but what happens if you don’t specify either command and then you run “show cdp neighbors”?
  • There was a much heavier focus on IPv4 then IPv6.

As usual, I got the results as soon as I finished the exam, and I passed. I also received a confirmation email later that day, so that was quicker than the 10 days that they’d said it might take.

CyberOps

My initial ICND1 certification was valid from March 2016 to March 2019. However, I wasn’t ready to take ICND2 at that point, so instead I took SECFND (210-250), the first half of the CCNA CyberOps certification (as was). I’ll elaborate more on this in another post. That extended the ICND1 until March 2022, and bought me enough time to finish studying for ICND2.

ICND2

I took the 200-105 exam in November 2019, mainly due to deadline pressure: I wanted to get through it before the exam retired in February 2020. This meant that I was combining the 2013 version of ICND1 with the 2016 version of ICND2, and Cisco were quite happy with that combination. However, I know that some content moved between the exams, so I thought it was best to read through the new editions of both study guides. As before, I used Wendell Odom’s books (from Cisco Press), which I have reviewed on Goodreads:

These are long books, roughly 900 pages each! I started the ICND1 book in January 2019, then set it aside to do 4 other exams in March/April (SECFND, PenTest+, Microsoft 365 Fundamentals, and OSWP). I resumed/restarted the ICND1 book in May 2019, and I started the ICND2 book in July 2019. I then read them in parallel, alternating back and forth, e.g. I read all the IPv4 content together and all the IPv6 content together. I finished both books in November 2019, shortly before the exam. So, that’s 7 months of slogging through the material. My original plan was to read 1 chapter every evening, but that proved to be optimistic.

Some of the chapters are identical between both books, e.g. chapter 11 in ICND1 = chapter 1 in ICND2 (“Implementing Ethernet Virtual LANs”). Normally I’d complain about this type of padding, since I don’t like paying for the same thing twice. However, in this case it was a relief, since I could jump ahead in the ICND2 book. I read each (unique) chapter thoroughly, except for chapter 21 in the ICND1 book (“Subnet Design”); I was certain that I knew it all already, so I only skimmed that chapter.

I submitted errata for both books in February 2020. However, checking the Cisco Press website in January 2021, none of my submissions have been incorporated into the master lists. The errata page for ICND1 (100-105) was last updated in April 2018, and the page for ICND2 (200-105) was last updated in November 2019. In fairness, I submitted my errata 2 weeks before these exams were retired, so I can understand why the publishers might not see it as a priority. However, I’m keeping these books for reference, and I assume that other people have done the same thing, so it would be nice to keep the errata lists up to date (especially after I took the time to send detailed feedback).

I see that Odom has written a similar 2 volume set for the new 200-301 exam, and I’d expect them to take about 6 months to read as well, depending on how much you already know. This is not to criticise the books: I think they’re vital preparation for the exam. It’s just that there’s a lot of material, and a lot of it involves memorising syntax rather than just understanding concepts. For instance, consider OSPF. If you’re configuring it at top-level, you use the “router ospf” command. However, if you’re configuring an interface then you use the “ip ospf” subcommand. A typical exam question would give you different versions of the syntax and then ask you which one is correct.

In other cases, the books omit information that I’d like to read. However, Odom has to match the exam syllabus, so his hands are tied. For instance, in the 200-105 syllabus, objective 1.7.b says that you should be able to describe DHCP snooping. Based on that, the book covers the basic concepts, but doesn’t go into any implementation detail. By contrast, in the 210-260 syllabus (for the retired CCNA Security certification), objective 4.5.a says that you should be able to implement DHCP snooping. In the new 200-301 syllabus (for the “merged” CCNA exam), objective 5.7 says “Configure Layer 2 security features (DHCP snooping, dynamic ARP inspection, and port security)”. So, I assume that the 200-301 books will go into more detail than the 200-105 book. Even then, none of those 3 exams have any objectives which mention RA guard (the IPv6 equivalent of DHCP snooping). In practical terms, that means that the books/exams won’t teach you everything you need to know in order to do your job. You need to go beyond that, and learn extra skills to configure Cisco devices.

As before, the ICND2 exam wouldn’t allow me to go backwards: I only had one chance to answer each question. That made the timings a bit of a gamble, because I didn’t know how many simlets were left. However, that turned out not to be a problem, i.e. I wasn’t racing the clock.

Conclusion

Since I got CCNA Routing and Switching under the old syllabus, I was automatically awarded the new CCNA (2020 syllabus) via “grandfather rights” (aka Accredited Prior Learning). So, I haven’t had to take the new version of the exam yet, but it looks like an improvement.

I’ve seen a lot of jobs that asked for CCNA as a requirement, even if CCENT would have been more appropriate. For instance, I studied the OSPF and EIGRP routing protocols for the ICND2 exam, but I’ve never had to use them at work; they’re always handled by the internet provider. So, those topics are relevant if you work for an ISP, but not for the average company. On the other hand, I think it is useful to have a greater breadth of knowledge, e.g. knowing a bit about wireless rather than focussing exclusively on wired networks. I was partway through the study guides for CCDA (Design) and CCNA Wireless when Cisco retired those exams, so I don’t think that material will be too much of a challenge for me.

One other change in the new syllabus is that Cisco have removed formal prerequisites. Previously, you had to have CCNA before CCNP; if your CCNA lapsed before you passed the CCNP exams, you’d have to start the whole process all over again. Now, you can jump straight to CCNP, although they still expect you to be familiar with the CCNA material.

Based on all of that, I don’t know whether I’ll actually renew this certification. I suspect that I will, but it partly depends whether it’s relevant to my job at that point.

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