Choosing Electives

I’m going to start this by saying something that might seem strange for a post like this, but is no surprise to my closest friends: The last two months, and especially the last two weeks, have been very stressful and mentally draining. Without getting into the details of it all, I will simply say that the biggest contributing factor, or at least the medium that has facilitated the stress, has been social media.

I decided to temporarily set my Twitter account private for a few days last week, something I’d never done in nine years on the service. The only thing I learned from that, is that having a private Twitter account sucks. Over the last few months, I’ve unfollowed and set mute filters for topics that generated more noise than signal. I’ve tried to step back and get some perspective on what’s going on in the world right now.

Continue reading Choosing Electives

Meraki Certified

Wednesday I had the chance to spend the whole day soaking in knowledge. Always a welcomed event. This time it centered around Cisco Meraki.

As an employee of a Cisco Premier partner (AOS), and a current CCNA, I was able to attend this one day boot camp on Meraki and earn their Certified Meraki Networking Association (CMNA) designation.

Other things you get for attending the class:

  • CMNA polo shirt
  • MX60 security appliance
  • MS220–8P switch
  • MR26 wireless access point
  • Lunch

Lunch was delivered today. The shirt and kit get shipped to me, and I can’t wait to get my whole home network setup on it and really start playing.

Desktop Tested

Yesterday I sat for the VMware Certified Advanced Professional in Desktop Administration exam. While I would love to tell you that I passed, sadly it seems I will be sitting for the exam again soon.

For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to take the exam at 8AM on a Monday morning, and then not study. Add in staying up late on Sunday night to watch World War Z on Netflix and you’ve got a receipe for a rough morning.

But enough excuses…

I did read the exam blueprint, as with every certfification exam this is the best starting place to find out what will be covered. In order to save myself some time I’m going to plagerize what I wrote a few months ago after taking the VCAP-DCA exam to help explain the format for the test.

For the uninitiated, the test is unlike any other exam in the VMware portfolio, and unlike any other exam I’ve taken for any other certification. It is 100% lab based. You have remote access to a VMware vSphere 5.0 environment, with a vCenter, two hosts, a collection of virtual machines, and pre-provisoned storage.

In other VMware exams, you’re given 60–70 multiple choice questions to regurgitate anwsers to. In the VCAP, you are given 26 different “projects” you have work your way though. I say projects because each of the 26 will vary in length and have multiple component problems to solve. Some may be straight foward, some far less so.

In the case of this exam, the environment has more hosts and a newer version of vSphere. There are also 23 projects instead of 26. The rest of it still stands.

You start with 180 minutes, and half way through I thought I was making great progress, but then I ran out of time. I did feel like I was spinning my wheels a bit with lag back to the enviornment from the testing center, and there was a lack of clear direction about the environment and in some of the questions.

The last time I totaled up the number of View deployments I’ve either deployed soup to nuts, or done significant upgrades and management of since 2009, it was somewhere around a couple dozen. Even with that experiance, there were a couple of things on the exam that I’ve never had to do in my work and then plenty of things I was expecting to have to do that never came up. Overall though, it ran a pretty good swath of knowledge.

I’ve rescheduled for Saturday, August 2 at 10:30AM, not because I wanted to wait this long to retry but because that was the first time they had an opening that fit with my schedule.

Advanced Administrator

On Friday, February 7, I sat for the VMware Certified Advanced Professional, Data Center Administration (VCAP5-DCA) exam. Thinking about how I performed has consumed most of my idle hours, so after some reflection over the last week I’ve decided to document a bit of my perspective. I’ll say as much as I can without breaking NDA. I can’t imagine anything listed here isn’t something covered in the official exam blueprint or any of the numerous articles or training for the exam.

I actually thought the test was a lot of fun. For the uninitiated, the test is unlike any other exam in the VMware portfolio, and unlike any other exam I’ve taken for any other certification. It is 100% lab based. You have remote access to a VMware vSphere 5.0 environment, with a vCenter, two hosts, a collection of virtual machines, and pre-provisoned EMC storage.

In other VMware exams, you’re given 60–70 multiple choice questions to regurgitate anwsers to. In the VCAP, you are given 26 different “projects” you have work your way though. I say projects because each of the 26 will vary in length and have multiple component problems to solve. Some may be straight foward, some far less so. For example, one question might be something to the effect of:

Create a Distributed Switch called LabDSwitch and a port group called LabPortGroup that has two uplinks, then assign hosts 1 and 2 to this Distributed Switch.

There would generally be more to it then that, but basically, you’re given a roadmap of what to do, what the examiners are looking for is that you know where to go and what processes to follow to do the task so that all of the network connectivity to your environment isn’t lost. More on that later.

Something that might be less intutitive may be a problem that states a specific virtual machine is not performing as expected, and directs you to investigate why that would be the case. You’re given a target but very little direction from the question as to what to look for or change. You’re expected to draw on your own knowledge of VMware best practices and real word experience to correct the issue.

In many cases, the questions are a mix of both. It’s a series of complex and interconnected word problems. You’re told to do something direct, but with an occasional hint dropped that you may need to read more into what they’re saying to be succesful and achieve all the points for that project.

My advice for the future candidates would be to do as much as possible within each section that lets you move on to the next piece, note what you may have missed, and then come back when you have more time (or possibly must complete it to finish other sections of the exam.)

There were a couple of sections where I did struggle, especially for things like Auto Deploy where I’ve never used it in a production setting so I had very little to draw from. Everything on the blueprint though is fair game and I think nearly all of vSphere got touched in some way during my exam.

The exam itself is 3.5 hours. Normally I test at the Pearson Vue testing center at Johnson County Community College because it’s close to my house. I’ve done enough certification exams in the last three years of being a consultant that I’ve come to know the ladies who proctor the exams at this site pretty well. (Actually after my CCNA-DC exam last month I stood around and chatted with one of them about her son’s upcoming driving test and then a bit about lawn care for over an hour.)

However, the VCAP is what Pearson considers a “Professional” exam, so it must be done at one of their more low-key and higher security sites. Scheduling the exam gives a lot fewer options than your normal tests do. The number of days and timeslots are few and far between compared to a relaitive free for all of 15 minute increments on the normal exams. Arriving at the testing center, the people are friendly but it’s all business. While sitting in the waiting room before I was even checked in, I was chastized for checking my iPhone for just a few seconds. Apparently, once you enter their facility, just pretend you’re waiting to be interviewed by members the FBI and be on your best behavior.

After running through the process of getting checked in, it was time to test. As soon as you start, you’re given a quick survey from VMware about your perceived knowledge about their technologies. I’m not sure it has any bearing on the difficulty of the question you receive in the test, but I doubt it. The survey is off the clock, but as soon as you submit that, the 3.5 hour timer starts. There is some information about the test that you could waste time reading, and I started to until I realized it was all pretty much knowledge gained through training. Looking at the clock and I’d lost three minutes already. Time to get cracking.

You will alternate between windows that show your task lists for each section, and an RDP session that gives you access to your lab environment. You have a vSphere Client, access to the Microsoft RDP application, Putty and Adobe Reader. Opening Adobe Reader will get you access to any of the VMware documentation PDFs that you’d want to reference during the exam. You also have access to command line utilities like PowerCLI and the vMA running within various virtual machines.

I would limit your time looking through the PDF files, unless you’re looking for a specific command or advanced option. They are there as a reference, and you really have to know what you’re looking for to get anything from them. There is simply no time to waste browsing.

Now, I’m a animated person. If I’m engaged in a project, or a complex troubleshooting session, I’m usually moving around a lot. I might be hitting the whiteboards, walking around the room or down the hall, thinking, grabbing a drink, even talking to myself to walk through steps I’d take to implement a solution. Doing any of that here will get you disqualified and kicked out. This was perhaps the hardest thing for me to do for nearly 4 hours. Sit still, be quiet.

In hindsight as a result of that, I’d wear more comfortable clothes if I had to do this again. Not that my work clothes aren’t generally comfortable, but they’re not the most comfortable things I own.

Depending on the network connection from the testing center back to the environment of the lab, you may experience some latency. It was not a factor in my ability to complete the exam, but it was frustrating at times waiting for the screen to redraw if I asked too much of it at once. However, I’ve heard stories from others who have taken this exam outside of the United States where the experience was unbearable. The less time you spend trying to flip back and forth between the questions and the remote session the better off you’ll be.

Also remember that everything you do in the lab can potentially impact your ability to complete further problems. If you reboot your vCenter VM, or detach it’s network card, or do something that causes your hosts to become unresponsive, you either have to fix it or possibly end the exam right there.

I did have an issue where the function keys on the keyboard wouldn’t pass through the RDP session into the VMware console, making my ability to use say F6 impossible. If my score is such that I failed by one point, I’m going to argue on this point, but for now I’m not worried.

In terms of training for the exam, I relied heavily on Jason Nash’s video training at Pluralsight (previously Trainsignal.) Being a vExpert has some perks, and one of them is a free year of access to their video library. They have a lot of great virtualization and data center related topics and it’s well worth the cost, even if you subscribe for just a month, if you can’t get access for free. I also reviewed the “Unofficial VCAP-DCA Guide” by Jason Langer and Josh Coen. It’s available for free through a sponsorship by Veeam.

Overall, if you’re a VMware consultant who gets to play with the vSphere product on a regular basis for implementation and troubleshooting, there shouldn’t be too much that is so difficult you want to cry. However, I could see where your regular everyday system administrator would struggle unless they’re in environments where Enterprise Plus licensing is in place and they’re taking advantage of all the features they can. Even then it would be tough. That said, it’s probably the case that anyone who is considering going to the VCAP level is probably one of those two things already. SMB administrators probably have a hard enough time getting the expense of the required VCP training paid, and are probably pretty well served by the level of knowledge obtained by it if they obtain it.

Unlike most every other certification exam, when you hit submit on the final problem of the VCAP, instead of the familar “Congratulations” or “Sorry” — you’re told you will need to wait up to 15 business days for your results while they’re manually tabulated by VMware. My thinking is that it will probably be at the extreme of that timeline or possibly longer considering VMware Partner Exchange is going on and a lot of people are testing this week. Although it could mean more resources dedicated to grading, and I would be at the front of the line.

Either way, it’s now just a matter of waiting to see how I did. Out of 500 points a passing score requires at least a 300. I went in with the expectation of needing to run through the test once for the practice, and then taking it again to pass. I won’t be disappointed if I don’t, but I feel confident enough that I won’t be surprised if I do. The day I get my results, if they’re not positive I’ll be back on the Pearson website scheduling my next exam date.

Update: I passed!

Objective Complete

The Cisco Data Center track has been around since November 2012, and when they announced it I knew that I’d have to get it at some point. I’m pleased to say that it’s now done, and I can start making my way to other things… like a CCNP Data Center.

And my VCAP-DCA.

My goal (and my employers) for 2013 was to finally get my Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) done, and I completed the first exam (ICND1) and received my Cisco Certfied Entry Network Technician (CCENT) back in July. The CCNA was something I’ve wanted to do since I got into IT. However I got side tracked by other things and never completed the second test.

I did however complete the EMC Implementation Engineer certfification for Isilon, and passed the VMware Certified Associate in Cloud exam. So 2013 wasn’t a total loss.

Sometime in late December after evaluating my status on the R/S CCNA exam, I decided to just bypass it and go straight into the Data Center specific version. Over my two week winter vacation I crammed for both exams and tested for both of them this week.

A few thoughts about each exam:

  • 640–911: This exam was very similar to the CCENT exam, covering the basics of networking however with less of an emphasis on subnetting (may have been one or two easy questions on the test vs a half dozen brain crunchers on the R/S version) — you are expected to do hex to binary to decimal and back, but that’s about it. There is a very Nexus flavor to this but nothing too heavy.
  • 640–916: I stressed over this exam but in the end found it easier than the first. It’s basically a knowledge test of the Nexus, MDS and UCS product lines. Not deeply technical, but enough that you have to know the products. The simulator portion was almost too easy compared to what I’d have expected from a Cisco exam.

Either way, it’s done!

So, for 2014, the goal is VCAP-DCA. No excuses. I’m also thinking a lot about exploring the Cisco Data Center track and going for my CCNP. I need to get more hands on expertise and a few UCS B-series deployments under my belt first. Between these two I will probably be very busy, and I’m sure work will require something else on top of those. It seems like there is always another EMC product that I’m having to catch up with.

Never stop learning.

Associated Objectives

For the next two weeks, while I’m on vacation and enjoying the holidays, I’m also going to be heads down in study for the CCNA Data Center exams.

I obtained my CCENT back in July but was side tracked by other things from plowing through and getting the second test done to get my CCNA R/S completed. After trying to get back into it, I just can’t make it stick. I do very little with routing, and have background little knowledge in it. The DC exam was my eventual goal, so that’s where I’m headed.

The dates for my two exams (640–911 & 640–916) are right after I get back from vacation. This gives me two weeks to get it done.

Solutions Specialist

Last week, I passed the EMC Implementation Engineer, Isilon Solutions Specialist exam.

I actually did the EMC training for it in Franklin, Mass, back in March, but at the time EMC did not have a certification test within their Proven Professional program I could take. Normally I don’t waste time after coming back from a class to get the associated certification. But since there wasn’t one, it got put on the back burner. The class was actually one of the first partner level Isilon classes that EMC had offered, and the whole thing was video taped for future use in video learning. I had the option of taking the older exam that was presented by Isilon Systems (the company before EMC bought them) but because of our partner agreements with EMC, I’d still be required to take the proven professional version later. I’m not a fan of extra work, so I waited.

Isilon is a scale out NAS product that EMC acquired in late 2010, and have since been incorporating it into their offerings. AOS has started to sell a lot of Isilon recently, which meant that I needed to get signed off on it ASAP. I actually did my first solo install of an 4-node X200 cluster on Saturday, and am booked through next year installing a lot more (in addition to my other projects featuring products in my wheelhouse, like the VNX, RecoverPoint, and VMware View.)

In addition all of that, I’m still working on getting my CCNA finished up, adding the VCAP-DCA to my resume, and once CommVault gets their implementation engineer certification program finished, get signed off on that (from training done in July.)

It never stops.