CCDE Grading Process Upgraded

A significant enhancement to the CCDE certification went into effect with the latest administration of the CCDE Practical Exam.   Cisco introduced a much needed improvement to the way that candidates ultimately receive their score reports.  

CCDE Practical Exam (preliminary) results are now delivered to candidates the same day that they take the exam, aligning with other expert level certifications.  Official results are available within 48 hours…  In order to appreciate that, you have to understand how it worked before.  

I waited 10-12 weeks after each of my attempts before I knew the results.  Talk about nerve-wracking!  After 10 weeks I would obsessively check the VUE and Cisco tracking systems, and I would still be replaying the exam over and over again in my head.  Ok, so new CCDE candidates are spoiled in that regard, but it does also provide an advantage that candidates didn’t have before.

As I mentioned, it was the norm to receive results 10-12 weeks after taking the exam, but registration for the next administration of the exam would open up at the end of that window.  This further complicated matters because you didn’t know if you had passed or failed, if you needed to register for the next exam, if you needed to continue to study during that 10-12 weeks, etc.  No longer an issue… 

This also means that the exam is getting less and less subjective.  It appears that the exam is so tightly scripted now that there is only one truly correct answer to each question based on the information provided in the scenario.  Every answer could technically be correct, but only one is the “best” answer because it fits within the requirements/constraints defined in the scenario.

This is a huge improvement, and that combined with the introduction of v2 back in March means that 2012 was a big year for the CCDE!  BTW I see that we’re up to at least 20120023 now!

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How Many CCDEs in the World?

Once again it’s that exciting time after the 10-12 weeks have passed since the last administration (August) of the CCDE Practical Exam, and we have some new CCDEs!  I’d like to congratulate each of them as I know just how big of an accomplishment it is and how much of a commitment was required.  Congratulations!  Well done, guys (and gals?)…

One question that I see come up all the time is – just how many active CCDEs are there in the world?  Unfortunately Cisco doesn’t publish those numbers, so we kind of have to guess.  Some of us refuse to take that as an answer though, and one of those folks started a CCDE Hall of Fame site.  We know that up until the latest results came in last week that there were 74 CCDEs in the world.

I have seen 3 people come forward saying that they passed this time around, and I’ve seen up to number 20120014 a.k.a. 2012::E.  So we know that we have at least 82 CCDEs in the world as of right now, and I expect to see more come forward.  That number has been growing steady for the past couple of years…

I encourage those of you that did pass to leave a comment here and let us know your name and number.  That way we can continue to track the growth of the CCDE program, and you can gain more of the recognition that you deserve within the industry.  I’d also recommend joining the CCDE Exclusive Group on LinkedIn, where you can connect with your CCDE peers from all around the globe.  For those of you that didn’t get it this time, keep after it!  It took me 4 tries…

OSPF Design: Stub Area Types

I initially started this blog to share my CCDE journey, what I used to prepare, what’s next, etc., but I also want to write a series of random technical reviews that align with the CCDE Written Exam Topics. This will serve as a good exercise for me as I prepare for the v2 Written Exam, and hopefully others will find it somewhat useful. The topics will be random, usually when I want to expand on a question that I’ve tried to answer in a forum, on the job, or something that I’ve run into in my studies.

Let’s start with a review of OSPF stub area types –

Stub Area
Redistributed routes a.k.a. OSPF external routes are not advertised into a stub area. OSPF inter-area routes are advertised into the area, and the ABR will inject a default route into a stub area.

Totally Stubby Area
Totally Stubby takes it a step further… OSPF external routes and inter-area routes are not advertised into a Totally Stubby Area. The ABR injects a default route into a Totally Stubby Area.

Not So Stubby Area (NSSA)
This is where it gets somewhat tricky… OSPF external routes are not advertised into a Not So Stubby Area (NSSA) just like in a stub area. OSPF inter-area routes are advertised into an NSSA just like in a stub area. By default, the ABR will not inject a default route into the NSSA. The big difference though is that NSSA allows you to redistribute external routing information into the area. The ASBR generates a Type 7 LSA that contains the external routing information. The ABR receives each Type 7 LSA, translates it to a Type 5, and floods it into area 0.

Totally Not So Stubby Area (Totally NSSA)
Just like in a Totally Stubby Area, OSPF external routes and inter-area routes are not advertised into a Totally Not So Stubby Area (Totally NSSA). In this case the ABR will inject a default route into the Totally NSSA. Just like in NSSA, the ASBR generates a Type 7 LSA that contains the external routing information. The ABR receives each Type 7 LSA, translates it to a Type 5, and floods it into area 0.

Why is this important? The general design rule to follow with OSPF is to “separate complexity from complexity.” For example, you would want to separate a large hub and spoke topology from the rest of the network, so you would place the hub and spoke topology in a separate area or flooding domain. A failure of one of the spoke routers doesn’t impact the rest of the network outside of the area. Hiding or limiting topology information makes the network more stable, helps provide faster convergence, and allows for scalable OSPF routing design. Stub areas optimize this concept of reducing flooding and they effectively limit the size of the flooding domain.

UPDATED: Say it Ain’t so, Cisco

UPDATE: Despite what I was told before, my CCDE plaque arrived today! Here it is –

Oh boy, here we go… More speculation on the state of Cisco? No. More WAAS team rumors? Negative. SDN strategy? Nope… So what news could be bigger than all of that? Nothing that you’ll read in this post, but apparently you no longer receive a plaque when you achieve CCDE. What has long been the icing on the cake for candidates that pass any CCIE track, and more recently its expert level counterpart for design, is something that new CCDEs will not receive.

Let me start by saying that I am still absolutely thrilled about passing the CCDE, and I’m ok with just receiving a number and certificate, but… What!? No plaque? When did this happen and why? I contacted Cisco Certification Support to confirm, and sure enough, they said that “only CCIE certifications provide plaques.” I also checked ‘Certification Fulfillment’ in the tracking system, and it basically indicates that plaques are just for CCIE. Sure, not a big deal and I’ll get over it, but I’m just trying to figure out the logic here.

I do know that CCDEs did receive plaques at one point in time, but I’m not exactly sure at what point that changed. CCDE is equivalent to CCIE “in terms of difficulty and expertise,” and both are expert level certifications on Cisco’s certification pyramid, but plaques are now only for CCIEs? There are ~70 CCDEs in the world since 2007, so you can’t really make the argument that it was done to save costs. I’m at a loss… Say it ain’t so, Cisco! <–they said it ain't so!

Anyway, I also wanted to take the opportunity to once again say to go out there and take v2 of the Practical Exam. I'm glad that I don't have to take it again, but I thought that it was very well written, and (in a sick way) I enjoyed taking it. I've posted about how I prepared, but you basically just have to go and take it. Practice scenarios would be a useful tool to prepare, but other than that, you just need to register and go take a shot at the “brain game.”

I know that there are a lot of concerns about ROI, but I can confirm that there is value to obtaining the cert. It was motivation for me all along to be recognized worldwide as one of the few certified network infrastructure design experts. My employer recognized how big of an accomplishment it was, and that’s always nice. I know people want to see jobs requiring CCDE, and maybe even new channel requirements, and I think we’ll see that as people get certified and CCDE becomes more widely recognized and respected.

Cisco has gone to great lengths to protect the cert as well. The practical is only offered 3-4 times a year, and only in Pearson Professional Centers. Content is continuously being developed for the exam, although I don’t see how it would even be possible to “dump” the practical. It devalues a cert when people are able to cheat their way to achieving it, so I applaud Cisco for their efforts there.

I also love the fact that the cert is vendor neutral, which will also be important as we enter into this new and exciting age of networking. It doesn’t matter if you work with Cisco products or not. The exam tests design and analytical skills, so there are no products or command lines to master. There is not even a mention of any Cisco product on the exam. The exam was designed to be “timeless.” Design skills are and will continue to be very important as networks continue to evolve.

CCDE Practical Exam Prep

This ultimately worked for me in some way, shape, or form, but keep in mind that having real world network design experience is essential.  Having a CCIE is an advantage in my opinion, as long as you can wrap your head around the way that you need to think for CCDE.  I can also see how a seasoned network designer could pass without having a CCIE, so don’t let that discourage you.  Remember, the exam is completely vendor neutral.

I pretty much used the same resources to prepare for each attempt.  The books that I knew inside and out –

I either skimmed through these, read some of the chapters, or read only the case studies.  Read every case study that you can find –

Make sure that you get familiar with the demo on the Cisco Learning Network.  I was never able to get a really high score on it (was like 70-something), but walk through it repeatedly to try to get the correct answers and understand why they’re the right choice.  Reverse engineer it…

I also went through a lot of the routing and MPLS breakout sessions from Cisco Live.  I made sure to study all of the sessions for which a CCDE was the speaker.  You know who they are…  They used to have a session at Live on the CCDE, which was another very useful tool.  It went into the structure of the exam and scenarios, and there was an example practical scenario in that presentation.  I went through that scenario and reverse engineered it much like the demo.

All of these resources are just examples of stuff that you can use, but the key is that you have to start thinking about things in a particular way.  You don’t care about the “bits and bytes” level details.  The exam tests higher level design and analysis skills, so don’t focus on how to configure stuff, commands, packet headers, port numbers, etc.  Read the case studies and understand why a particular design decision was made…why a particular technology was chosen over another…why things were implemented in a particular order…

I also literally started reading a different way.  I would try to read as fast as possible, while still trying to retain the important information.  On the practical you have to take in a lot of information, pull out the important details, and then determine what else you need.  The clock is ticking while you’re trying to do all of that, so get into the habit of doing it…

Time management is critical.  I had to rush through parts of the exam on attempts 1-3 because I needed to catch up on time… or at least I felt like I did.  You can find yourself getting stuck in the middle of a scenario, so know the exam.  Know how many scenarios you’re dealing with and how much time you have.  Have a plan for how to manage your time. 

When you actually get down to exam day, you have to get some rest the night before, and have a good breakfast.  I didn’t really have any choice whatsoever as far as what I got to eat that day for lunch.  I was the last one out of the room and there was one sandwich left.  You may want to bring something and leave it in the locker.  Just make sure that you eat because you’ll need the brain power.  I didn’t take any other breaks during the day outside of lunch.

Make sure that you take notes.  Read through all of the information first and try to take note of all of the important details.  I still had to go back to the information a lot later, more than I would have liked, but I believe that taking notes helps you to retain a lot of information.  I’m not really a big fan of the highlighters…   

Remember that the exam is subjective.  One thing that I did different on my last attempt was comment a lot.  I wanted the person grading my exam to understand what I was thinking.  I had to slow my roll on that later on because of time, but I kept it up as much as I could.  Do keep in mind that they read each and every one of those comments, so don’t over-do it or it might be a good way to fail!

You have to keep your focus for the entire 8 hours.  The exam is very analytical.  You have to analyze the information you’re given, each question, answer, etc.  It takes a lot out of you…  I remember wishing that I could stay another night because I felt like crashing right after the exam.  There were points where I knew that I had answered the previous question wrong because of the way that it branched off, but you can’t let that hang you up.  Make a comment about it, say “you got me!” and move on… 

Then I just made the 3+ hour drive home and started the 12 week wait…  You also have to decide whether you will continue to study/prepare for the next 3 months or wait until you get your results back before you ramp back up.  By the time you get the results, the next administration of the exam is only about a month or so out, so that can be tricky.  I basically took an attempt once per year, except for 2011…

Hope this helps… Good luck!

CCDE Written Exam Prep

Just wanted to take a little bit of time to go over what I used to prepare for the CCDE Written Exam. Let me start by saying that I have only passed v1 of the written exam, which has been retired. I have not taken the v2 written exam yet, so take this post with a grain of salt if you’re actually preparing for the written. That will be my free exam at Live next year… on a Monday of course.

I was a brand new CCIE R&S when I first took the CCDE written, so I had a good understanding of routing, QoS, management, and security technologies and concepts. I didn’t have to put Routing TCP/IP Vol. 1 and 2 on my reading list, but YMMV. Always refer to the official book list. MPLS, IS-IS, and L2VPN were weak areas for me…

Optimal Routing Design
MPLS Fundamentals
QoS Exam Study Guide
CCDE Quick Reference
Comparing, Designing, and Deploying VPNs

I must have read Optimal Routing Design 5 times since I started pursuing the cert. The Quick Reference came out later, and I used that as a quick tune-up before re-qualifying. I read MPLS Fundamentals when I was studying for CCIP, and I really feel that gave me a good enough understanding of MPLS to pass the CCDE written. I re-read it as well when I was preparing to re-qualify.

That’s just what I used, but you could certainly get away with other resources. Definitely read Optimal Routing Design, but the other books could be replaced with similar titles. For instance, you certainly could get away with MPLS VPN Architectures instead of MPLS Fundamentals. You could also get away with reading the QoS SRND instead of a QoS book. Cisco Live 365 is also a great resource…

Next time I’ll get into the fun stuff… prepping for the Practical Exam. You can’t just read a bunch of books to pass! (and no, I did not read a bunch of RFCs)

My Journey to CCDE

This past Wednesday, after a 12 week wait following my 4th CCDE Practical Exam attempt, I learned that I passed!  I still haven’t come down!  On Friday I learned that I’m CCDE 20120001 a.k.a. 2012::1, putting an end to a journey that started back in 2007.

I barely had a chance to hang up my new CCIE R&S plaque that I earned in May 2007, and I was sitting in a room at Networkers 2007 – err Cisco Live – discussing a brand new expert level certification.  The room was filled with CCIEs, and there was a bar in the back of the room!  They handed out a 5 page blueprint and reading list for the CCDE written beta exam, and we walked through the purpose of the cert, beta process, blueprint, etc. The paint wasn’t dry on the practical at that stage.

Anyway, I didn’t pass the beta exam in August 2007.  I don’t like to say “fail,” because you don’t fail unless you quit, but I failed it miserably.  I didn’t study, and didn’t really know much about MPLS at that point, so I wasn’t ready.  Not to mention that it was a rediculously long exam…  

I knocked out the CCIP when I passed the BGP/MPLS exam in June 2008, so I had a pretty good understanding of MPLS at that point.  I took the CCDE written for my free exam at Live 08, and I passed.  I passed just in time to qualify for the CCDE Practical Exam Beta in Chicago in October 2008.

Once again I wasn’t ready for what I was getting myself into, but it was a good learning experience. The exam was extremely difficult and I had issues with managing my time. I knew when I walked out of there that I didn’t have a chance of passing the beta.  I knocked out CCDP in February 2009, and by that time I had finally transitioned into a role where I was doing network design exclusively.

I went back to Chicago for round 2 in August 2009.  I had more time to prepare for this one, and I gave it my best shot.  I felt like I did well, and I walked out feeling like I had a slim chance of passing.  I waited the 10-12 weeks again, obsessively checking the tracking system, and learned that I didn’t pass.  My scores had drastically improved though, so that was encouraging enough.

I switched jobs (from Sr. Global Network Engineer/Network Architect in the Enterprise to a Sr. Solutions Architect position with a Cisco Gold Partner) as I got set for my 3rd attempt in July 2010.  Everything seemed to go wrong on this one…  I had just started a new job and wanted to impress folks, so I took absolutely no time to study.  I missed my connecting flight into Chicago, and for some reason, got no sleep the night before the exam.  I wasn’t at my best, and the exam was eerily similar to my 1st attempt, and it handed it to me again.  I walked out of there knowing that I had no chance of passing.  I did get to see some of the filming of Transformers 3 though, so that was pretty cool…

My second child was born in April 2011, and I switched jobs again in June 2011 to a similar role at a Cisco Master UC/Security/Managed Services Partner.  I’m still in that role today, and it’s the all around best job I’ve ever had.  Now I do network architecture/design for Enterprise, SP, Commercial, and SLED customers. CCDE had been pushed to the back burner, and I had all but given up. I wanted to at least wait for v2 because I needed a fresh start.

In February of this year I was responding to a thread on GroupStudy, which spawned a side discussion with Jeferson Guardia.  He was just celebrating 1 year as a CCIE (28157), and he was working on CCIE Voice.  He asked me how CCDE was going, and he told me to keep at it and that I could do it.  He was talking about how he wanted to get multiple CCIEs in a short period of time, and that he would then pursue CCDE.  That inspired me to pick the books back up, and I did that day.

A couple of weeks later I learned that Jeferson had passed away unexpectedly, and I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t know him personally, but that really hit me.  This was a 24 year old kid that had earned a CCIE and had a plan to get 3 more, and just like that, he’s taken away from here.  At that point I made a commitment to myself and to Jeferson that I wouldn’t quit.  I had a discussion with my family just to get everything out in the open, and I thank them for supporting me through the whole process.

I had 3 unsuccessful attempts at the practical, so I had to take the written again to requalify.  I read back through Optimal Routing Design and MPLS Fundamentals again and passed the written in February.  That same day I registered for my 4th attempt at the practical on March 29 in RTP.  I love Chicago, but finally a change of scenery!

This time everything went right for me…  I drove to RTP the day before, had a great dinner and a great night’s sleep.  I put together a strategy, mainly around how to manage time. I managed to stay focused for the entire 8 hours and finished just in time.  This time I left there feeling like I did well and had a chance of passing.  That was the first administration of the v2 practical exam, which I obviously prefer.  In all seriousness, I think that v2 is better written, and I like the structure of the exam.  It’s still a very difficult exam, but the scenarios are less ambiguous and better reflect what I have run into over the years.

Sorry this was so long, but it was a long journey!  In my next post I’ll go into how I prepared, what I used, and what I did different to prepare for my last attempt.