Cisco Certifications Confront Changing Skills Needs

New certs focused on network programmability, IoT, and IT/business skills will help steer IT pros toward emerging technologies. They could also help Cisco keep its hold on the market.

Ethan Banks

July 30, 2014

7 Min Read
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If you asked me to describe my number one fear about the rapid changes in the networking industry, I'd tell you that I'm worried my skill set will become stale. As network programmability, the DevOps movement, and software-defined networking slowly mature, they are affecting organizations in very real ways.

These changes lead to questions: What do I need to do to stay current? How can I remain confident when recommending a networking strategy to my organization? How do I know that I'm keeping up with the latest best-practices? What new technology exists that I don't know about but should?

One of the gaps in the new network has been official vendor training and certifications. Training has been the go-to strategy for many network engineers over the years. Whether this training has been via self-study or instructor-led classes, I've gone through hundreds of hours of vendor-oriented training in my nearly 20-year IT career.

Training is, in fact, how I gave my IT career a jump-start at its very beginning. You remember Novell, don't you? I landed my first IT support contract as a Certified Netware 3 Administrator. Yes, indeed.

Cisco has been phenomenally successful with its certification programs for many years now. A common strategy for network engineers has been to improve their network careers by climbing the Cisco certification ladder from CCENT/CCNA (the foundational "technician" and "associate" certifications) to CCNP (the mid-tier "professional" certification) to CCIE (the engineering "expert" certification).

Those familiar with the content of those programs know that Cisco has seemed slow to react to the market changes of recent days. However, that's not because the Cisco Learning Network (CLN) has been idle. Rather, CLN has been developing, not only new certifications, but also new training options to address where the market is headed. Let's take a look at the key things Cisco has done.

Updates to CCNP: Routing & Switching 2.0
The CCNP program has placed a stronger emphasis on purely routing and switching technologies. For a long time, CCNP included several topics -- such as wireless, video, and voice over IP -- that were not really core route/switch topics. These topics have now been eliminated and CCNP re-branded as CCNP Routing & Switching. This is now in line with the rest of the CCNP-level certifications, each of which has a specific focus such as Data Center, Security, and Voice.

This new CCNP Routing & Switching version 2.0 places a stronger emphasis on IPv6, including running dual-stack IPv4 and IPv6 networks. Cisco's logic is that now that public IPv4 address space has been very nearly exhausted in the North American market, IPv6 demand there will begin to match global IPv6 demand, especially as the oft-discussed Internet of things (IoT) comes to exist in the form of manufacturing sensors, household gadgets, and other devices that require network reachability.

Cisco is also requiring candidates to learn StackWise and Virtual Switching Service (VSS) technologies, both of which have been in the Cisco portfolio for years and seen broad customer adoption. Both technologies are used to make multiple physical switches behave like a single switch, but there are a number of design considerations and implementation details that impact their behavior in production networks.

Dynamic multipoint virtual private network (DMVPN), a technology that creates an overlay of secure tunnels across public or leased networks, has also been added to the CCNP Routing & Switching track, again emphasizing the renewed focus on routing and switching technologies that Cisco customers have in their production environments.

Three training courses exist for CCNP Routing & Switching, and Cisco has announced a new e-learning option for these three courses. Cisco wants to provide candidates with more study options, recognizing that in-person, instructor-led courses are difficult for busy network engineers to attend.

Next page: Specialist certs for SDN, IoT, and business

Specialist certs for SDN, IoT, and business
Network programmability is the idea that network devices can be programmed using languages such as Java and Python that communicate to the devices using API libraries, such as Cisco's onePK. Cisco customers are interested in network programmability, so the company has added four new specialist certifications.

The new specialist certifications map to new roles that traditional network designers and engineers are taking on in environments moving towards network automation. These roles include Business Application Engineer, Network Programmability Developer, Network Programmability Designer, and Network Programmability Engineer.

The Network Programmability Specialist certifications are important additions to Cisco's training portfolio. If Cisco succeeds in certifying individuals in Cisco-flavored network programmability, it gives them a market advantage. Software defined networking (SDN) in general is still fragmented, both in market adoption and technical approaches, so building an army that knows how to interact with SDN using the Cisco methodology can only be good for Cisco.

Using training and certification to drive sales is a proven tactic for Cisco, and I suspect it will help it yet again in this case. There is very little training of any sort in the SDN space right now, so engineers looking to move their careers ahead might find Cisco's new specialist certifications an interesting option.

The two other new specialist certifications are:

  • Cisco Industrial Networking Specialist: This certification is focused on manufacturing, IoT, sensors located in the outdoors, growing these non-traditional sorts of networks, and handling the data flowing from them. Industrial networks have some different needs compared to "carpeted" IT, and Cisco is recognizing that with this program.

  • Cisco Enterprise IT Business Specialist: This certification is aimed at network and security architects who need to align IT with the business more carefully. The certification focuses on doing a business analysis of a technology solution, the basics of finance, project management, and technology implementation and adoption strategies.

Each new specialist certification requires two exams, each of which has a related training course. 

What do the changes mean for certification seekers?
Cisco's Learning Network is the single most comprehensive array of network and network-oriented application training available from any vendor. The catch with just about any vendor certification is that it tends to be vendor-specific. Therefore, the risk that any certification seeker takes is that the skills they acquire pursuing that vendor's certification may or may not be marketable. And even if that certification is marketable, the value of that certification in terms of salary will vary with demand.

In the past, becoming Cisco certified was effectively no sort of risk to a certification seeker, due to Cisco's market dominance. Cisco certified individuals have always been in demand. But what about going forward?

While it's hard to argue with the usefulness of a refocused CCNP Routing & Switching certification, the ultimate value of the new network programmability certifications for those looking to advance their careers is harder to gauge. That depends heavily on the success of Cisco's onePK and ACI strategies in the marketplace. Success for those is, in my opinion, likely -- but far from assured.

What do the new certs mean for customers and partners?
I believe the biggest winners in this new collection of specialist certifications are committed Cisco customers and partners. For those shops that are wholesale Cisco and aren't particularly interested in alternatives, the Cisco Learning Network has provided a path forward for their IT staffs. The specialist certifications allow network programmability and business skills to be injected into the team. These skills should provide a solid foundation to move a traditional network into a software-defined one, better able to integrate with DevOps and automated processes.

Cisco partners also win here, because they can demonstrate competence to their customers with cutting-edge skills that should increase in demand over time. Consultancies that employ specialists with these certifications may well have an edge over those that do not. Consultants earn the trust of their customers by their expertise: When they have it, they're heroes; when they don't, it gets uncomfortable for everyone.

Network programmability seems like an important expertise to have for consultancies going forward. End-customers are less likely to have that skill, and therefore more likely to engage consultants for projects.

Whether or not you believe in Cisco's long-term future as networking's juggernaut, I believe Cisco's got this certification strategy exactly right. It's giving the market not only what it wants, but what it needs to continue to advance Cisco's cause in the marketplace. Complain all you want about how long Cisco is taking to come to market with its SDN product set, but all the pieces are coming together. Training and certifications are especially key pieces helping to form the big picture.

Ethan Banks will moderate what is sure to be a lively debate, Learn SDN Vs. Traditional Certifications: What's Better For Your Career? at Interop New York, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3. The all-CCIE panel will discuss the value of the traditional CCIE and its value in light of the emerging technology of the SDN revolution. Register for Interop today!

About the Author(s)

Ethan Banks

Senior Network ArchitectEthan Banks, CCIE #20655, is a hands-on networking practitioner who has designed, built and maintained networks for higher education, state government, financial institutions, and technology corporations. Ethan is also a host of the Packet Pushers Podcast. The technical program covers practical network design, as well as cutting edge topics like virtualization, OpenFlow, software defined networking, and overlay protocols. The podcast has more than one million unique downloads, and today reaches a global audience of more than 10,000 listeners. Also a writer, Ethan covers network engineering and the networking industry for a variety of IT publications and is editor for the independent community of bloggers at PacketPushers.net.

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