Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad?

The last several months have been quite a blur. My wife and I were expecting the arrival of our second child in April so way back in October 2014 I decided to spend the last few months of relative freedom catching up on some studying, in the hopes that I could knock out a few exams before some deadlines passed.

I had two goals, the first was to complete my CCNP certification as Cisco had announced the end of the current track effective January 30th, 2014. I had started and stopped studying for ROUTE so many times I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to actually finish it. I had already passed SWITCH, and I, like many others, was saving TSHOOT for last.

The second goal was to attempt the VCP5-DCV exam. I had taken the VMware vSphere: Install, Configure, Manage course early in 2014 and had a voucher for 85% off the exam, but it had to be used by the end of 2014. I didn’t think I was prepared for it, but why waste an 85% discount? I decided to at least get a peek at the exam and gauge where I needed to focus in order to pass when I took a “real” shot at it.

 My Nemesis – ROUTE

I’ve never failed a Cisco exam more than once. Each time I’ve failed an exam I’ve taken a little time to regroup, and then focus right back on the areas I was deficient in, scheduled a re-take and passed. With ROUTE, this was not the case. I had failed it previously twice, both as my free exam at Cisco Live. Maybe it was the environment, staying in a hotel, lack of sleep, or the fact that it was “free” and something in my subconscious didn’t take it seriously, but for whatever reason I had not been able to massage a passing score out of this particular exam.

Now, my exposure to a lot of the L3 subjects has been limited, in that my day job had very little routing other than some static routes between sites and our ISP, so I had my work cut out for me starting all over again and learning OSPF, EIGRP, and BGP from scratch.

I dedicated myself beginning in October to studying for this exam. I was going to pass it if it killed me. I had Wendell Odom’s CCNP ROUTE 642-902 Official Certification Guide, I had video training from Pluralsight, INE, and CBT Nuggets, I had the Boson practice exams, I had physical lab gear, I had virtual lab gear. This was it, I was going to pass.

Not So Fast…

December came a lot quicker than I had anticipated. You see I was fighting with two deadlines, the expiration of my VCP exam voucher at the end of December, and the end of the current CCNP track of exams. I had hoped to pass ROUTE by mid-December and then take a run at the VCP exam, knowing it was just a trial run, and then finish off TSHOOT sometime in January.

By mid-December I felt I wasn’t ready for ROUTE yet, and my studying was getting more and more difficult as I read and re-read certain chapters and concepts that I just didn’t seem to grasp very well. It was time to take a break.

So, I scheduled the VCP5-DCV exam for December 29th and spent a couple of weeks re-reading Mastering VMware vSphere 5.5 by Scott Lowe and Nick Marshall, playing around in my VMware home lab, and testing myself with the MeasureUp practice exams.

By the time the 29th rolled around I actually felt pretty good. I mean, I didn’t expect to pass, but I thought maybe if the exam gods were in the spirit of the holidays, I might have a shot…

And I passed!

Back to ROUTE

Passing the VCP gave me a boost and so I re-focused on the ROUTE exam with a scheduled exam on January 16th. When exam day rolled around I felt I had a good shot at passing. The usual light nervousness hit me as I sat down at the PC and began to read through the usual Cisco exam agreement, but I focused and started the exam.

Well, I failed. and not by much. I was devastated. I had felt so prepared, but some of the simulations just caught me off guard for some reason. Back in my car I scrambled to recall areas that I needed to re-focus on and take notes, but I was seriously considering walking away from this exam for a while.

With the encouragement of a number of friends and peers on social media, I decided to at least take a run at TSHOOT before the end of January. This would at least mean I had 2 of the 3 exams under my belt and I could re-focus on the new ROUTE exam in February.

TSHOOT

I scheduled TSHOOT for January 24th, and just in case, re-scheduled ROUTE for January 29th. Knowing I could cancel up to 48 hours in advance, if I didn’t pass TSHOOT I wasn’t going to take another run at ROUTE.

I didn’t study much for TSHOOT to be honest. I’ve heard from many people it’s the type of exam you can either do, or you can’t. If you understand the L2/L3 technologies behind the topology (freely published and available from Cisco) then it all comes down to whether or not you can troubleshoot in an orderly, systematic way that eliminates possible problems, and identifies the root cause of the issue.

I did run through some of the tickets in the Boson TSHOOT practice exams, more or less to get comfortable with the format. I also did a bit of review on the “dry” subjects that would likely be part of the multiple choice questions that focused on methodologies like ITIL, etc.

When I sat the exam on the 24th I didn’t think I could feel any more relaxed. They way the exam is formatted you pretty much know if you got the ticket right or not, so by the end of the exam I was expecting to see a perfect score.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was about as close to perfect as you can get. I think I may have gotten one of the five multiple choice questions wrong, but seeing a score that high was confirmation at least that I did in fact have the skills necessary to continue with this career path. I had been pretty discouraged after failing ROUTE yet again, but this gave me the boost I needed to take another run at it.

 Re-ROUTE

I didn’t see much of my family between the 24th and 29th, I was so focused on reviewing the areas I needed to improve to pass ROUTE. I felt really good going into the exam center on the 29th.

So good in fact that I think I got over-confident. I had some repeat questions and simulations from my previous attempt and when faced with those I had the attitude “Oh yeah, I know this” and didn’t spend enough time really making sure I was answering the question correctly. I got through the exam way too quickly but 100% expected to see a passing score.

Nope.

And it was really close, too.

Looking on the Bright Side

I passed two out of three exams in a 4 month period, ending up 2/3 of the way to completing my CCNP and adding the VCP5-DCV to my list of accomplishments. I think I’m okay with that.

I’ve already purchased the new Official Certification Guide for the new 300-101 ROUTE exam, along with some practice exams, and although there are some new topics on the exam I don’t think it will be all that different from the old exam.

Two goals for this year will be to complete the CCNP and then I would like to focus on VMware’s NSX product and perhaps write the VCP-NV exam. I’ll also have to think about upgrading my VCP certification to version 6 sometime.

Certifications aren’t easy, as anyone who has ever taken one will tell you. You have to be able to take a failure and learn from it, and not get too discouraged. I know I’ll pass ROUTE, I’m stubborn that way.

GNS3 – An Interview

It used to be that the only way to get any direct, hands-on experience with any networking gear was to have access to some actual, physical equipment. It was an expensive prospect, and often out of reach for most beginners to invest significant dollars into owning their own lab gear. Back in 2000, when I first got started in this area, there were no companies offering remote rack rentals, there were no good simulators, and there weren’t companies selling refurbished networking products at a deep discount. Ebay was available, but the products you were looking at there were quite often from questionable sources and probably not genuine. Needless to say it was very difficult to gain experience working hands-on with the products you were hoping to get familiar with.

Certification training, especially on a budget, was something that was very difficult to do on your own.

Over the years projects like Dynamips and Dynagen would provide some limited simulation functionality for Cisco IOS, but in 2007 as part of a university Master’s thesis project, Jeremy Grossman would begin developing GNS3.

GNS3 would evolve to become one of the most widely used networking simulators available and many a networking student working towards certification would find it an invaluable resource for learning.

Now, in 2014, GNS3 continues its evolution.

Now, I’m a sucker for a local success story and Stephen Guppy, CEO and Co-Founder of GNS3 is located just south of me in Calgary. I thought I’d reach out to him to discuss the past, present, and future of GNS3 and talk to him a little bit about their role in training and certification for the networking professional.

In The Beginning…

Stephen recounted the story of how GNS3 began as Jeremy’s university project, and while he now remains the sole developer, there have been a number of others involved over the years. After Jeremy moved to Calgary he met Stephen replying to an ad for a roommate. Over the past few years, GNS3 has been primarily a labor of love but recently the two really started to ask the question – “What does the community want from GNS3?”

After surpassing the 10 million download mark, they decided to launch a crowd funding campaign, in the hopes that they might make GNS3 sustainable in the long-term. So far that campaign has been a great success with over 13,000 contributors and over $553K in funding. The midnight launch of the campaign actually broke Crowdtilt (now Tilt) but they were very responsive and had things back up and running quickly. They met their initial goal in 3.5 hours and hit over 100K in 18 hours.

For contributors to the campaign, the first Alpha release of the new GNS3 became available April 1st, 2014, and Beta releases in mid-July. Their goal is to have the first version of the “final” product in December.

Fresh Start

The original GNS3 had become somewhat bloated with redundant modules and was a bit of a patchwork over the years with multiple contributors. For this new iteration Jeremy started from the ground up, with less than 5% of the original code going in. The design goal here was to develop a solid framework that could have modules added onto it. This meant simplicity when adding on support for VMware, HP, Juniper, etc.

The GUI and general feel of GNS3 hasn’t changed much so long time users of the product aren’t going through a huge learning curve with the new version either. The end result is a much more robust tool that takes up fewer resources, loads and runs faster, and is generally a lot friendlier to use.

Multi-vendor

Jeremy and Stephen had seen some interesting data over the last two years, and that was a steep decline in Cisco usage, with Stephen indicating a 25%-45% decline year over year. As they expanded into markets outside the US, other vendors were more dominant, including huge demand for Juniper and Huawei. GNS3 for many years had been known as a “Cisco” simulator but in reality, they aren’t. Their goal is to be the “CML for all vendors” and be able to offer the network engineer a platform to work on whatever vendor product they require.

The huge surge in virtualization has made it incredibly easy to integrate various vendor systems into GNS3. Not only that but with more and more vendors offering ‘free’ versions of their platforms to use in lab and test environments, access to the software has never been easier.

The L’s – Legalities and Licensing

Stephen admits they rarely have to address any legal/licensing issues because they’ve simply made sure they were always on the right side of the law.

“A lot of the things we provide are fully, freely available for anybody. The vendors provide it. XRV, 1000V, the 3600 series, Cisco provides that for free, online, anybody can download it. All that we are able to integrate within GNS3.”

They also have direct relationships with a lot of the major vendors, including Cisco, having been in talks with the product managers for CML and VIRL, as well as having other vendors approach them directly asking for integration into GNS3. Stephen mentions the relationship with the vendors should be “symbiotic” and in their discussions with various internal product managers, etc. all have indicated that GNS3 has value for them, providing highly trained people and a platform for test and development.

“We never want to do something illegal and be taken down because a lot of people depend on our product.”

On CML and VIRL

“I hope Cisco pushes the boundaries, GNS3 has needed a little competition.” Stephen says, laughing. Having known about CML and VIRL for a very long time due to their relationships within Cisco, they’ve been very excited for release of these products. Stephen calls these a “declaration to all the other vendors” and a challenge to them to provide the same level of support for the network professional.

CML, the paid, TAC-supported platform has already been released, but VIRL – the free, community-supported platform remains vaporware. However, should Cisco decide to release VIRL sooner than later, I wondered how a “free” product would impact them?

Stephen admits these products will impact GNS3 in some way, as a competing product, but a lot of the feedback from those with early access to these new platforms seems to be that while they were generally good products, people eventually moved back to GNS3.

“Cisco is building a whole new community from the ground up and that’s not easy.”

The Community

In 7 years the GNS3 community has evolved to a group that has very knowledgeable people who understand the product very well.  Stephen says plans here are to really nurture this relationship and harness the people within the community, starting with a “legitimate, real community portal”. He cites Thwack (the Solarwinds community portal) as an example.

“You help out, you get points, you get a t-shirt.”

Long-Term Strategy

I’ll admit that over the course of the interview with Stephen I learned a lot about the product that I didn’t know. I had been guilty of seeing GNS3 as a “Cisco simulator” but learned that their focus has not been single-minded, and that support for pretty much any vendor was their goal.

Training and Certification remain a huge part of what they are focused on. Plans include a full CCNA platform including labs and documentation, all for free.

“We want to provide all the material and all the resources you need in order to get your certifications. We would love to do it all the way up to CCIE and equivalent expert certifications in all fields, and provide it for free. All you have to do is be a part of the community.”

This is huge. As anyone who has set a goal for a particular vendor certification, the costs associated with the training and studying are sometimes a limiting factor. For GNS3 to be able to offer community-driven material as well as a platform for labs, is incredible and speaks volumes about the goals Jeremy and Stephen have for their software.

“Networks run our lives. They make our lives possible and the network professional, while it is a very thankless task, is probably one of the most important, or I think the most important profession in the world. Vendors make it extremely difficult for them to be good at their job and I think that’s a huge miss from them. We look at training not as a source of revenue but just as something that needs to be done. Someone needs to step up and be able to provide all of this, and we have the eyes on us to be able to do that, so that’s the ultimate goal.”

“You never have to pay for training again, if you chose to.”

As the new product evolves it’s plain to see that these guys are passionate about what they are doing and the energy they are putting into this new iteration of their product is tremendous. The GNS3 brand itself has undergone a massive overhaul as they reimagine themselves not only as a training tool but as a legitimate choice for network modeling, development, proof-of-concept work, etc.

It’s clear that as GNS3 evolves from “that Cisco simulator” into a full-fledged multi-vendor, multi-purpose network virtualization platform that it seeks to become a core component of every network professional’s toolset.

Back On Track

passed

There nothing quite like seeing the word “Pass” come up on the screen after you finish answering that last question.  There are a few moments of tension, waiting for the computer to spit out your results;  Did I study hard enough?  Did I truly learn the material for this exam?  Did I just blow a couple hundred bucks on a failed attempt?

Then the score report validates everything you’ve done over the last few months with a nice four-letter-word:

Pass

It’s hard to maintain dignity and consideration for the other exam writers in the room, and knowing everything is on camera and in view of the stern watchful eyes of the exam proctor, you know you have to hold in that real celebration until you’ve gotten outside the building, or at least into the elevator.  A few fist pumps maybe, and probably a fairly Cheshire-Cat-Esque grin on your face.

642-813 – Implementing Cisco IP Switched Networks (SWITCH) – done!

Procrastination

I know I’m not alone out there. There are plenty of us studying towards certifications or other academic achievements who know they should be putting in more time reading or doing labs. In my progress towards the CCNP I could have probably passed all three exams by now had I focused a little more and spent more time learning and less time doing other things. Sometimes life gets in the way, right? It’s not an excuse, I recognize that it’s a choice for me, and it’s also something I’ll have to really think about and decide how I want to approach the next exam. Like many out there I have a job, a wife, a kid, and many other things in life that limit the amount of time that can be dedicated to studying or labbing.  If I truly plan on achieving my long term goal of “CCIE by 40” some sacrifices will have to be made.

I left Cisco Live last year truly motivated to continue my studies. Spending a week surrounded by other networkers who have multiple certifications and great careers will do that to you. Looking back it’s hard to tell exactly how motivated I was since that was June and here it is in April with the first of three CCNP exams finally passed. It has been a good 9 months in other areas that’s for sure, and perhaps I can’t measure the success of the past 9 months by looking only at my certification progress.

As an example, I’ve also taken great strides in my health and fitness.  I’ve lost 50 pounds since July of 2012. Nothing special here really, just diet and exercise. I didn’t cut out carbs, or take any weird mail-order supplement that was the “fad diet du jour”, I simply started counting calories, got a personal trainer to kick my ass 5-6 hours a week and work out on my own 1-2 hours a week on top of that.  I feel awesome.  Clothes shopping isn’t a total hassle, and I’m finally going to be able to wear that Speedo this summer.

It’s all about the big picture, right?

What’s Next

642-902 – Implementing Cisco IP Routing (ROUTE) – is next on the agenda. I’m truly hoping to take the momentum from this pass and carry it forward into an awesome study plan for this one.  I don’t do a lot of layer 3 work in my day job so there is going to be some real fundamental learning happening here, and I’m looking forward to it.

CCNP R&S Progress-O-Meter:

SWITCH – 4/6/2013

ROUTE – In progress…(again)

TSHOOT – 1/24/2015