“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” – Sun Tzu

In the first post of my CCIE Journey I am going to discuss what Cisco’s CCIE certification is, highlight the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab exam format and assessable items, speculate on what the lab exam may require me to do, and then discuss how I intend to tackle this beast of an exam by December 2020.

 

What is the CCIE and which one am I pursuing?

The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert certification is perhaps one of the most daunting certifications a computer networking professional can set out to accomplish. It consists of two parts: a “core” 2 hour theoretical exam which tests a candidate’s knowledge of how networking technologies work; and an 8 hour practical “lab” exam that requires the candidate to prove that they can implement those same networking technologies within certain constraints.

The lab exam is difficult because the time limit and implementation constraints force a candidate to be an expert at administrating Cisco technologies while remaining calm under pressure. Many successful CCIE candidates have reported that in order to secure their lab exam pass they required approximately 1,000 hours of practice. I have also been told that it is critical to develop and execute an exam strategy during practice sessions to assist with time management in the lab.

I am pursuing the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure certification, which is the replacement for the former CCIE Routing & Switching certification. I cannot help but wonder how I may prepare for this exam when there are over 200 assessable items on the lab exam!

 

CCIE Lab Exam Format & Assessable Items

Cisco has announced that from February 2020 all CCIE lab exams will consist of two major sections: a 3 hour section where you must create, analyse, validate and optimise a network’s design; and a 5 hour section where you need to implement the design while following any restrictions and caveats.

The CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab specifically consists of five major knowledge domains:

  1. Network Infrastructure (30%)
  2. Software Defined Infrastructure (25%)
  3. Transport Technologies and Solutions (15%)
  4. Infrastructure Security and Services (15%)
  5. Infrastructure Automation and Programmability (15%)

Traditional routing, switching, security and network management protocols account for 60% of the exam and are covered in domains 1, 3 and 4. The remaining 40% of the exam covered in domains 2 and 5 require the candidate to understand how to utilise and programmatically interact with Cisco’s software defined networking infrastructure, as well as IOS-XE.

 

CCIE Lab Exam Speculation

At this point in time it is only possible to speculate what the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab exam may look like based off of the exam blueprint. Nobody has had an opportunity to attempt the exam and share their thoughts on it as Cisco closed all CCIE testing centres globally during March in response to the Corona virus pandemic.

I believe that the first section of the CCIE Enterprise lab exam will require me to work with Cisco DNA Center and Cisco SD-WAN to design how my fictitious business’ LAN and WAN networks should operate and interconnect across multiple sites. This will likely involve creating stable, secure, and scalable solutions for routing protocols; creating sensible IPv4 and IPv6 addressing families; designing high availability layer 2 and layer 3 infrastructures; designing a Software Defined Access (SDA) fabric; and identifying what QoS policies will be required to optimize traffic throughout the network. Provisioning identities within Cisco Identity Services Engine (ISE) may also be covered, as it is a pre-requisite for 802.1x and SDA. I suspect that multiple choice questions may make an appearance here as the question format will allow Cisco to test whether a candidate can compare designs against each other.

The second section of the CCIE Enterprise lab exam will likely consist of bulk configuration tasks that require specific constraints to be followed. This will require standing up Layer 2 connectivity, configuring Layer 3 routing protocols and redistributing among them, using Cisco DNA Center to provision the SDA fabric and troubleshoot pre-existing unhealthy nodes, and connecting the WAN together via a mixture of DMVPN, MPLS and SD-WAN. I think that network programmability and automation tasks could be forced upon candidates in two ways. Firstly, I suspect that we are going to be given a massive network topology where manual configuration via CLI within the time constraints of the lab will be impossible. Secondly, I suspect to see select devices within the lab topology be inaccessible via SSH or Telnet as this would force management via NETCONF or RESTCONF.

 

My CCIE Lab Exam Strategy

I believe that a complex and large problem is best addressed by attempting to compartmentalise it into smaller bite sized pieces.

I have broken the CCIE lab exam blueprint into four major sections:

  1. Core Networking Skills
  2. Software Defined Infrastructure
  3. Network Automation & Programmability
  4. Network Design

Let’s dive into what each section consists of and the initial resources that I will be using to help prepare for them.

 

Section 1: Core Networking Skills

60% of the lab exam blueprint tests a candidate on their knowledge of traditional routing and switching technologies and networking management. This is covered in exam domains 1, 3 and 4. I feel confident with most of the technologies in this section except for: Dual-hub DMVPN, L3VPN / MP-BGP, Multicast, and QoS.

Resource Type

Resources

Cisco Press Books

• CCIE Routing & Switching v5.0 vol 2
• CCIE Routing & Switching v5.1 Foundations – Bridging the Gap Between CCNP and CCIE
• MPLS Fundamentals
• IP Multicast Volume 1: Cisco IP Multicast Networking
• End-to-End QoS Network Design 2nd Edition

Lab Workbooks

• Micronics Training – CCIE Fundamentals & Advanced workbook
• INE CCIE Routing & Switching workbooks

 

Section 2: Software Defined Infrastructure

I honestly did not know much about Cisco DNA Center, SDA, and SD-WAN before Cisco’s certification updates. I will be using a mixture of my own lab environment, the test lab environment we have at my workplace, and Cisco DevNet Sandboxes to gain practical experience with these technologies.

Resource Type Resources
Cisco Press Books • Cisco Digital Network Architecture
• Transforming Campus Networks to Intent-Based Networking
Cisco Learning Network Courses • Deploying Cisco SD-Access (ENSDA)
• Configuring Cisco ISE Essentials for SD-Access (ISESDA)
• Implementing Cisco SD-WAN Solutions (SDWAN300)
Micronics Training • Advanced SDWAN-ADV (provisionally enrolled)
Certification Exam • Implementing Cisco SD-WAN Solutions (ENSDWI)

 

Section 3: Network Programmability and Automation

This section is the one that I am excited to prepare for the most as I have a background in programming and scripting languages. I intend to identify how to automate any configuration task that requires working with Cisco DNA Center, IOS-XE and Viptela OS.

Resource Type Resources
Online Courses • Cisco DevNet Fundamentals
• CBT Nuggets DEVASC & ENAUTO training (Ben Finkle, Keith Barker, Knox Hutchinson)
• Pluralsight DEVASC & ENAUTO training (Nick Russo)
Certification Exams • Cisco DevNet Associate (DEVASC)
• Automating Cisco Enterprise Solutions (ENAUTO)

 

Section 4: Network Design

I will prepare for the network design portion by pursuing the “Designing Cisco Enterprise Networks (300-420)” specialist certification while consulting relevant excerpts from materials used within Cisco’s design track.

Resource Type Resources
Cisco Press Books • CCDA Official Study Guide
• Designing for Cisco Network Service Architectures (ARCH)
• CCDE Study Guide
• Top Down Network Design
• The Art of Network Infrastructure
Cisco Learning Network Courses • Designing Cisco Enterprise Networks (ENSLD)
Certification Exams • Designing Cisco Enterprise Networks (ENSLD)

 

Study Strategy

I have procured a lot of resources to help me prepare for the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab exam. To remain focused I intend to lab topics as I learn them, develop configuration checklists and quick reference guides, and track my study progress in an Excel spreadsheet.

 

My CCIE Excel Spreadsheet

My CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure Lab Spreadsheet

 

If Cisco re-opens their CCIE lab testing centres by December 2020 then this leaves me 32 weeks to prepare for the exam. I would like to spend at least 10 hours per week casually labbing topics to gain hands on experience as I learn. As I complete sections or reach major milestones I will enter into 30-40 hour week “sprints” where I extensively revise the content of a section.

To remain accountable for my lab time I am going to develop a 32-week lab schedule where I log my actual time vs. intended time and add comments that recap what I accomplished during the session. To further hold myself accountable I will make this spreadsheet publicly available on my GitHub and also intend to broadcast my lab times within the Router Gods online community’s labbing channel.

I think that it would also be interesting to record fortnightly vlogs to capture my lab progress and act as another means of documenting this journey.

 

Mental Health Management

It is incredibly important that I avoid burnout and fatigue on this journey by keeping my mental health in mind. Many CCIE certified individuals have told me that preparing for the lab will be a marathon and that sprinting for too long will lead to exhaustion, frustration, and unnecessary stress. As I complete my lab schedule I intend to discuss taking annual leave throughout the year to support “sprints”. I also intend to take time off of work periodically to enable myself to just rest and recuperate.

It is worth mentioning why I I decided to pursue Cisco DevNet and Specialist certifications in this journey. I did this so that in the (likely) event that I fail my first lab attempt I still have something to show for all of my preparation work. Failing the lab will be an absolute bummer, but I feel like structuring things like this will help prevent a negative spiral and slipping into depression.

 

Next Steps…

I feel like I have a solid strategy that will help me prepare for the CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure lab exam and am open to and all feedback on this!

The next step for me now is to develop a 32-week lab schedule, improve my knowledge tracking spreadsheet, and release these document templates for free on my GitHub.