An Overview of the Cisco CCIE Certification

I'm the blogger responsible for the mess at www.cciepursuit.com That blog chronicles my (so far unsuccessful) quest to attain the holy grail of networking certification: the CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert). NetworkWorld has asked me to write about my experience - proving that NetworkWorld has really low standards. :-) Each week I will write about a different aspect of the CCIE in a more-or-less linear manner. These weekly posts will be exclusive to NetworkWorld. So if we're going to start from the beginning, we may as well start with a description of the CCIE. The CCIE is Cisco's highest level of certification. The program was started in 1993 and it is my understanding that the CCIE was actually Cisco's first certification offering. So back in the day when Whoomp! (There It Is) and Runaway Train were tearing up the charts you had the option of having no Cisco certification or being a CCIE.  :-) In order to earn the CCIE you must first pass a written examination. After that you are eligible to take the dreaded CCIE lab exam. Upon passing the written exam, the candidate has eighteen months to take the lab exam. If the first attempt is unsuccessful the candidate has three years from the date the written exam was passed to successfully complete the lab. If a candidate does not pass the CCIE lab in that time, they must pass the CCIE written exam again before making additional attempts at the CCIE lab exam. As many attempts can be made to pass the lab exam for up to three years after passing the written, so long as the first attempt is within 18 months. There is a minimum waiting time between attempts of one month. While the lab exam is currently an eight-hour ordeal, until October of 2001 the lab actually spanned two days: In its two-day format, the CCIE consisted of two 7-hour days. The first day required a complete network setup, including cabling, some network design, and IP addressing. If you came in the next morning and found that you did well enough to make it to the second day, you were allowed to continue with other network configuration activities. And if you did well enough on that, you were allowed to continue after lunch and engage in troubleshooting exercises. To read a very nice account of the original two-day lab experience check out Greg Ferro's experience (part I and  part II). While you can take the written examination at a Pearson Vue testing center, there are only ten lab locations worldwide. They are in are Bangalore, Beijing, Brussels, Dubai, Hong Kong, Research Triangle Park (NC), Sao Paulo, Sydney, Tokyo, and San Jose (CA).  Oh and did I mention that the written exam will set you back $315 per attempt and the the lab will cost you $1,400 per attempt?  Unless you live near a lab location you'll have to add travel costs for each lab attempt [Cisco recently launched a "mobile CCIE lab" which will travel the globe providing a cost break for those who do not live near a lab locatation - sadly it's not coming to Minnesota :-)  ]. When you consider that it takes the average CCIE candidate three attempts to pass the lab, you can see that the CCIE requires a serious monetary commitment (even before you factor in training costs). It's no surprise to find that a 2006 survey showed that CCIE candidates spend an average of $9,000 in pursuit of the CCIE. We'll discuss the reasons for this next week. So what are the prerequisites for attempting the CCIE? The good news is that there are none. Unlike the Cisco Professional certifications, you are not required to attain a lower level certification before attaining the CCIE. Cisco does recommend that you have the following skillsets before attempting the CCIE path:

  • At least three to five years of experience implementing, operating, and troubleshooting complex Cisco networks.
  • The ingenuity to develop innovative network designs and to find creative solutions to problems.
  • The persistence to work on a difficult design or issue until you have not just an acceptable solution, but the best solution.
  • A willingness to lead in evaluating and introducing new Internetworking technologies and designs that better meet users' needs.

While there is no prerequisite, most CCIE candidates complete the Associate and Professional level Cisco certifications in their chosen path before attempting the CCIE. If you pass the lab exam then Cisco will issue you unique CCIE number. You'll often hear CCIE candidates talk alot about "getting their digits", this is what they're talking about.  Currently there are (as of October 2008) just over 18,000 active CCIEs in the world. The most recent CCIE numbers being issued are in the 22,500 range. So why the 4,500 gap between the number of CCIEs and the CCIE numbers issued?  Part of the the discrepancy is due to CCIE certification holders who have allowed their certification to expire. Once you become a CCIE, you must retake the written examination (or the lab, but I suspect that very few CCIE do this) every two years. If you do not pass the written examination within those two years, then your CCIE status will be suspended for one year. If you do not pass the written exam (or the lab) during that year, then your CCIE certification will expire and you will need to pass both the written exam and the lab to recertify. Another reason for the discrepancy in the numbers is that there are a select bunch of masochists who obtain multiple CCIEs. There are currently five different CCIE tracks with a sixth coming soon. We'll discuss those tracks a little later. Each track has a unique written and lab exam. If you pass the CCIE in multiple tracks you do not get a new number. The final discrepancy is the most interesting. The CCIE number system did not begin with CCIE #1 or #0. It instead began with CCIE #1024 - which most geeks will recognize as 2^10. What's even more interesting is that CCIE #1024 is a room. Seriously. The first CCIE number was issued to the room that the original lab was housed in. The next CCIE number (1025) was given to the author of the first CCIE lab, Stuart Briggs. The first person (and the first non-Cisco employee to do so) to pass the lab and receive the CCIE is Terry Slattery (CCIE #1026). I mentioned that there are various CCIE specializations called "tracks". Currently you can receive a CCIE in Routing and Switching, Security, Voice, Service Provider, or Storage [there are also a number of tracks which have been discontinued or "retired" over the years]. Cisco recently announced that beginning in early 2009, there will be a new CCIE track for Wireless. Each track has a unique written exam and lab exam. You might notice that each track (with the exception of Storage Networking) has an associated Cisco Professional level track (CCNP for Routing and Switching, CCSP for Security, CCIP for Service Provider, and CCVP for Voice). The new Wireless track does not currently have a Professional level certification, but a recent teleconference by Cisco verified that a CCWP track is coming in late 2009. Some interesting facts about each track: Routing and Switching Core networking certification 74% of all bookings Labs in all regions, in all worldwide locations Security Introduced in 2002 Fastest-growing certification; 13% of bookings Labs in Beijing, Brussels, RTP*, San Jose, Sydney, Dubai, Bangalore, and Tokyo Voice Introduced in 2003 10% of bookings Labs in San Jose, Brussels, RTP, Sydney, and Tokyo Service Provider Introduced in 2002 3% of bookings Labs in San Jose, Brussels, Beijing, Hong Kong, RTP, Sao Paulo, and Sydney Storage Networking Introduced in 2004 Labs in Brussels and RTP *RTP is Reseach Triangle Park in North Carolina So what topics do each track cover? Cisco has developed a "blueprint" for each written and lab exam. These blueprints tell you which technologies can be tested on each exam. These blueprints usually cover a LOT of technologies. For the CCIE you will need to become very well versed with each technology if you hope to pass the written exam and - eventually - the lab exam: Routing and Switching Written Exam Blueprint Lab Exam Blueprint Security Written Exam Blueprint Lab Exam Blueprint Voice Written Exam Blueprint Lab Exam Blueprint Service Provider Written Exam Blueprint Lab Exam Blueprint Storage Networking Written Exam Blueprint Lab Exam Blueprint So we know that the CCIE is expensive and requires a lot of study, but how difficult is it to attain this certification? Cisco states that CCIEs represent less than 3% of all Cisco certifications. Remember that there are only about 18,000 CCIEs worldwide. The CCIE program has been in effect for over 15 years. This is a pretty exclusive club. The examinations are not easy. Candidate typically spend 18 months or more pursuiing certification and attempt the lab examination more than once. In a recent announcement by Internetwork Expert (a CCIE training vendor) Brian Dennis stated that the average number of attempts by a CCIE candidate before passing the lab exam is nearly 3 attempts. Imagine studying for 18 months, spending thousands of dollars, and then failing the lab exam...multiple times (at $1,400 a shot - more if you need to travel to a lab location). Next week we'll discuss the benefits of becoming a CCIE as well as discuss deciding if you should take the plunge. More resources: Cisco CCIE Homepage Cisco Learning Network CCIE (Routing and Switching) Page

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