The Road to the Lab Exam

[From Wendell] Thanks to Rus Healy for subbing for me this week. Here's Rus's last post for the week, but he'll be watching to respond to more posts.

[From Rus] So much has been written, in so many forums, about preparation for the CCIE R&S lab exam that it's hard to think I could add anything to it that you can't find elsewhere. But I'd like to take a shot at it from what I think you may find to be a valuable perspective: mine, as not only a candidate who made it through the lab exam, but also as a person who has become a student of the technical certification process and the CCIE R&S in particular.

As I began the process of studying for the R&S lab exam, I had acquired what I thought was a pretty decent home lab--a few 2500-series routers with various interfaces and a couple of layer 2 switches. Because the lab exam was based on the 2600 and 3600 routers at the time, I felt that I wasn't too far off--but that wasn't quite a true reading, as I learned. Over the course of a few months, I learned a lot but quickly leveled off--I didn't feel that I was making enough progress by doing freely available lab scenarios alone. (In this context, "alone" means both by myself, without the critical analysis of another person, and also in the absence of other methods of preparation.) From talking to other candidates and following discussion groups, I think many candidates stop at this point; they've realized that it's a lot harder (and mroe expensive) than they thought to get a good grip on the entire lab exam environment.

At that point, I realized that I wasn't going to get to where I wanted to be in any reasonable timeframe--but I was not going to give up. I had to get serious. In other words, that's when I really started to spend large amounts of time (and more than a little money).

Much of my study path was guided by a wealth of information I found in non-Cisco resources. That is, places like groupstudy.com discussion groups, and those hosted on ipexpert.com, and routerie.com. All of these sources were quite helpful. Based on a lot of research, I bought a couple of lab books--both Maurilio Gorito and Marty Duggan's Cisco Press book, and a set of 20 practice labs from another vendor. Then I had to build the lab topology to match the lab workbook and begin to hammer through. Progress slowed, but I knew I was on the right track.

This experience helped me tremendously. So did attending a lab-prep-focused course, which was really a block of mentoring hours with a group of CCIE instructors. That's when I met Naren Mehta, one of the trio (of which Wendell Odom and I are the other two) who wrote the CCIE R&S Exam Certification Guide just released by Cisco Press.

To make a long story a bit shorter, what I learned in the process is that I needed to discover and fully understand all of the many resources that exist for CCIE lab exam preparation, and take advantage of them. That said, the landscape today is different than it was even two or three years ago--it's very daunting, if not impossible, for a "regular person" to build a home lab topology that matches what you will find in the R&S lab exam racks. The routers and switches have been upgraded, and as many as four 3560 switches are in the lab racks--a costly set of gear. So how does one prepare today?

I think the answer is much the same with regard to the components involved: realistic 8-hour lab scenarios--by far the most helpful resource for me--as well as a lot of research and follow-up using Internet resources and third-party training options. But wait--didn't I just say that it's impractical to build a home lab that's close enough to the lab exam topology to be useful? Yes, and you will still find it a relatively expensive endeavor, but there's a way to save quite a bit of money on the scenario-based preparation. Like the rest of the CCIE path, it's about balance.

Here's what I recommend: Buy yourself a few routers for home use. The lab today is built on 12.4 IOS, but you can configure most of the features you'll see in the lab exam on routers like the 2600 series, which can't support the more memory-hungry 12.4 IOS. You should probably plan for a router with at least three serial interfaces that can serve as a frame relay switch, at least three other routers, and a switch like the 3550 with the EMI feature set that supports all the routing protocols. With that setup, you can do a lot of feature testing and exercise configurations fairly deeply in key areas. To get the full-blown effect of the lab environment, however, you should also plan to rent lab time. This is a much more cost-effective method of getting seat time on a lab rack just like what you'll see in the exam.

It's important to note that the topologies of remote lab rack vendors tend to match a small handful of lab exam preparation vendors' workbooks, so make sure that you choose a lab scenario vendor before you choose a rack-rental vendor. A number of providers with varying levels of support and activity in discussion groups are out there, so do your due diligence to find the right vendors for you. Especially because lab scenario books alone cost hundreds of dollars. But the good ones are worth every penny.

Finally, make sure that you focus on getting some rest and keeping your work-life balance as much as you can during the relatively high-stress period that is CCIE lab preparation. You will need energy and patience and peace to get through it, so pace yourself. Perhaps most importantly, enjoy the process. Learning really is fun if you do it right, and what's more, the knowledge you'll gain will reward you in your career and give you fulfillment. Good luck along the way, and don't forget to enjoy the journey.

Finally, I'd like to thank Wendell for the chance to post this week in his blog. I've enjoyed sharing some tidbits that I hope will help you along your certification path. I also welcome your thoughts.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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