It has been some months since I passed the CCIE DC (v2.1) lab exam, and my plaque finally arrived. Having got this second CCIE flavor means so much, considering I’ve been working on the certification track for years with failed attempts in both written and lab exams along the way.
In this very first blog post, I’ll share some of my experience with CCIE DC – covering the what and the how – which have been often asked by many of my colleagues.
What is CCIE DC?
CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) is the expert-level certifications for network professionals and is one of the most pretigious certifications in the networking industry.
There are different series, or tracks, in the certification for different Cisco technologies. CCIE Data Center (DC) track is is intended for professionals working with design, planning, implementation, troubleshooting, optimizing modern data center infrastructure.
What is the format of the CCIE DC exam?
Like any other CCIE tracks, the candidate who wants to get CCIE DC must pass two exams:
- Written exam (Prerequisites): a 2-hour multiple choice exam at a testing center (Pearson VUE).
- Lab exam: an 8-hour exam with real network equipment (onsite at a Cisco CCIE Lab location).
What are the CCIE DC exam topics?
Cisco has unified Written and Lab exam topics for CCIE DC across the following six domains:
- Cisco Data Center L2/L3 Connectivity
- Cisco Data Center Network Services
- Data Center Storage Networking and Compute
- Data Center Automation and Orchestration
- Data Center Fabric Infrastructure
- Evolving Technologies
What are the challenges?
DC technologies and products
Cisco has a very broad range of technologies and products in its DC portfolio, and they change very quickly! I already had good routing and switching knowledge, was familiar with routers and switches, achieved CCIE SP, yet it was still a steep learning curve to get going with Data Center technologies.
I needed to digest a lot of things, from those which were quite familiar for a traditional network engineer (LAN technologies, L2/L3 protocols, VLAN, QoS, etc.) to brand-new things (SAN FC/FCoE/iSCSI, UCS servers, server virtualization, ACI/VXLAN fabric technologies, network automation and programmability, etc.)
Unlike some other CCIE tracks (R&S, SP) in which you can use simulator platforms for all your lab exam preparation, CCIE DC requires real hardware lab equipment (UCS blade/rack servers, ACI fabric, Nexus 2K/5K/7K). You can refer to the Cisco CCIE DC Lab Equipment and Software List (v2.1, or v3.0) for more details. There are some simulators that can help you with lab on particular topics, such as ACI simulator, UCSPE, Nexus 9000v, etc. but the features of those tools are quite limited, and you cannot link those simulators to have a larger topology.
I think getting access to a physical DC lab for regular practice is the main hindrance to the learning process, and many people choose not to follow this track. If you don’t interact with Cisco DC equipment/technologies in your daily job, it is really difficult to get enough lab hours or real world experience to prepare for the lab exam.
As I mentioned above, you must have access to a physical lab for practice. If you don’t have one in your organization, you will need to rent lab hours from a lab vendor. This adds up the costs for your preparation.
CCIE is expensive if you don’t get any exam vouchers or employer sponsorship. The written exam costs 350 USD, while hands-on lab exam will set you back 1600 USD excluding travel expenses.
How did I prepare for the written exam?
My starting point was to watch 100+ hours of INE’s Data Center advanced technologies course and ACI course videos delivered by Brian McGahan. Those were really brilliant, easy-to-absorb videos. I always prefer learning from watching instructional videos to reading the documentations.
I also sticked to Cisco learning matrix spreadsheet to keep track of my progress. There are recommended reading materials which are listed in the spreadsheet. For me, I did not go through all the listed books, only read Cisco documentations and CiscoLive slides/videos on those topics. If you’re working on the v3.0 exam, there is an updated version of the spreadsheet here.
Getting confident about my preparation, I registered for the written exam. It was very difficult with very specific and detailed questions. I failed the first attempt, and barely cleared with the exact passing score (832). Phew!!!
How did I get hands-on lab practice and passed the lab exam?
CCNP courses – Digital Learning
I was privileged enough to have access to all CCNP Data Center courses on Cisco Digital Learning platform. Below are the courses that I took:
- Implementing Cisco Data Center Infrastructure (DCII) v6.2
- Troubleshooting Cisco Data Center Infrastructure (DCIT) v6.2
- Implementing Cisco Data Center Unified Computing (DCUCI) v6.2
- Implementing Cisco Data Center Virtualization and Automation (DCVAI) v6.2
- Configuring Cisco Nexus 9000 Series Switches in ACI Mode (DCAC9K) v3.0
All those courses have lab sessions for the covered topics which were invaluable for me to get hands-on practice. I used Digital Learning as the only source for my lab practice on UCS blade servers, physical N7K/N5K/N2K and SAN related topics. The platform even records how much time I have spent in each lab which is a very cool feature.
Our local lab gears
I had access to some DC lab gears in our Cisco local lab. It includes several UCS rackmount servers and a small ACI lab kit (1 spine, 2 leafs, 1 APIC). I have no physical Nexus 2K/5K/7K (for those I used Digital Learning). I deployed several Nexus 9000v instances on VMWare ESXi. They were quite decent for VXLAN EVPN lab. For certain topics like OTV, I spun up some CSR1Kv or N7Kv. Problems with the virtual equipment are sometimes data plane might refuse to work depending on the features you want to do, e.g. N7Kv OTV data plane did not work and crashed all the time.
The ACI hardware kit was like a gemstone! I had a great time getting familiar with it, learning about it and playing around with it. It is a core topic in the exam, so if I hadn’t had a physical fabric in hand, it would have been very very difficult to pass the exam.
Real work experience
In my work for Cisco, learning about Cisco technologies has always been a part of the job. Being a consulting engineer working on many projects on DC technologies really helped keep my knowledge up-to-date that was required for the test. Getting deepdive on the technologies helped me do my consulting job much more easily in return.
I took the first attempt for the lab exam in April 2019. The location I chose was Hong Kong because of close proximity, only a 2-hour flight distance, so I didn’t have to worry about jetlags at all. I arrived one day before the exam.
The 8-hour lab was quite intense. It started with a DIAG section with several troubleshoot tickets in a fixed 1 hour duration. Then came the CONFIG section which I had 7 hours to finish. The network topology was large, and the questions were interdependent. I should have read the entire exam to get the optimized order, but instead I took on each section at a time, question by question. It was a mistake!
I barely finished on time. The result came very quickly, just after 2 hours since my exam completion. A big fat FAIL. Actually I passed the DIAG section, but did not score high enough in CONFIG section to pass the cut-off score. It was quite close.
Back to work and aiming for a second try
I was upset after failing the first attempt. I had put considerable hardwork into the preparation, yet still failed. I did not know exactly what I did wrong. Cisco gave score percentage for each domain, not for each question, so only I knew what topics I needed to work more on. I also needed to think about exam strategy to find the most optimal method and order to do the CONFIG to save time. I booked my lab exam for the second try in August 2019.
Another lab day
Same place, same proctor, same process (even the same lunch!).
For the DIAG questions, this time I got a different set of questions than the previous one, and for me the questions in this second try was more difficult. I finished it in 1 hour allocated time.
For the CONFIG section, I used Notepad with Ctrl+C / Ctrl+V so much more this time for repetitive tasks. I realised I could do also copy/paste from the questions window into Notepad/CLI/APIC GUI which was of great help to avoid typos on the namings. This time I finished the lab 2 hours early and spent 1 more hour for all the reviews.
I got my results after several hours of lab completion. My heart was pounding like crazy while waiting for the site to load. This time it was a nice, clean, beautiful PASS. Yes, I passed the CCIE Data Center Lab on August 7th, 2019.
I rewarded myself to a delicous dinner and a pleasant flight back home. It has been quite a challenging and rewarding journey to finally achieve it.