Expectations vs Reality
I went in with the expectation of being able to pass both the ICND1 and ICND2 exams within a few months. The reality is that it took just over 6 months. I spent 217 hours in preparation for ICND1 and 240 hours for the ICND2 before I felt comfortable sitting the exams. Looking at my logs I averaged around 2.5 hours of study per day over that period.
What worked best for me
I used a broad range of material to prepare for these exams. Books, video series, blogs, forums, youtube, virtualised environments and a physical lab. I made a separate post available here that lists everything I used.
Most of my study and preparation was spent using the Official Cert Guide, GNS3 and Wireshark. Once I was comfortable using the physical lab it didn’t make much sense to continue to use it other than for verification purposes. The reason why is because GNS3 is not only more convenient, you also have way more options at your disposable. You have a large variety of hardware options, hosts, servers, it’s faster and easier to navigate. You can have a significantly larger network, it comes with seamless integrations for 3rd party applications such as Wireshark, terminal emulators, and virtualisation. You can also use it with live equipment. Even though I ended up spending more time in GNS3 and Packet Tracer the experience with real equipment is an invaluable one, it filled a void that anyone without actual hardware experience is going to run into. I also feel that if you’re trying to become a Network Engineer a potential employer is always going to favour the person who has that experience over someone who’s only done it virtually.
The downsides to having a physical lab is that it requires space, it can get quite hot, the fans can be very loud and once it’s all up and running it’ll be consuming quite a bit of power. You’ll also want some hosts and perhaps some servers for testing purposes. I used a collection of old Raspberry Pi’s and Laptops as hosts and servers in my lab.
Are video series worth it?
My thoughts on using video series for learning is that you don’t need them but they are nice to have. They’re not an alternative but a compliment to books. Most of the authors are at a CCIE level so they all offer pearls of wisdom and advice. Of the video series that I used INE was hands down the best of the bunch. Keith Bogart’s CCNA series is very thorough and you’d expect it to be with the tag line of “experts at making you an expert”.
CBT Nuggets is an alternative source with a lot of great content. Jeremy Ciaro’s CCNA series is excellent. His style is fun and engaging and there were multiple times he had me laughing out loud with some of his impromptu jokes. They’ve got a fantastic group of authors over there. I also really enjoyed Keith Barker’s ‘IPv6’ and ‘Definitive guide to GNS3′ series along with Shawn Powers’ ‘Everything Linux’ series. It’s worth checking out Keith’s youtube channel as he has lot of great material available there.
The last video series I used was by Kevin Wallace. It’s not as in-depth as INE’s but I really enjoyed them, Kevin’s visual examples were some of the best I’ve seen and I emulated quite a few of them for my local lab environment. It’s also worth checking out his blog and podcast. Both offer a lot of tips and advice. I’m looking forward to learning more from Kevin as he’s one of the authors for the CCNP R&S official certification guide.
Best bang for your buck
Consider a Safari Books Online subscription. Occasionally they have a sale and for $199 you can get a year’s subscription. Considering the amount of content on there for just the CCNA alone, it’s easily worth that investment. All the books that I used are available on there and they have multiple CCNA related video series there by prominent figures in the industry. Wendell Odom and Kevin Wallace being two of them. CCNA aside they have material on absolutely everything tech related you can imagine. Safari Books Online is owned by O’Reilly Media, need I say more.
Other resources to consider
The subreddit /r/ccna was a place I frequently visited. Check out their wiki and ‘helpful resources’ section, there’s plenty of solid advice and links to free material, including an entire video series. Occasionally you’ll see companies like Boson handing out discount codes on there too. It’s a great place to engage with people who are on the same journey.
Cisco’s community forums are good too with a lot of helpful people on there. Their VIP perspectives section has some great articles and a lot of popular authors also reside there. If you have a question this is one of the best places to ask.
Practice exams. I never intended to use practice exams but being uncertain if I was ready or not it was drew me to them. I decided to use Boson over Cisco, based on feedback and reviewing what both have to offer, Boson was the logical choice and I was happy with my experience. It exposed some big holes in my learning. When I thought I was ready I scored on average 60% on Boson’s practice exams. By the time the exam was due I was scoring 90%+. Boson provide detailed answers and explanations on all of their questions in study mode. Simulation mode closely resembles the real thing, right down to the quirky Cisco simlets. They also offer a No Pass, No Pay guarantee. If you fail, they’ll refund you. I found the experience worthwhile enough that I plan on using them for the CCNP exams.
Regarding the actual exams. Everything you need to know about the whole process is available over on Pearson Vue’s website. They have a tutorial available here and a demo of what the exam is like here. There really isn’t any unique insight that I can offer. You’re better off checking out the CCNA subreddit as that’s a popular topic of discussion over there. I failed my first exam with a score that was brutally close to the pass mark, re-booked it for a week later and passed it. That was part of the reason why I invested in a practice exam for the ICND2 which I passed first time. The one bit of advice I would offer is to take your time on the simlet questions. On my first attempt I had finished the exam with about half an hour to spare because of improper time management. Wendell Odom provides a strategy for this in the official cert guide. My advice is to not rush the simlet questions, you can make the time up easily with the multiply choice questions.
My next goal is to obtain the CCNP in Routing and Switching and return to the CCNA level to either take the Security or Wireless path. That could possibly change in the future but for now those are on my to do list. Outside of the Cisco/Networking realm I’m currently working my way through freeCodeCamp’s curriculum and I also have the LPIC-1 certification on the periphery.