My path to the CCNA Wireless certification

I recently earned the CCNA Wireless certification using the following materials:

  • David Hucaby’s CCNA Wireless 200-355 OCG deluxe edition
  • CWNA 5th edition study guide
  • Keith Barker’s CCNA Wireless path over on CBT Nuggets
  • Jerome Henry’s CCNA Wireless CCNA Wireless 200-355 video series
  • CCNA Wireless 200-355 WIFUND flash cards from neckercube.com
  • YouTube

I really enjoyed this certification path, both the official certification guide and the CWNA are great reads. The CWNA is an absolute unit of a book to get through, definitely requires another re-read, I’ve been using it as a reference tool for work it’s that good. The reason I chose to go down the CWNA route is because I heard so many good things about it from the ‘WLAN professionals’ and the ‘Clear to Send’ podcasts. Also, the CCNA book is now nearly 4 years old now. The CWNA 5th edition is about 6 months old (as of this post), so it covers a lot of technology that’s in use right now and whats to come. What I also like about the CWNA is that it’s vendor agnostic, it covers the fundamentals very well. It also has an awesome community around it! I highly recommend both these books. A big thank you to David Hucaby, David Walcott and David Coleman for producing this fine content. (What is it with Wireless technology authors and the name David, is it a prerequisite?)

Onto my Youtube rabbit hole adventures. The following is a list of videos that I genuinely found enlightening:

Electromagnetic Waves – with Sir Lawrence Bragg

Bob Richardson lectures on the propagation of electromagnetic radiation (1981)

Antenna Fundamentals made by the Film Board of Canada for the Royal Canadian Air Force

Electromagnetic waves. EM spectrum, energy, momentum. Electric field and magnetic field. Doppler shift. Polarization. By Professor Matt Anderson.

HAM Radio Basics- HAM 101

With hindsight I wish I discovered Jerome Henry’s CCNA Wireless video course earlier and the flash cards from neckercube.com. The reason being is that Jerome’s content is sublime, it also covers topics such as Cisco ISE and Prime. It’s very difficult getting information on these unless you work within in the industry.

Even though I’ve got access to the Cisco OCG through Safari books online it unfortunately doesn’t give you access to the practice exams. I purchased the deluxe edition for this reason. I also ended up using the epub format of the book instead of Safari’s online web application. It’s a lot easier to work with and way faster to navigate. The practice tests that come with the deluxe edition is worth the price of the ebook in my opinion. They definitely helped.

Typically I find it difficult judging how ready I am to sit any exam. I tend to go over the blueprints to get a feel of how well I know the material.  I find practice tests and flash cards really help to expose knowledge gaps. The little DIKTA questions that are typical of books are easy to memorise if you go through them enough, so it’s easy to convince yourself that you know the material, instead you just remembered the order of the answers! At least the online practice exams shuffle the answers.

Do you need physical equipment? For the CCNA Wireless, I would say no, but it definitely helps. For the CWNA it’s something I’m looking to invest in. Just out of curiosity I want to see for myself how much a leaky microwave affects the 2.4 GHz spectrum (my microwave is old), I want to see how certain materials attenuate the signal, do those marketing claims actually hold up and so on.

Next it’s the infamous CCNA Security exam. Once I’ve accomplished that I will then return to the Wireless realm to sit the CWNA exam. That should keep me busy for the next 2-3 months.

6 month overview as an ‘Network Engineer’

Six months after obtaining the CCNA in Routing and Switching I managed to land a position as an ‘Network Engineer’. I’ve now been in this role for 6 months. So what exactly is it that I do? A typical day varies. Of the 6 months I’ve probably been out of the office for 2 of them. So far I’ve configured and installed a variety of new equipment (switches, routers, access points, firewalls, wireless LAN controllers), troubleshooting issues with existing networks, actioning requests, performing site surveys, auditing, cable management, helping with design and sales. If there’s any lull periods that’s normally devoted to updating / cleaning up documentation, checking network monitoring systems or learning about something new that’s on the horizon (like SD-WAN).

A lot of the work that I do comes to me via email and our ticketing system. A client request could be anything from poking holes in Firewalls, setting up SPAN, configuring VLANs, troubleshooting bottlenecks, setting up VPNs and so on.

The biggest challenges for me have been Firewalls, VoIP and Wireless. Of the businesses we support all 3 of them are significant components of their networks. VoIP is the most alien to me and I don’t really have an interest in it at all, so that’s where I struggle the most. It looks like VoIP is set to become the standard method for voice communications now as BT is phasing out PSTN in favour of FVA.

One thing that I would like to point out that I haven’t been involved in working with much is Routing. I haven’t touched anything Routing related yet, other than verifying routes. I haven’t implemented any Routing designs or made changes. My knowledge in this area has definitely atrophied, time to lab it up!

Below is a brief overview of the things I’ve been exposed to, and how it’s coincidentally changed my goals. Begrudgingly I’ve temporarily postponed my freeCodeCamp progress to put all my energy into getting up to speed. I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface, impostor syndrome is my shadow and treading water has become the norm. That being said, I’m enjoying it. It’s challenging and varied work.

Off the top of my head here are the things that I’ve encountered so far.

Cisco ASAs (in particular working with ASDM)
Cisco FirePOWER
Cisco Umbrella
Cisco Meraki
Cisco AnyConnect (lots of VPN)
Cisco Prime
Cisco ISE
Cisco DNA

Occasionally bumping into the following hardware :

Avaya
Juniper
Mitel (particularly phones)
HP ProCurve
Sonicwall
Ubiquity
WatchGuard
TP-Link
Netgear
Aerohive

Documentation tools :

Microsoft Visio
Lucid Charts
Excel + Word

Network monitoring :

PRTG
Solarwinds
Zabbix
Observium

Wireless :

Meraki
AirMagnet Survey
Ekahau
Cisco Prime
MetaGeek
Draytek

Configuration management :
Ansible
Cisco PRIME

Useful tools :

Air Console (ever consoled into a device from the comfort of your car?)
MetaGeek inSSIDer (a great tool for diagnosing Wireless problems)
Cagenut Insertion and Removal Tool (no longer pinging cage nuts into the ether!)

I’ve been involved in installing and configuring a large variety of hardware, primarily Cisco that includes the following :

Routers / Firewalls
ASA 5500-X series
ISR 800 & 4000 series
RV300 series
DrayTek

Switches
Cisco 9300
Cisco 250 series
Cisco 350x series
Cisco 2900 series
Meraki MS series

Wireless LAN controllers
3504
5520

Wireless Access Points
Cisco 500 series
Aironet 3800 series
Aironet 1800 series
Aironet 3700 series
Meraki MR series
DrayTek VigorAP 900 series

What next

I had planned on working towards the CCNP in Routing and Switching but out of sheer necessity for my current role I’ve decided to pursue the CCNA Wireless, CWNA and CCNA Security. A lot of work I’ve been doing recently has been configuring Wireless devices, dealing with bad Wireless design/implementation and having to perform Wireless site surveys. Along with working with Firewalls, VPNs and site to site IPSec tunnels. The certifications I’ve listed covers all those areas. Unfortunately the CCNA Security isn’t quite enough for managing ASAs though, looks like I’ll need to venture down the CCNP track for more in-depth information.

Configuring Cisco 5500 and 3500 Wireless LAN controllers
Configuring Cisco 5500 and 3500 Wireless LAN controllers

To conclude

I was concerned that my CCNA in Routing and Switching may have been too theoretical but in reality a lot of what I’ve learned has been directly applicable to the role that I’m in. With hindsight it was a great investment and I’m grateful for the position I’m in, I’m also excited to continue learning and developing.

This is the first time I’ve had the chance to pontificate on my accomplishments. Landing this job was huge for me. It stoked my desire to continue learning and moving forward in this field. It’s inspired me to set goals that I’m currently working towards. For those out there working towards a similar goal and are unsure if it’s worth pursuing this without a guarantee of a job, I want to emphasise this point. People move on, whether they get bored or are offered a position else where, some even retire. There’s always going to be positions available. It may take some time, it took me 6-7 months of searching and applying before I was offered a position, don’t give up!

Cisco IOS CLI – tips and shortcuts

I’m currently working my way through freeCodeCamp and one of the projects is to build a technical documentation page. I based mine on Cisco’s IOS CLI. It features helpful tips on understanding and using the IOS command line interface.

While gathering information for the project I stumbled upon an image that was a visual representation of the IOS command hierarchy. The simple high-level schematic diagram provides an excellent overview of that hierarchy. I’ve reproduced a higher quality version of it here.

I also made a table that provides examples of what the command prompt looks like depending on your position in the command hierarchy. And last but not least I’ve produced a table of keyboard shortcuts that includes animated gif examples of each for further clarification.

All of this has been combined in a single page and is accessible here.

CCNA study material overview.

This is a quick overview of all the material that I used to prepare for and pass the CCENT and CCNA Routing and Switching exams.

Below are images of the physical lab that I built using second hand equipment from Ebay and all the necessary cabling and tools needed to operate it.

Top to bottom: 3750, 2621xm, 3550, 2811, 3550 mounted on a 10U server rack.
Top to bottom: 3750, 2621xm, 3550, 2811, 3550 mounted on a 10U server rack.
Top to bottom, left to right. Network repair tool kit, cat cabling, USB to RS232 DB9 convert connected to a rollover console cable. 2 Raspberry Pi's, RJ45 module adapters, roll of cat 6 cable, DCE/DTE DB60 Crossover Cable and extra Rollover console cables.
Left to right: Network repair tool kit, Cat 5 cabling, USB to RS232 DB9 converter connected to a rollover console cable. 2 Raspberry Pi’s, RJ45 module adapters, roll of cat 6 cable, DCE/DTE DB60 Crossover Cable and extra Rollover console cables.

Cost breakdown

Routers
1 x 2811 with WIC-1T, 256mb memory, 64mb CF £35.00
1 x 2621xm 126mb RAM, 32mb flash £15.00
Switches
2 x 3550 24 Port managed switches £49.98
1 x 3750 24 port switch £30.00
Miscellaneous
10-U Server Rack £26
DCE/DTE DB60 Crossover Cable – 3FT £4.99
USB to RS232 DB9 converter £9.99
WIC-1T Serial WAN Interface Card £6.50
512MB (2x256MB) DDR PC-2700 £0.99
256MB Generic compact flash memory £3.99
Rollover console cable serial DB9 to RJ45 £3.40
WIC-1T Serial WAN Interface Card £2.50
Additional set of Rack mount brackets £7.00
15m of CAT 6 cabling £5.49
RJ45 straight module adapters £6.99
19 piece Professional Network repair tool kit £14.99
Total £222.81

 

Books

CCNA Routing and Switching Complete Study Guide – Todd Lammle
CCNA Routing and Switching Official Cert Guide Library – Wendell Odom
CCNA Switching Portable Command Guide – Scott Empson
* all the above is currently accessible from safaribooksonline.com

Video series

Cisco CCENT/CCNA ICND1 100-105 – Jeremy Cioara
Cisco CCNA ICND2 200-105 – Jeremy Cioara
CCNA Routing & Switching v3.0 – Keith Bogart
CCNA Routing and Switching 200-125 Complete Course – Kevin Wallace
Various material by Keith Barker on youtube

Software

GNS3
Packet Tracer
Minicom
Wireshark
Ubuntu
Virtualbox
Arch Linux

Other

Boson (source for practice exams)
Cisco Learning Network
/r/CCNA
/r/networking

My path to the CCNA Routing and Switching certification.

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.

What’s next

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.