Pursuing the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) certification has never been an easy task, with the different changes that have occurred over the years the focus of the exam has changed (albeit minor). With the latest iteration of the CCNP, the number of courses and tests to pass has been consolidated into three with different technical focus areas for each. With this iteration of the switching coverage, the SWITCH course and exam not only cover the features traditionally associated with a switch but also cover features that are associated with more modern switches including layer 3 switching capabilities, security, voice/video services and high availability. This article discusses a few tips and tricks that have been followed by this author for successfully talking switching exams.
Switching Equipment Recommendations
One hard part about switching topics as opposed to routing topics is that there is no real cheap way to get hands on experience; with routing equipment it is possible to use an emulation product like dynamips/dynagen/gns3 and get a good amount of hands on work. With switching equipment this is much harder to replicate without actually buying switching gear or having a job where hands on is possible. At the professional level and higher it is almost a given to most candidates that some amount of equipment investment will need to be made to cover all of the area that will be tested on an exam.
For the most part a large amount of the topics currently covered on the SWITCH exam can be covered running a Cisco 3550 or 3560 switch; these switches are not cheap but they are also not that expensive and can be easily obtained from sources like eBay. Make sure when buying this equipment to do the research on what completed listings have been going for, there are a large amount of sellers that are just trying to get a premium from people who have not done this research. Another solution which will cover a limited number of the switching topics is to use a switching module in a modular routing platform. These modules provide a limited switching feature set, but should give a basic understanding of how the most basic switching features work.
Switching Exam Differences
If the different courses and exams that have been used to cover the switching functionality would be reviewed it would show that a good amount of the core content has been the same over the years. What changed are the features that are available and the different technologies that are commonly deployed. The newest iteration of this switching exam cover this same core switching knowledge and adds additional coverage on common layer 3 switching features. The thing to remember here is that with modern switching equipment both the routers and the switches are running IOS. The configuration of a layer 3 switch is very similar to the configuration of a standard router. Since the majority of candidates take the ROUTE exam first this material should be fresh on the candidates mind already.
Another commonly seen thing on the exam is coverage of switching features that are used with both voice/video and wireless technologies. The amount of content will in most cases be specific to what is handled by the switch and not by technology specific features. For voice/video, be familiar with Power over Ethernet (PoE) and Voice VLANs. For wireless be familiar with basic wireless fundamentals.
And the last thing that has been changed across all of the CCNP tests is a focus on the more typically associated design tasks, this includes implementation and verification plans. For most old school engineers this is done already, but was never called anything specific, Cisco has made it a more important feature of the exams so that new candidates know the importance of these documents. With a thorough plan both the implementation and the later verification of the network will be much easier to complete.
As with any exam, the Cisco SWITCH exam is not one to be considered lightly; for those with experience on this equipment in their real life it should be rather easy to study for. For those without any significant switching equipment experience, take the time and invest the money to purchase used switching equipment and test every feature mentioned in the blueprint and covered in the certification guides. The knowledge that comes from this studying will not only help in passing this specific exam but will also make the candidate a better rounded engineer and more valuable asset.