If I can do this, so can you! Some of you may be just starting out, some of you may be on the homestretch with a lab right around the corner. Either way, this post may have some interest to you. I’d like to share my story, how I prepared, what study methods worked best for me, how I picked myself back up after defeat, and what I did to prepare once more for ultimate victory.
Choosing the path to CCIE Data Center
As many of you interested in Data Center technologies, I dabbled with small-to-medium projects, implementing Nexus 5Ks, UCS, NetApp storage, and VMware ESXi at my places of work. These technologies got me really excited over the years, and in November of 2013 I took on a larger Data Center project. Countless hours reading CVDs, config guides, best practice guides, and numerous hours plowing through INE videos led to a solid design, complete build and successful deployment. This really fueled the fire to begin my studies for the CCIE Data Center certification, as I now had Nexus 7K/5K/2Ks, UCS and Unified Fabric hands-on experience at the enterprise-level. Plus, this stuff is cool!
Props to my colleague Steve Occhiogrosso, for sacrificing many nights, insights, white boards, coffee beans, bar napkins and a ridiculous amount of time building that Data Centers together.
Completing the written exam
I set a goal to pass my CCIE Data Center Written exam at Cisco Live, and did just that in May 2014. I found that watching instructional videos from trusted training providers like INE and IPexpert really helped with understanding the technologies well enough to prepare and pass the written exam. I took copious notes, many of them hand-written, which others agree aid in helping you retain information more so than just unconsciously typing. I created indexes of the blueprint topics and went through each one in detail.
Study Strategy for the Lab exam
Create a spreadsheet to track progress
Now the real fun begins, preparation for the lab. This was my first time preparing for such an intense exam, so nerd as I am, I created a spreadsheet to help me keep track of everything. I later found some other sheets online that like-minded people had created and made adjustments as necessary to improve my tracking. I created tabs for my overall schedule, blueprint objectives, INE videos, IPExpert videos, books to read, mock labs, Peter Revill’s blogs, and my personal blog ideas. I’ll attach a cleaned copy to download if you’re interested. Here is a short screenshot of the blueprint tab:
Learn Cisco.com navigation, read ALL Data Center Configuration Guides
I went through each topic in chronological order with great detail. This is where I honed my skills on navigating the Cisco support documentation. Say for example the next topic was “Implementing Netflow” – I would go to cisco.com/go/techdocs and navigate my way to the NetFlow configuration guide for NX-OS and read the entire guide end-to-end taking notes along the way. It can be dry at times, especially UCS, but I feel that this helped me the most with my Data Center studies.
Ciscolive.com has an enormous amount of very useful zero-cost training. Full PDFs and videos, an excellent resource for diving deep.
Take copious notes
For note-taking, I would most often use Evernote or hand writing. With Evernote, I clipped anything from the web that I needed to study, annotate or reference, making it searchable in my library. I took notes as well, organizing them by name, tagging them with the topic and blueprint ID. For example:
Hands-on lab (if possible)
I was privileged enough to have some spare VDCs in a production set of Nexus 7000s, as well as a lab UCS chassis with pair of Fabric Interconnects. I bought myself a pair of MDS 9216i’s and a JBOD (Xyratex Storage Array RS-1600-FC) from eBay, which I ended up connecting to the UCS Fabric Interconnects for storage studies. This was a wise purchase, and I spent many hours with these MDS to fully understand the concepts of storage. The only things I couldn’t do were FCoE and F_Port-Channel trunking. For these topics, I relied on previous implementation experiences as well as Cisco PEC labs and deep-dives during my IPexpert bootcamp with Jason Lunde.
My blogging record was small before I started this adventure, with only a few posts under my belt. This quickly changed throughout my studies and honestly helped me tremendously to understand the technologies at a deeper level. I would dedicate multiple nights or full weekends to studying larger topics and I would record my findings, document the topic to the best of my ability in such a way that I could teach it to someone else. I needed to be certain my information was without error, for not only would it fail myself, but my readers as well. It is with this guideline that I learned to study at an expert level. I highly recommend it to anyone in pursuit of a CCIE.
Practice Practice Practice!
When going through the blueprint and reading the configuration guides, make sure to actually get on the CLI or UCSM and configure these technologies. Know what the minimum requirements are to configure any topic, then go deeper until you understand what the consequences are of configuring the most advanced features and capabilities. Do not be afraid. Break stuff, find out why it broke, and know how to fix it. Troubleshooting is definitely a part of this exam, and is critical for your success. If I didn’t understand something well enough, I would re-watch a training video or re-read documentation to try and bridge any gaps. If documentation or Google wouldn’t help me, I would reach out to the Facebook CCIE Data Center study group. Do yourself a favor and join right away, this is group of excellent resources on the same path with many on the other end reaching out to help you cross.
If you can find a study partner, this really helps as well. I have to give special thanks to my study partner Juan Lazcano; we spent many hours in the labs, and challenged each other to the near point of insanity, haha!
Final Weeks before Lab
About 45 days before my lab, I created a daily schedule for focused studies. I carved out time to do particular mock labs, study particular topics that I needed better understanding with, and I became more active on the Facebook study group.
Attend a Bootcamp
About 30 days before my lab I attended an online bootcamp with IPexpert. The purpose of this was not to learn anything new, rather it was to fine tune any weaknesses, challenge myself with the workbook, and get access to actual gear for 5 days. After completing assignments, I could test other theories and validate my knowledge. I indeed learned a few things as the workbook was quite challenging, and Jason Lunde is an incredible instructor. Shout out to my classmate Gideon Tam who just passed his CCIE Data Center!
I created a list of self-challenges, which put my command memorization, speed and accuracy to the test. I repeatedly went through these challenges so many times that it became second nature. This was an evolving list and became longer with time. Before my lab date I could certainly go through all of these challenges (vPC, FabricPath, Spanning-Tree, UCS, 1000v, OTV, iSCSI, FCIP, and much more) in notepad with 100% command accuracy. Here is an example of some of the challenges:
Day Before Lab
I flew out to RTP the day before my lab, checked into the hotel, then took a recon mission to the Cisco campus, drove to building 3 and dusted off a modicum of anxiety. I grabbed a bite to eat and just tried to relax. Sleep was horrible that night, didn’t catch much shut-eye, but what’s to expect?
I checked out of the hotel at 6:00am, went and got a small bite to eat then headed to the campus. I arrived on-time, before 7am. Funny thing is, the test didn’t actually start until about 7:40, maybe that’s a part of the mind game, haha. I did not read the entire exam before starting as the guidelines tell you to; instead I took on each section at a time. I configured everything straight from the cli of each switch, did not use notepad much at all, only for a few tasks. If I ran into anything I was unsure about, I would make a note of it on the scratch paper to come back to it, had about a list of 10 items by the time I made it through.
Not going to lie, the exam was intense, and it took me the full 8 hours to complete. In addition to that, the strategy that the training providers prepared me for was unexpectedly unrelated to what I experienced in the lab. You are challenged not just with ground-up Data Center configuration, but also on your ability to troubleshoot every topic. I was able to make it through the entire exam, but walked away feeling uncomfortable with my performance. Immediately after the exam I jotted down as much as I could remember, especially any areas of uncertainty.
At 1:07 AM the next morning I received my results – Failed. I was distraught, all of this hard work and what I felt to be expert-level knowledge, still I failed. So many obscure, tricky, incomplete, and unusual tasks on this exam, I just didn’t know what I got right and what I got wrong besides a few tasks I knew I missed. I immediately booked my next exam for December 10th, then took a two week break, disconnected from the world of CCIE studies.
Bridging the Gaps
Reviewing my post-lab notes, I hit the studies again with a focus on what I had experienced the first time around. I validated everything that needed validation, learned a few things along the way, and started to realize where I went wrong on my first attempt. I spent time going through my self-challenges, working on speed. I spent time troubleshooting unusual issues, and determining the best and quickest ways to identify and resolve. My last few weeks up to the lab date were mostly spent on deep excursions to niche topics, and reviewing all of my notes.
From my first attempt, I learned to read carefully, but quickly. If I couldn’t figure something out in a few minutes I would make a note of it and come back to it later. I learned that you may be asked to configure things in unusual ways that you have probably never done, making simple tasks now more challenging since you start questioning yourself. We get used to doing things certain ways, and as an expert we strive for perfection. Just remember the basics when asked to do something that you would actually never do in real life.
Lab Day #2
This time around the testing center was familiar, and I was able to manage my stress quite a bit better than the first visit. I took the same approach with only reading and completing a section at a time. However, this time around instead of going straight to the CLI with each task, I decided to do many of the tasks in notepad first. I’d type up a config, and if something similar had to be done on another device (e.g. vPC) then I would duplicate the config in notepad, make minor change and when ready, paste into each switch. I feel I was able to save a significant amount of time by taking this approach. I completely finished my lab with full review 2 hours early, and left feeling confident as I possibly could.
Again I took extensive notes afterwards, and regretfully marked a couple of items that I was still not 100% sure I completed as Cisco expected them to be completed. Maybe its just me, but sometimes you just don’t know exactly what they’re looking for or where they will discount you points. It is quite unsettling.
I got my results only a few hours later, and with great privilege, I passed the CCIE Data Center Lab on December 10th, 2014! It was a long and arduous journey, with bumps along the way, but in the end I learned a ton about Data Center technologies, and quite a bit about myself as well.
Read these end-to-end:
NX-OS and Cisco Nexus Switching: Next-Generation Data Center Architectures, 2nd Edition
Data Center Virtualization Fundamentals: Understanding Techniques and Designs for Highly Efficient Data Centers with Cisco Nexus, UCS, MDS, and Beyond
Read everything related to Data Center on these fine blogs. Much props to these great contributors; my hat is off.
Recommended Study Group:
CCIE Data Center Study Group – Cisco Learning Network
Recommended Study Links:
My buddy put together a freaking awesome page dedicated to study links for CCIE Data Center, I recommend you bookmark this page and go through these guides: