Taking the CCIE Datacenter Lab Exam

As I’m writing this post, I am still high on the drug that is called a passing grade. After 10 months of studying the blueprint and putting in hundreds of hours reading through the configuration guides, building topologies (just to tear them down and start over when you’re done), one failed attempt in May, dreaming about all things Cisco UCS, Nexus (physical and virtual) and MDS..I can finally say that I got my CCIE on Datacenter: number 44460 (an easy one to remember too!).

Stating the obvious is usually not my thing, but this time I’ll make an exception: Preparation is key.

Preparation
Plan your preparation, plan it, plan the shit out of it. Of course you can’t plan any unforeseen stuff, like if your understanding of certain subjects isn’t coming along like you’ve hoped. Make a chart, a schedule, an Excel sheet (like I did), make something you can look at to see where you’re at.

If you’re starting fresh and also need to do the written exam, make two plans. One for the written exam and one for the lab exam. Reason: the written exam is mostly the theory around the subjects and you don’t need to know all the configuration options by heart.

Equipment & Lab time
The list of equipment that is on the blueprint is pretty hard to come by. Jeffrey Fry calculated it once to be almost 1,2 million USD (list price).

If you’re lucky, like me, your CCO account is linked to a Cisco partner. In that case you have access to Cisco PEC, which is a goldmine for test equipment. It has all the CCIE DC technologies covered.

If you’re not lucky, you’ll need to go outside for lab time. Rack rental companies like INE and iPexpert have pretty much no vacancy. There is limited access to the base configuration (2x N7K VDCs, 2x N5K), but if you want any time on UCS or MDS, you’re going to have to schedule time very far ahead and do that by approaching the respective rack rental company.

There are several options to get a cheap lab going; get a MDS 9216i switch with a DS-x9124 module and a Nexus 5010. A Nexus 7K or UCS is going to a bit harder to come by cheap, but you can emulate if needed.

Take a Bootcamp
I took a bootcamp with INE and it has probably made the difference. During this 2 week bootcamp, you get full access to the lab equipment, which is quite a lot. Two weeks of unfettered access to a full scale lab is priceless.

Next to the equipment, you also get access to one of INE’s excellent instructors. In my case it was Mike Snow, basically a Jedi on datacenter, networking, collaboration and a lot more. The bootcamp was lined with theoretic refreshers, smart and energetic discussions and a lot of lab time. Basically two weeks of complete focus on refreshing theory and refining your configuration skills.

INE also supplies you with an excellent workbook that has a scope of tasks throughout the entire datacenter blueprint.

The Week Before
At least a week before your lab, go offline. I took a week, but that could be longer if you need. Go completely dark, no email, no phone, no work. Focus completely on your lab and your preparation. In this week, I had a dedicated lab to my disposal to log about 10 to 12 hours a day on. This week is to practice, look over your notes, practice, reread a few configuration guides, practice and practice some more.

Don’t overwork yourself though, a restday is required every once and a while.

The Day itself
My day was a Monday and in Brussels. I live about 1,5 hours drive away from Brussels, so I decided to drive. Wanting to get as much as sleep as possible and fresh start on Monday, I decided to drive up Sunday, stay the night at the NH Hotel and walk (a few 100 meters) fresh to the Cisco building.

They start at 8:00, which is very favourable compared to the 7:00 of RTP in North Carolina. The proctors in Brussels run an almost military precision operation and have managed to run the schedule with 1 minute offset while I was there.

The proctor was very helpful, in the way that they should be. Ask precision questions that don’t require them to divulge anything that relates to actual answers, but questions related to the environment and questions that have a yes or no answer, they will be very helpful. Any open questions that you ask, are a waste of your time as they won’t give you the answer you’re looking for; you’re supposed to know the answer yourself.

The lab itself isn’t that hard, it’s just a lot to get through. You need to be prepared to go to war and make every second count. Remember, your skills as an expert should not be limited to technical skills, they should also include stamina, stress management, keeping the global overview and time management. In marketing terms; Cisco is testing you as a complete package.

Making a chart for points and time management did me wonders, I could simply add up the points of tasks I completed and was sure that was finished correctly, add them up and see how I was doing overall. The same chart also had a checklist for all tasks that I used to check all configuration three times. Only after checking all the boxes three times, I was confident with my performance and ended the exam.

Despite that I was fairly confident about the lab, I still was fairly nervous while driving home. Having heard stories about Cisco taking 12 to 24 hours to grade your lab and notify candidates, I was not looking forward to the next hours. After spending 1,5 hour in the car, slowly starting to second guess myself trying to remember if I did certain things correctly (remember, after I checked everything three times), I got home and started a game console just to try to take my mind off it all.

To my surprise, I didn’t have to waste a lot of time, Cisco sent me an email at 18:03. For some reason, my first thought was “fast isn’t good, I failed”. After a few minutes of calming myself I logged in the to Cisco website and saw the awesome news: Your CCIE status is Certified ( CCIE# 44460 )

Reflection
After a few hours of complete bliss, reflection came. Going for an expert level certification is a challenging road. You have so much material to go through, theory to cram in your head, train your muscle memory with standard configurations and keep it all orderly inside your head.

Going through this process has thought me a lot, push and break boundaries, open doors, expand horizons when it all comes together and overall made me a better technologist in the broadest sense. There have been a lot of speculation around the value of these certifications, but for me, it was worth it all the way.

If you’ve come this far, thank you for reading this long post, it’s been a great ride which I needed to get on paper.



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5 Comments

  1. Do they provide you the physical topology of the CCIE DATA CENTER LAB EXAM?

    • Martijn

      December 20, 2014 at 11:17

      They will tell you in whatever form, how the topology is built, or how you should build it. Don’t worry about semantics like this, worry about knowing on how to configure the blueprint items without looking it up. Good luck!

  2. Dear Martijn,

    Can we emulate the whole CCIE DC rack(as mentioned in Cisco’s Blueprint) in home using virtualization (VMWare Workstation, vCenter, vSphere, vMWare ESXi etc) as we can for R&S and SP. If yes then please guide on how to do it.

    Regards.

    • Martijn

      January 14, 2015 at 23:02

      Hi Nusrat. Unfortunately emulating the whole CCIE DC rack is not possible. UCS has an emulator, Nexus has an emulator, MDS does not have an emulator, but there’s no way to connect everything together like it should be connected. There are also features that are tested on that cannot be emulated (vPC, VDC, bunch of others). The Nexus 1000v can obviously run fully virtual.

      I only used the UCS emulator and 1000v to test everything for that product, but only used Nexus emulator for general configuration practicing. I have the good luck to work at an integrator with a testlab, so that I have access to Nexus 7k, 5k, 9k, 3k, 2k, MDS, UCS and a VMware environment. Next to that, Cisco Goldlabs are golden for lab time.

      You’re going to have to get access to physical equipment one way or the other.

  3. great post and help for my studies and give confidence and validation.

    thank you.
    Mohan

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