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A deep-dive explanation of Cisco's CCNA certification

Cisco Certified Network Associate is an associate-level certification designed to demonstrate that a candidate understands the fundamentals of networking.
Chuck Robbins (CEO - Cisco)

Chuck Robbins (CEO - Cisco)

The CCNA, which stands for Cisco Certified Network Associate, is Cisco's foundational certification for networking professionals.

The CCNA is a commonly required prerequisite for associate-level networking jobs such as network engineer, network administrator, network support technician or help desk technician. There used to be 10 CCNA concentrations, specific to cloud, collaboration, security, data centres, wireless, and other areas. Then, in February of 2020, Cisco combined all of its foundational networking certifications into one comprehensive CCNA certification.

Why do you need a CCNA?

According to a Robert Half survey of more than 3,000 senior managers, the CCNA is one of the top 15 technology certifications that companies seek. And it serves as the starting point for two other Cisco entries on the list of in-demand IT certifications: Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE).

"Having a CCNA shows the candidate has the aptitude to learn, and also the aggressiveness to go after a goal," says Rob Parsons, practice director for network integrated security at Tempe, Arizona-based Insight, a consulting firm that regularly hires networking professionals.

That doesn't mean that candidates without a CCNA will never be considered, he says.

"We do measure on the merits of the individual," Parsons says. "If they have the work experience but not the certification, we would occasionally look at someone without the certification. But we are a large consulting company, and when we are consulting in the field, clients like to see the credentials behind the individuals."

The CCNA is just the starting point, he adds. "A lot of the folks that I hire on my team are pretty high-level individuals – pretty much all of them hold a CCNP," he says. The CCNP is the next certification after the CCNA. "But odds are the CCNA was their first certification when they started."

What it takes to get started with the CCNA

There are no formal prerequisites for getting the CCNA accreditation. But according to Cisco, CCNA candidates often have one or more years of experience implementing and administering Cisco solutions and knowledge of basic IP addressing. Cisco says its CCNA certification is designed to validate a person's skills and knowledge in network fundamentals, network access, IP connectivity, IP services, security fundamentals, and automation and programmability. 

"I was first exposed to it as a senior in high school in the late 90s," says Jon Gorenflo, an instructor at cyber security research and training organisation SANS Institute as well as founder and principal consultant at Fundamental Security. "I had the chance to do the Cisco Academy during study hall, as a pilot student. It really laid the foundation for the rest of my career."

What he learned in preparing for the CCNA exam was as valuable as the college courses he took later. "Or more valuable," Gorenflo adds. "It's not only the foundational knowledge to understand how networks actually work but also the practical skills that you can apply to jobs."

And while some of the material is specific to Cisco hardware, most of the knowledge is common to all vendors, he says. "The way you configure a Cisco router may be slightly different from how another vendor does it," Gorenflo says. "But when you understand the technology behind it, you just learn someone else's command set and then apply the same concepts."

What does the CCNA cover?

The CCNA covers three major topics: networking, security, and automation. Cisco offers general guidelines for content likely to be included in the CCNA exam.

Questions related to network fundamentals might require candidates to explain the role and function of network components, for example, and describe the characteristics of different network topology architectures. To demonstrate an understanding of network access, test-takers might be required to configure and verify VLANs, or to configure the components of a wireless LAN access for client connectivity.

Sections on security fundamentals include issues such as: defining key security concepts; configuring device access control using local passwords; configuring Layer 2 security features such as DHCP snooping, dynamic ARP inspection, and port security; and configuring and verifying access control lists.

To demonstrate knowledge of automation and programmability, candidates should be able to compare traditional networks with controller-based networking, for example. Questions might ask test-takers to describe the characteristics of REST-based APIs, and to recognise the capabilities of configuration management mechanisms Puppet, Chef, and Ansible.

When do people usually get the CCNA?

Technology professionals can get the CCNA at any point in their careers, says Goreflo. They could still be in college or have recently graduated, have started on their careers, or may be working in other areas of technology and be interested in switching to networking. "I don't think there's a wrong time," he says. It can help someone enter a career, change careers, or accelerate their career progression, he says.

How do you prepare for the CCNA?

According to Insight's Parsons, it can take anywhere from a month to six months to prepare for the CCNA exam, depending on the level of experience and how intensively someone studies.

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There are also intensive bootcamps, he says, for someone who is 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the way there because they've already been working in the space and have on-the-job knowledge. 

"Typical bootcamps are a week long," Parsons says. "But if someone is starting from scratch, they probably need to find a longer program."

For those who prefer the self-study route, Cisco publishes official study materials through its Cisco Press online store. For example, there's the "31 Days Before Your CCNA Exam: A Day-By-Day Review Guide for the CCNA 200-301 Certification Exam," which costs US$40 (US$26 for the ebook version).

Cisco also offers an online exam review, with around 300 questions and 15 lab exercises, that costs US$79.

Cisco also offers an official course, led by an instructor, taught both in-person or virtually, called "Implementing and Administering Cisco Solutions," which costs US$800. The course has five days of classroom instruction and three days of self-study, or the virtual equivalent. According to Cisco, the only prerequisites for the course are basic computer literacy, basic Internet skills, and basic IP address knowledge.

Training classes and study materials are also available outside of Cisco from hundreds of other companies. For example, Udemy currently offers CCNA practice exams for US$30. And the highly-rated, self-paced Udemy CCNA course is just US$20. It's been taken by more than 120,000 people, with over 17,000 ratings averaging 4.6 stars.

There are no official prerequisites to taking the CCNA exam – or the study courses – but in general, test takers typically have a year or more experience with Cisco products and understand the basic ideas behind networking and IP addresses.

To find out if you're ready, Cisco offers some free practice questions.

How do you take the exam and how much does it cost?

The testing for the CCNA is handled by testing company Pearson. The CCNA exam is called "200-301 CCNA" and costs US$300. The tests are proctored, and can be taken either in-person, at a physical location, or online.

What's next after getting a CCNA?

Technology is changing at an exponential pace, and networking in particular is currently undergoing a major transformation, says Carl Fugate, managing enterprise architect at Capgemini's North American Cloud and Edge Center of Excellence. "The tools and platforms that are coming to market are fundamentally changing the way that we think about implanting and managing networks," he says.

That means that networking professionals have to continually invest in learning. For example, Fugate says, early in his career he held a CCNA, but today's that's not enough. "Networking today has become so broad that it really requires you to specialise in certain areas."

Cisco offers a number of higher-level certifications.

The Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) comes next after the CCNA. There are a handful of specialisation options at this level, including CCNP Enterprise, CCNP Security, CCNP Data Center, CCNP Collaboration and CCNP Service Provider. Before 2020, there were eight different certifications at this level, but Cisco consolidated the CCDP, CCNP Routing and Switching, and CCNP Wireless certifications into one CCNP Enterprise certification last year.

The average salary for someone in the US with a CCNP certification is US$96,552, according to Payscale, about US$15,000 more than with a CCNA certification alone.

After CCNP comes the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE). There are six specialisations here: CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure, CCIE Enterprise Wireless, CCIE Collaboration, CCIE Data Center, CCIE Security, and CCIE Service Provider.

It's basically the same set of certifications as prior to 2020, except that CCIE Routing and Switching is now CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure and CCIE Wireless is now CCIE Enterprise Wireless.

The average salary for someone in the US with a CCIE certification is US$128,410, according to Payscale.

What are the alternatives to the CCNA?

Competing vendors also offer their own networking certifications. Juniper Networks offers its Certified Internet Specialist (JNCIS) certifications, for example, and VMware offers five certification tracks related to data centre virtualisation, network virtualisation, cloud management and automation, desktop and mobility, and digital workspace. There are also vendor-neutral certificates such as CompTIA's the Network+ certificate.

According to Fugate, professionals should also consider cloud certifications. Most of the major cloud providers offer cloud certifications for their platforms. AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional and Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architect are two popular examples.

"Networking expertise is needed more than ever with the shift to cloud," Fugate says.