Darril Gibson, certified technical trainer and best-selling author of IT study guides, lays out a rock-solid IT certification path to begin or advance your career as a network administrator.
Aspiring IT professionals frequently ask me questions like “How can I get into an IT job?” and “What is the best IT certification path for a network administrator?” Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer because there are so many variables, such as how much knowledge you start with and what type of jobs are available where you live.
However, if you are focused on landing an IT job and you‘re willing to take the time to master the materials, you can earn several certifications that will make you highly desirable as a network administrator, one of the industry’s most essential and opportunity-rich positions. Learn the material, earn the certifications, and you’ll have an opportunity to shine at network administration job interviews.
First, what is a network administrator? Most people define a network administrator as someone that maintains hardware and software on a computer network. In a large organization, the network administrator is a mid-level IT worker focused primarily on maintaining networking components. However, in smaller organizations, the network administrator is also responsible for desktop support for end-users, maintaining servers, and managing any other devices connected to the network.
In this article, I've divided the network administrator certification track into three categories:
- Foundation certifications: These CompTIA certifications are vendor-neutral and provide a solid knowledge base for any path to becoming a network administrator.
- Cisco certifications: These credentials are valuable for administrators that manage Cisco’s widely-used network devices, such as routers and switches.
- Microsoft certifications: These certificates are key for administrators that provide network administration services at both the desktop and server level.
People commonly want to know how long it’ll take to complete these certifications so I've given some common study time estimates. These guidelines assume you have a job but you’re still able to study regularly to master the concepts. Someone that is unemployed and spending 12 hours a day studying can complete these certifications much quicker. In contrast, someone with a full time job that regularly requires overtime might need more time.
CompTIA Certifications | The Foundation
Many people begin their IT certification path with CompTIA certifications. CompTIA has been in existence for more than 30 years and has certified hundreds of thousands of people in a range of essential disciplines. CompTIA’s core credentials are A+, Network+ and Security+; this trio of certifications represent a globally recognized foundation of IT knowledge.
The CompTIA A+ certification is considered a starting point by many people in the IT field, as it demands no prerequisites, and introduces candidates to a range of fundamental hardware and software disciplines, including PC repair, software and operating systems, desktop support, networking and cyber security. The A+ curriculum even covers basic interpersonal communication skills - a key attribute for enduring success the IT workforce.
The CompTIA Network+ certification builds on the knowledge from the A+ certification with a focus on networking topics, such as network installation, administration, troubleshooting and security. Candidates are recommended to have an A+ certification or equivalent knowledge, and at least nine months of experience in IT networking.
- Network+ study time: 45 days, after passing both A+ exams
CompTIA's Security+ is an entry-level security certification that is considered the minimum amount of security knowledge required by network administrators. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense requires administrators to be at least Security+ certified before they are granted administrative rights on a DoD network. Security+ certification validates your skills in topics like network security, threat assessment, cryptography and cyber incident response.
As with other CompTIA certifications, you can attend a class to master the objectives in the exam or self-study. The popular CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-301 Study Guide has been used by many people to pass the Security+ certification the first time they take it.
- Security+ study time: 45 days, after passing Network+ exam
A Fork in the Road
After completing the A+, Network+, and Security+ certifications you have a decision to make. Do you want to pursue a Cisco path or a Microsoft path? Both paths are proprietary and there isn't much crossover between the two so it will be very difficult if you decide to pursue both at the same time.
In many cases, an employer lets you know what is valuable to the company and this is often the deciding factor. In other cases, people just enjoy working with operating systems more than networking devices or vice versa (by the time you finish the CompTIA certifications you should know your preference). As the old saying goes, ’Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’
Of course there are exceptions and there’s no reason you can’t pursue both paths. If this is your choice, the early Cisco certifications such as the CCENT and CCNA R&S are the logical next step. The CompTIA Network+ lays a good foundation for both. After completing the CCNA R&S you can turn your attention to Microsoft certifications.
Cisco certifications are focused on the popular networking and telecommunications products from Cisco Systems, but they also provide a significant amount of knowledge related to networking in general. Three Cisco certifications that a network administrator should pursue are:
- Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician (CCENT)
- Cisco Certified Network Associate Routing and Switching (CCNA R&S)
- Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
You can earn the CCENT certification by passing the Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices 1 (ICND1) exam. This certificate covers the basics of network administration, and is primarily taken as a stepping stone toward the CCNA certification. CCENT also covers many of the generic networking topics covered in CompTIA’s Network+ exam.
A common question people have is “Should I get the CCENT instead of the Network+?” There isn't a simple answer to this question. The Network+ provides a solid foundation of basic concepts such as networking theory and protocols, and many people find that the CCNA exam is much easier to pass if they've already mastered the Network+ material. Network+ is also a prerequisite for other vendors’ certifications you may want to pursue in the future.
- CCENT study time: 45 days after Network+ | 60 days without Network+
CCNA Routing & Switching
You earn the CCNA R&S certification after passing the CCNA composite exam, or by passing the ICND1 (which you already passed if you earned CCENT) and ICND2 exams. The CCNA composite exam can be quite challenging and it’s very common for people to take it as two separate exams instead of just one.
CCNA certification builds upon the general skills you learned during Network+ exam prep with proprietary topics, such how to install, monitor and troubleshoot Cisco devices. Most candidates spend a lot of hands-on time with Cisco equipment, or with lab simulators. Through its training partners, Cisco offers a range of campus-based and online CCNA training programs where you can gain hands-on experience using the latest Cisco devices.
[ Read about Cisco’s redesign of “CCNA” to “CCNA Routing & Switching” ]
After completing the CCNA certification, there are many specialized Cisco certifications network administrators can pursue depending on their goals and interests. Specializations include network security, voice, and wireless topics.
- CCNA study time: 3 months, after passing CCENT
The CCNP is an advanced Cisco certification and includes complex topics on security, voice, wireless, and video solutions within both local (LAN) and wide area networks (WAN). Once you’re CCNA certified, you must pass three additional exams to earn the CCNP:
- 642-902 ROUTE - Implementing Cisco IP Routing
- 642-813 SWITCH - Implementing Cisco IP Switched Networks
- 642-832 TSHOOT - Troubleshooting and Maintaining Cisco IP Networks
It’s common for people pursuing the CCNP through self-study to buy routers and switches to build their own lab.
- CCNP study time: 6 months (about 2 months per exam), after passing CCNA
The mass majority of computers used within organizations run Microsoft operating systems. With this in mind, knowledge of Microsoft technologies is vital. Earning the latest Microsoft certifications is the best way to prove this knowledge to employers.
As a general rule, plan to study about 60 days for any Microsoft certification exam. This assumes you have a solid IT knowledge base and meet the prerequisites for the exam.
People that self-study Microsoft certifications commonly use virtualization to create entire practice networks. If you have a powerful PC with plenty of RAM, you can easily set up a virtual environment with one or more virtual servers and one or more virtual desktop systems. For those who prefer to learn in a classroom (or virtual classroom) environment, there is a variety of instructor-led Microsoft training programs.
The Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) group of certifications provide a foundation for Microsoft technicians. This group includes several certifications that a network administrator should consider:
The MCSA: Windows 7 certification (previously known as MCITP: Enterprise Desktop Support Technician) validates the skills to configure and maintain Windows 7 computers in a business environment. This certificate requires two exams:
- 70-680 | Windows 7 Configuring
- 70-685 | Windows 7, Enterprise Desktop Support Technician
The MCSA: Windows 8 validates the expertise to setup, manage & support Windows 8 PCs, and includes two exams:
- 70-687 | Configuring Windows 8
- 70-688 | Managing and Maintaining Windows 8
Microsoft’s mobile-friendly Windows 8 OS isn’t being adopted as quickly as the tech giant would like. Many organizations are sticking with Windows 7 so this certification is still preferred in many circles. An interesting article in Forbes suggests Windows 8 adoption may pick up around 2014, as the BYOD (bring your own device) trend gains steam in corporate culture.
The MCSA: Windows Server 2012 certification proves you can install, setup and manage Microsoft Windows Server solutions in an enterprise environment, and has three exams:
- 70-410 | Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012
- 70-411 | Administering Windows Server 2012
- 70-412 | Configuring Advanced Windows Server 2012 Services
After becoming MCSA certified, there are many specialized Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) certifications you can pursue. For example, the MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure and the MCSE Server Infrastructure credentials apply directly to network administrator job roles.
The MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure certification proves that you can securely deploy and maintain desktop PCs. This credential includes two additional exams beyond the three tests required for MCSA: Windows Server 2012:
- 70-415 | Implementing a Desktop Infrastructure
- 70-416 | Implementing Desktop Application Environments
The MCSE: Server Infrastructure certification validates your ability to run physical and virtual servers – a sought-after skill in modern enterprise environments – and includes two more exams beyond the MCSA: Windows Server 2012:
- 70-413 | Designing and Implementing a Server Infrastructure
- 70-414 | Implementing an Advanced Server Infrastructure
If you plan on pursuing a job as a network administrator, it’s best to lay a solid foundation with CompTIA's A+, Network+ and Security+ certifications. With a little dedication, you can obtain these three credentials in about six months.
Next, decide on a Cisco or a Microsoft path. If you plan on working with Cisco devices, you can follow up with the Cisco CCENT and CCNA certifications, and should be able to get them within five to six months, followed by three more exams for the CCNP in another six months.
If you want to work with Microsoft products, the MCSA certifications are the logical place to start and you can typically get certified within four to six months, depending on which certificates you pursue. If you obtain the MCSA: Windows Server 2012 certification, you can follow it with two additional exams to earn one of the MCSE certifications. Each MCSE will take about four more months.
The ideal certification track of a network administrator is not set in stone, however the learning plan laid out above will help you build a well-rounded and highly marketable skill set, and prepare you to perform in the majority of network administration positions. Good luck!