Everything You Need to Know to Get Started in Network Administration
Network infrastructure is a critical component of any IT system. It enables the transportation of data between different components in the system, as well as the transfer of data between the user and the system. Opportunity for trained network administrators abounds.
Recently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted job growth of 12 percent in network and computer systems by 2022. According to the Certification Magazine annual Salary Survey for 2015, the average salary of a Network+ certified pro is $95,980.
As network technologies have evolved over years, so too have IT networking jobs. Although technology and jobs are continuously changing, however, network engineers still need to have a foundation level understanding in networking to get started in the field. This foundation level of knowledge is the starting point for developing a career in networking.
Whether working on a traditional network of standalone devices or advanced software developed networks, administrators still need to have a basic understanding of how network devices deliver traffic and the different network protocols involved in this process.
What does a network administrator typically do?
A network administrator designs, implements and operates the infrastructure components of a network. Care must be taken that the infrastructure is built and maintained to achieve high availability and reliability. This is important because the performance of the network directly impacts the performance of the whole IT system.
The responsibilities of a network administrator vary according to the size of an organization. In mid-sized and large organizations, administrators are likely to be responsible primarily for the network and its components. In smaller organizations, the administrator's responsibilities often extend to supporting users' desktops and servers as well.
Becoming a network administrator
You will need to develop a solid background in computer systems to understand how an IT system operates in general. A degree in computer science is one way to obtain a strong knowledge of computer systems — but it's not the only way. Many successful network administrators lack a formal computer science degree, and some come from non-IT backgrounds as well.
If you are considering a career in network administration, then a computer degree is a great way to start. If you are shifting careers, or not interested in pursuing a formal degree, however, then there are still many resources on the internet that can help you develop the required technology background to shift to a networking career.
Get a Certification
After you've built a foundation in computer systems, it is time to begin building your networking knowledge. As always, the best resource for learning about network technologies is, of course, network certifications.
Certifications are often supported by specific vendors such as Cisco, Juniper and Huawei, among others. Vendor-specific certifications deal primarily with software and hardware from a particular supporting vendor organization.
Other certifications are vendor-neutral, such as CompTIA. A vendor-neutral certification, as defined by Margaret Rouse of TechTarget, is "a business and design approach that seeks to ensure broad compatibility and interchangeability of products and technologies. The model encompasses non-proprietary design principles and unbiased business practices."
Many certifications are also categorized into different levels according to the depth of knowledge they cover: typically beginner, intermediate and expert, with different naming conventions according to different certification vendors. Candidates typically progress from the beginning levels to the more advanced levels.
If you are considering a networking career, here are five recommended certifications that will give you the basic knowledge and skills needed:
Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)
Generations of network administrators have entered the field by starting with the CCNA certification. A CCNA provides a great foundation for network administration.
Some people think that CCNA certification got its popularity solely from the popularity of Cisco devices in network infrastructure around the globe — and it's certainly true that there are a lot of Cisco devices in use. Others say that Cisco networking devices became wildly popular because Cisco developed the skills of many network administrators via their certification programs, which in turn led to a widespread deployment of Cisco devices. There is truth in both opinions.
Although the CCNA is vendor-specific (Cisco), it covers concepts applicable to any networking equipment. Another attractive benefit to the CCNA is the availability of study resources and the sheer number of CCNA certified administrators who form a broad learning community.
The CCNA certification has evolved over time and Cisco now offers nine different Associate level certificates for administrators to choose from. Cisco also offers CCNP and CCIE certifications targeting professional and expert level professionals respectively that are considered the natural next step after CCNA.
CompTIA is a global leader in providing vendor-neutral IT certifications. Worldwide, there are more than one million A+ certified individuals. A+ certification focuses on hardware and software technologies in widespread use today.
This certification will provide the knowledge required to support basic IT infrastructure components, and covers computer-related tasks such as software and hardware maintenance, as well as fundamental networking and networking security skills. While A+ doesn't primarily focus on networking, it is a useful certification to start with and build upon.
This is another vendor-neutral, entry-level networking certification that is widely recognized. Network+ certification equips an aspiring network administrator with the basic skills required to design, configure and troubleshoot wired and wireless network infrastructures.
Certified individuals will possess the requisite level of knowledge to administer network infrastructures containing devices from different vendors when running day-to-day operations.
Juniper Networks Certified Associate: Junos (JNCIA-Junos)
JNCIA certification is offered by Juniper to train network administrators on network concepts and Juniper devices. The certification is a favorite among network administrators because of its solid and broad knowledge base.
Certification covers network fundamentals, Junos (Juniper devices Operating System) OS fundamentals, Juniper devices configuration, Routing fundamentals and troubleshooting best practices. As an entry-level certification, JNCIA doesn't have any prerequisite credentials. A general background in computer systems is enough to start studying for JNCIA.
Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) Networking Fundamentals
Microsoft's MTA certification covers the fundamentals of networking in a comprehensive manner. Certified individuals possess the skills and knowledge needed to support network infrastructures that specifically include Microsoft's products. This certification has no pre-requisite and it covers network hardware as well as protocols and services.
Now that you have a foundation in network knowledge and computer systems, and a certification, the next step is to find employment. A key element in the pursuit of a career in computer networking is hands-on experience. Such experience comes only from dealing with network devices in real-world day-to-day operational situations.
The key point to highlight here is that your first job will probably not be a long-term position. It's important to land a job as soon as you can, even if it's not the perfect one that you dreamed of. Gaining real-world experience will definitely lead to bigger and better employment opportunities.
Maintain networking skills
Technology changes rapidly. What was cutting-edge today may be obsolete tomorrow. Network administrators have to stay up-to-date with evolving trends and new technologies — not just in the networking field, but across the IT industry as well.
Network administration is a competitive field. Keeping your skills sharp will keep you ahead of the competition and increase the likelihood of landing better jobs and higher salaries.