The Five Best Cisco Certs for Networking Newcomers

Network engineer futzing with wires

"I just completed my degree in computer science and Ineed a networking certification to start my network admin career. But which one do I choose?" These kinds of questions are always asked by networking newcomers. They want a solid starting point from which to land a good job that can enrich their experience and for sure achieve a monetary return.


The starting point for a network administration career has always been certifications. A good networking certification contains most of the knowledge that administrators rely on in handling day-to-day networking operations.


While certification itself isn't the goal, it is a useful tool to help IT professionals gain the required knowledge. Certification is a proven way of validating a candidate's IT skills and knowledge and a great way to match them to specific jobs.


It is important, however, to select the right certification program to match your career goals. The effort, time and money spent in achieving a certification are finite and valuable and should be directed toward certifications that best match career objectives. In this article I'll try to clear things up for networking newcomers, to help them narrow down the choices available to them.


When it comes to networking certifications, Cisco is one of the world's leading providers. In fact, Cisco is probably the vendor of choice among all networking certification programs. Cisco certs range from entry to expert-level and cover a number of different technologies.


Although vendor-specific, Cisco certs are widely valued because of the huge amount of vendor-neutral knowledge they contain. Such general knowledge is readily applicable to the technologies of a great many networking providers.


Rather than just settling on one cert, I encourage candidates to achieve a mix of certifications from the list below. In my opinion, it's advisable to diversify knowledge at the entry levels and then focus more specifically later on at expert levels. Doing it this way gives candidates exposure in different networking fields and enables them to get a better idea of which field is of most interest.


Here are the five most important Cisco networking certs to help IT greenhorns get started:


Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT)


CCENT is an entry-level certification, and a perfect choice for recent graduates or more experienced candidates transitioning into networking. CCENT covers network support skills at the entry level and certifies individuals as network administrators who have the skills and knowledge to develop, implement and maintain small enterprise networks. Doing so, of course, allows them to gain valuable experience that opens doors for career advancement and higher-level certifications.


Current CCENT Exams are 100-101 ICND1 v2.0 or the new one 100-105 ICND1 v3.0. The pre-requisites for this certification are basic PC operations and an understanding of operating systems. The types of jobs for which a CCENT certificate holder qualifies include network technicians, engineers and administrators and systems engineer. CCENT is also a great stepping-stone to several higher-level Cisco certifications.


Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Routing & Switching


The go-to certification for networking newcomers is still CCNA R&S. Generations of network administrators started their careers with CCNA R&S. Cisco has since diversified the range of CCNA choices and created additional tracks such as wireless, security, datacenter and cloud.


CCNA R&S solidly covers routing and switching concepts and the technologies of network infrastructure components. It includes a neutral discussion of networking technologies as well as Cisco routers and switches operating systems.


With the domination of Cisco in the networking realm, CCNA is a very desirable cert and often the differentiator in deciding which candidate gets the job. Credential holders possess the skills to successfully develop, deploy and manage medium to large enterprise networks.


To achieve CCNA R&S, candidates can build on their CCENT certification and add the ICND2 exam or sit for the CCNA composite exam. Preparing for the CCNA R&S exam is achievable through Cisco-provided training, and "Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices: Accelerated (CCNAX)" or "Interconnecting Cisco Networking Devices" Part 1 and Part 2.


Due to the popularity and demand for the CCNA R&S certificate, there are a large number of available online resources, both paid and free, including forums and study groups, to help candidates prepare.


Network guy in a forest of wires

Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Data Center


A relatively new cert, CCNA emerged from the evolution of the original CCNA into more specific tracks. Rather than WAN and Internet connectivity, CCNA Data Center focuses on the network equipment inside of a data center.


Two exams are required to achieve certification: DCICN and DCICT. The exams cover networking concepts for data center environments and data center technologies including network and server virtualization and storage. This specialization in certification tracks was introduced to match job specialization and focus on specific sets of technologies and tasks of network infrastructure.


With today's high interest in reliable data centers, data center network administrators are in demand. For networking newcomers looking to build your skillset and increase the odds of landing a great starting-position, CCNA Data Center is the way to go.


Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA)


While CCNA certifications focus on the operation of network infrastructures, CCDA focuses on the design of highly available and scalable networks. This certification is very much recommended for IT professionals who get excited about putting together the pieces required for a network design that will meet an organization's demand for a flexible and robust network. Companies place great value on network design engineers for their skills at both designing new network infrastructures and expanding current ones.


Earning a CCDA cert requires passing Cisco's DESGN exam, which covers designing enterprise network infrastructures including routing and switching technologies, protocols and devices. A CCDA also opens the door to the CCDP certification that focuses on more advanced routing and switching technologies and complex network infrastructures.


Mixing CCDA with other CCNA certifications is a great option for networking newcomers to enrich their skills which is why Cisco puts a valid CCENT or a valid CCNA Routing and Switching or any CCIE certification as a pre-requisite for CCDA certification.


Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Cloud


This is a very solid certification for networking newcomers entering a rapidly growing job market. With the IT industry rapidly moving systems to the Cloud, there is an increasing interest in network engineers who possess strong skills and knowledge of cloud operations.


CCNA Cloud exposes network engineers to cloud infrastructure and trains them in cloud solutions. As cloud usage continues to expand, the demand for CCNAs will increase.


Although there are no pre-requisites to this cert, Cisco strongly recommends that candidates have a basic understanding of network technologies and protocols. Certification requires passing two exams, CLDFND and CLDADM. Both exams offer a robust coverage of Cloud Fundamentals as well as Cisco cloud products.


The era of cloud computing is opening a lot of opportunities for Cisco credentialed professionals. There has never been a better time to earn a Cisco networking certification. It will make a difference in your career and your life.


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About the Author
Ahmed Badr

Ahmed Badr is a network consultant with more than 10 years of experience designing, implementing and operating large scale network infrastructures. He holds a BSc in Communications and one in Electronics Engineering, and a Master of Business Administration. He also holds a CCIE certificate in Routing and Switching since 2008. Ahmed can be contacted at: