CCDE Breakdown, crucial knowledge

The Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) programme has been running since 2007 with approx. 300 certified individuals to date. In comparison, the CCIE programme which has been running since 1993 now has numbers exceeding 50K. Does this mean the CCDE certification is not as desirable or is considerably harder to achieve than the CCIE? The answer is “no” on both counts. It is a highly desirable certification within the design community (especially as it is vendor agnostic) but there are clearly only a very limited number of candidates who are able to demonstrate that they possess the qualities that Cisco is stipulating in order to pass the practical examination. CCIE exams are mature and very specific within each track, you are openly informed which equipment and code you will be presented with and have a wealth of training material available to purchase with very specific blueprints to follow, the exam questions are also well defined and you have the ability to double check your tasks to validate your success as you progress through the exam (configure X in order to achieve Y etc.). In contrast, the CCDE is testing candidates on real world experience from a Service Provider & Enterprise perspective based on constraints and requirements presented within the exam, it’s real world (What technology should customer X choose in order to satisfy Y?). As you can most likely tell this is not something in which you can purely just read up on or “lab out” in order to be successful.

What do you do if you only have experience working in the Service Provider field and you are met with an enterprise scenario in the exam? You need to find out where your weak areas are and how to improve them otherwise you will not be successful in your quest for the CCDE qualification. One of the biggest problems is not knowing what you don’t know so go through the titles available in the essential reading list within this site.

The programme and exam is 1st class, you wouldn’t have seen anything like it previously and both are a credit to the creators. It was developed by the likes of Russ White and Bruce Pinsky who have both been role models in my career and certification quest, both are gurus and having met them a number of times I can tell you they are very nice chaps to boot. The certification was developed as it became more and more apparent to Cisco that even though they had been fundamental in assisting TAC by creating the CCIE programme in order to implement and troubleshoot networks successfully they actually didn’t have an expert level of designers to ensure that networks were designed correctly from the outset. Can a network scale, where is the fault domain, is modularity required? – get these things right from the offset and you may not need a team of CCIEs with TAC as a backup just to keep the network running on a day to day basis J.

Cisco state “The Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) is for expert-level network design engineers, expert-level network leads of IT infrastructure teams, and expert-level network leads of architecture teams working in job roles that require them to translate business needs, budget, and operational constraints into the design of a converged solution. The CCDE curriculum prepares designers to develop design solutions at the infrastructure level for large customer networks. Network engineers holding an active CCDE certification are recognized for their expert-level knowledge and skills in network infrastructure design. The deep technical networking knowledge that a CCDE brings ensures that they are well qualified to address the most technically challenging network infrastructure design assignments”.

You need to be “T” shaped in order to be successful with the CCDE certification, in this I mean you should be operating currently as an IT Architect and have a wide breadth of IT knowledge horizontally (high level and broad covering many disciplines and fields including some business acumen) and depth of knowledge vertically (low level and specialized in a particular field – Layer 3 is a must), this is opposed to an IT Specialist (CCIE) who would primarily have the vertical knowledge and be an expert in his or her own field. A question that is posed to the CCDE community regularly is “do I need to be a CCIE in order to become a CCDE?” The answer that is generally given is “yes and no” or as Cisco prefer to say “it depends”. Having a CCIE is an advantage but entering the exam with a CCIE mindset is not going to help you attain the CCDE certification, you may focus to closely on small issues and miss the bigger picture of what is being requested from you. Achieving CCDE is really about proving you have had the experience and possess the knowledge and experience / intelligence to operate effectively with multiple constraints (business and technical).

Everyone who I have met who has been studying for or who has passed the CCDE would tell you they have grown considerably in their journey towards CCDE, pass or fail you are going to learn new skills, grow your network and enhance your career.

What’s expected of me in the Practical Exam?

You will need to show you can analyse design requirements based on real-world business scenarios and use this information to develop, implement, validate, and optimize network designs.

You need to be skilled at reading as you will be presented with a significant amount of background information that sets the scene of the scenario, information about the existing network, issues / strategy along with any relevant business information, you will have to find what is actually important from this information which means skimming and taking notes or highlighting specific sections within the documents – points which could ultimately influence a design decision. Time is a big factor due to the quantity of information that grows as the scenario progresses with new information of emails being presented to you, you will need to know what’s relevant to your design decision and where that information is to locate it quickly when required. There could be sections of a network presented within the exam that you are not familiar with, as such you will need to be able to abstract and see any technology you are not familiar with or considered non-core to the syllabus as a “black box” – have a flow or connection to it but don’t concern yourself about the complexity inside.

Over the 8 hour exam you will be presented with 4 separate scenarios (2 before lunch and 2 after lunch) which will each include the following components:

  • Task Domains
  • Job Tasks
  • Technologies

3 scenarios will focus on core module technologies and 1 scenario can be chosen from the following “areas of expertise”

  • On-prem and Cloud Services
  • Workforce Mobility
  • Large-Scale Networks

Task Domains are going to be the main theme of the scenario where you will be performing one of the following:

  • Add Technology / Service – Here you could be adding a new application to an existing network or new technology such as VoIP / wifi etc., you will need to determine what you need to do to support this addition including implementation and how it could affect the existing infrastructure / services.
  • Replace Technology / Service – Here you could be replacing an application or legacy technology currently running in the network, you will need to determine what you need to do to support this replacement including implementation and decommissioning and how it could affect the existing infrastructure / services.
  • Merge / Divest – Here you could be merging or divesting businesses or departments and will need to determine how this can affect the legacy infrastructure and services.
  • Scaling – Here you will need to consider the ability of the network to grow with planned growth levels and organic growth while still functioning correctly, will modularity be required for example?
  • Greenfield – This is generally every architect’s best case scenario, however implementation will need to be planned and you would usually need to consider migrating traffic or applications and how your design will cater for this.
  • Design Failure – Here you are likely to be presented with a sub optimal network that has been designed poorly or has suffered from organic growth and is no longer functioning correctly, your design will need to provide optimization, possibly introduce fault domains, scalability and enhanced manageability, you could be asked to optimize and then re-design a network with all necessary migration steps factored into your implementation plan.

Job Tasks – These are the actual questions you will be presented with, you will need toAnalyse, Design, Implement & deploy, validate & optimize throughout the scenario.

Technologies – These are the technologies you will need to be proficient in so you can make a valid design decision based on requirements and constraints presented to you within the scenario. The blueprint is actually a good place to check which technologies you should be proficient in but ultimately you need to be an expert in Layer 3 protocols, if you know why to use one other another and how they interact you will be in good shape to build from.

Exam Technique

It took me a while to realize but I discovered I couldn’t guarantee I would pass the exam based purely on my technical ability and experience, I have been fortunate enough to work in both Service Provider and Enterprise fields in multiple disciplines but the test engine is quite literally a beast and it takes some strategy to guarantee success. Here are some pointers that helped me.

  • There will be a 2-hour countdown timer for each scenario, you cannot go over 2 hours for a scenario but you can finish early (any saved time cannot be used towards the next scenario). You will have 2 scenarios in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. There are progress bars for each scenario showing you in % how far through the scenario you are. Don’t get preoccupied by the time. It’s going to take approx. 15 minutes per scenario to read the background information and make any relevant notes that could affect your design decisions so it can look like you are running behind initially.
  • You can highlight information in the background information / exhibits using different colors, this can be very useful to highlight specific constraints or information that will undoubtedly influence a design decision, using different colors for different subject areas can be advantageous and speed up locating the information when required. Use the labs in this book to practice pulling out relevant information and have a scheme in mind if you plan to use the highlighter in the exam, blue for constraints, red for security requirements etc.
  • You will be supplied with paper / plastic sheets in which to make notes during the exam, if you don’t want to search through documents for valuable information you may prefer to simply write down relevant facts and have them immediately to hand without searching through multiple documents and re-reading highlighted text for example. These notes can be hard to read though and they will take valuable time to actually write so really try and limit the information you jot down here.
  • As in many Cisco exams you can’t go back in terms of questions (you can check exhibits and emails as often as you like though), you may be presented with some information that states a customer made a specific design decision that may then influence an earlier decision you made, don’t worry if the decision didn’t match your choice as you may have made the right choice even if the customer went in another direction, just carry on with the next question.
  • You will get bombarded with new information such as exhibits or emails, this can be hard to keep track of but you need to read this information as it is crucial and will affect your design decision. Make sure you don’t have any exhibits minimized at the risk of not seeing the contents.
  • Try and stay connected to the scenario, it will shift in direction and technology but you need to stay engaged and look at the bigger picture rather than answer each question in a solitary manner.
  • If you feel you don’t have sufficient information to answer a question then you need to go back and look at your background information / exhibits, it is definitely not a guessing game, you are making informed decisions.
  • Best practice is useful but there may be a reason why you would do something differently in the exam, have best practice in mind but don’t let it completely influence your design decision.
  • You may be asked to fill in tables with missing information, these can be quite daunting, just make sure you only fill in columns that are actually required, the instructions should be quite clear.
  • You may be asked how you would implement a solution or migrate to a new one, if so there will likely be multiple steps involved that you are required to place into a specific order, these can be seen as the hardest questions due to the number of variables but typically there is only one way you can achieve the correct order (or if there are multiple orders for some steps you will be scored successfully regardless of how you sequenced these ones) so practice in these labs and think about how you have delivered projects as part of your role. To break it down to its simplest form just don’t add a step that breaks something before it makes something!
  • There is a comment button and all comments are read by the team, the clock is still ticking though so you need to decide how important that comment is going to be. Exams are very well written and verified so it is very unlikely you will spot an error but if you are confident you have seen an issue it’s worth making a quick comment.
  • Take a break between each scenario unless you are seriously behind, you need to reset and tackle the next scenario as a completely new exam with a clear head.
  • Consider wearing noise suppressing headphones if your testing center has them available so you are not interrupted and can focus.
  • Remember what Russ advises and focus on the “why” rather than “how”.
  • If you go into the exam and tackle it as a CCIE you will be leaving as a CCIE.
  • Don’t leave any questions unanswered.

Scores will be within 48 hours of the exam, pass or fail remember NDA and do not discuss the exam with your study group.

What should I study?

This is a question that is posed to everyone who is successful and they each have a different take on it. If there is one thing you should spend significant time on then I would say Layer 3, you need to know open standard routing protocols inside and out, where one would suitable for a particular application and one wouldn’t, how does it affect the design if you need to modify areas, zones, create failure domains, summarize etc.? Unfortunately there is no single book to read, remember Cisco expect you to be operating as an Architect / Designer and have multiple years of experience but take a look at the essential reading list within this site to get the most relevant titles.

The following list should provide an insight into where you should consider investing your study time.

Ciscolive – Attend the CCDE Tectorial and attempt a lab during the session, search for design sessions and areas of technology that are your weakest and watch the videos to get the best from the sessions (you will always learn more than just by reading the PDFs).

Cisco Press – Look for design based publications, Architecture, everything from Russ White & Definitive MPLS Network Designs is a must due to the way the author presents the networks in a similar manner to how the scenarios in the exam can be presented within background information. CCDv3 practical labs is now available to actually practice without the expense of actually taking a real attempt at the exam.

Study groups – Form your own or see if you can join an existing study group in order to discuss technologies or work through labs you have purchased together and discuss methodologies / technology choices, offer to discuss your area of expertise and learn from others discussing theirs.

Cisco Validated Designs – Read up on designs for different network zones, learn why a design is being recommended and think about scalability, manageability, speeds & feeds, convergence etc.

Unleashing CCDE – Read blogs created by the CCDE team and CCDEs in the community, aim to write one yourself when you have passed!

Bootcamps – If you still feel you aren’t ready then there are vendors operating in this space, ask the community for advice to see which may offer the best value for yourself.

Practice Labs – There are a minimal amount of quality, realistic and complex practice labs available on the market, you will need to complete as many as you can to take the exam with confidence, take a look at the essential reading list for some publications that provide lab scenarios.

Remember, gaining the CCDE is a journey, it’s going to take time and you may not be successful initially.

I attended the CCDE Cisco Live Tectorial in Berlin prior to my success and booked one-on-one time with Elaine Lopes and Yuri Lukin, who were heading up the CCDE certification team at that time. The whole team was really accessible, and they were very keen to offer help and advice. This was invaluable for me[md]and a turning point. I learned not to be too hasty in my decisions and not to answer the questions based on the facts in front of me but to scan the documents when something wasn’t clear. I was missing clues and needed to be neater in marking what was really important. My technical ability was at the correct level, however. The distracters in the questions are so well thought out that you really have to fully absorb the scenario and the requirements presented within it to be successful.

Possibly the most useful resource for me was being part of a study group that my friends Daniel Dib and Kim Pedersen started. We pretty much had the dream team in our study group. We were blessed with the presence of Russ White, the “daddy” of the CCDE exam, and I was able to ask him questions around the logic of OSPF ABR placement from one of his books, as it was puzzling me. He even gave me some brilliant last minute advice: “read the question,” he said! It proved to be simple and sound advice, which made me laugh at the time. I made sure I did read each question, at least twice. I had even filled in a table with multiple answers when I remembered the advice and read the question again and found I only needed to check one box on one column, but actually had completed two (thanks Russ!).

If you are more than an hour away from the test center, booking a hotel for the night before would be a smart move. You don’t need the stress of travelling far on the same day. Take as many practice labs as you can prior to your attempt, you will be in a far better position and won’t have any surprises on the day.

The practical exam is very tough, but it is fair and achievable. This is what makes it so desirable. If it is your goal or ambition to become CCDE certified, you are very likely to reach it. If you are thinking, “I’ll give it a shot, as I’ve been in the industry for 10 years and design on a daily basis,” then don’t be surprised if you don’t get your number immediately. Just remember that if you don’t pass on your first or second or even third attempt, you haven’t actually failed. You will only have failed if you give up. The exam has to beat you every time, but you only have to beat it once to get your number. It has also occurred to me that if you can’t explain a technology or how a solution functions or scales to a friend who isn’t necessarily even technical, then you don’t actually know that technology. It’s a case of turning your weaknesses into your strengths. For instance, if you are a guru with IS-IS but have no real-world experience of how EIGRP may perform better in certain topologies, it’s time to get the books out or speak to your study group. Be prepared for give and take from your group. Play devil’s advocate to question others and offer to run a study session for your group in your area of expertise. The sum of your group’s expertise will be invaluable. Even if you don’t get your number, you will grow from the experience.

The exam itself is quite simply a credit to its creators. Most people don’t realize the effort that goes into keeping the scenarios realistic, fresh, and protected. The team behind it is brilliant. The distracters are just so good[md]sometimes you see five correct answers in front of you, but only one will be appropriate to the customer and the scenario, even if not your favorite. Therefore, you just need to connect the dots and find the important requirements that, when matched with your knowledge and experience, will take you to the correct answer.

Put the books down for a few days prior to the exam. Spend time with your loved ones and be energized for the exam. Take your full break on the testing day, and pace your time. The exam status bar you will see throughout your scenarios is actually your friend, not your enemy.

You are going to need some endurance to complete four scenarios in a day. Practice with as many labs as you can as if you were taking your CCIE lab. I like to cycle, and I found I could clear my head and be energized for a long study session after a ride. I certainly couldn’t run an eight-hour study session, but I could easily manage four two-hour ones.

Use the following advice as you tackle practice labs and your real exam, and you should have a good chance of gaining your number. Good luck!

  • Read the question.
  • Connect with the scenario.
  • Take time to analyze the existing environment.
  • Look for missing information.
  • Know what information you already have.
  • Don’t only base your answer on best practices.
  • Do not make assumptions.
  • Only make fact-based decisions.
  • Work on your weaker technology areas.
  • Maintain a high-level approach.
  • Think as a network architect/designer, not as a CCIE.                 
  • Focus on the “why”!