Networks are interesting. The idea that the whole world can agree to a common networking standard in order to connect with each other shows that we can achieve wonderful things when people are willing to set aside their differences. As a network engineer, my job provides a constant reminder that it is actually possible for the world co-operate, and that good things will happen once we choose to do so.
The expert-level, or more fondly known as the ‘E’-level, certifications are highly sought after by network engineers as these certs prove that an engineer is good at what he does. Stories go around telling how difficult the E-level exams are and how much effort one needs to put in to stand a chance of passing them. Without proper guidance, things can be quite hazy for those who are just starting to get their E-level qualifications. Hence I’m documenting my experience of obtaining the JNCIE-SP here with the hope that others would find it useful.
1. The reason
For me, and I believe, for many others, necessity. I work for a telco company. As most of digital data now runs on IP, we see our packet-switched core network becoming bigger and more complex each day. Unfortunately I did not have a good understanding of our network which was frustrating. It was obvious that I needed to learn. Since we have a lot of Juniper equipment in our network, it was a straightforward decision to go for the Service-Provider Expert-level certification from Juniper (JNCIE-SP).
2. The preparation
It took about 3 years since I first touched a Juniper router (an M120) to obtain the JNCIE-SP. I have some Cisco background in Routing & Switching so the fundamentals were already there. However Juniper’s CLI config is different from Cisco’s and the service-provider world uses technologies that were alien to me like MPLS & VPNs. The transition was not easy.
The first two years were spent mostly to get hands-on on-the-job experience, coupled with a lot of reading to pass the ‘A’, ‘S’ and ‘P’ levels. The ‘E’-level however, is a lot more difficult than the other exams and requires a lot of practice as well as experience. In terms of the time required, I spent roughly 1 year of weekends and holidays to prepare for the final exam. My bosses were pretty cool throughout, letting me use an extra rack space in the lab and allowing some extended leaves.
In terms of the materials I used:
The A,S,P and E-level books by Soricelli and Reynolds are good references to get one started. These can be downloaded for free from Juniper website. The examples, especially those covered in the P and E-level books, could be replicated in a small lab which could provide a good basic understanding of SP configurations. The books were written a while back so be warned that some of the materials covered are no longer relevant to the exam, for example SONET and SDH-based configs. These topics however remain useful for practising network engineers.
To prepare specifically for the E-level exam, I bought the JNCIE-SP guides by InetZero. The guides only briefly discuss the theory part of things and go straight to the detailed configurations so beginners will not find these guides readable. People usually ask, how different is the guide from the actual exam? Personally I feel that they are quite different. While the guides provide general exercises that cover the whole exam syllabus, only certain portions of the syllabus will be asked in the exam. Consequently, as the exam concentrates only on certain topics, the actual questions are much more detailed. However, I found all the InetZero lab exercises to be useful as they are related to my day-to-day work. Do try to look out for discounts. Every now and then InetZero offer 10%-20% discounts for their products which are good deals.
It is extremely important for an exam candidate to have a lab setup consisting of Juniper routers that he/she has full access to. I primarily used logical-systems configured in an M120 for my lab. For the ‘A’,’S’ and ‘P’ levels, virtual tunnels (VT) interfaces should be enough to interconnect the logical-systems. For the ‘E’ level, I feel that it is best to configure actual interfaces and interconnect them physically to provide connectivity between the logical systems. Some people do direct connections. some people do the connections via a switch so that the connections are logically reconfigurable. It depends on one’s preferences or the availability of resources. In any case, it’s good to be able to practice physical-interface configurations and verify that our configs can work when physical interfaces are used. This will provide us with the much needed confidence required on the exam day.
I also bought 40 lab vouchers from InetZero amounting to 40×8=320 hours worth of lab hours to practice the labs they provide in their guides. These guys at InetZero put together some neat setups using SRX routers. Certain things cannot be simulated properly using logical-systems such as aggregated interfaces so it’s nice to have a proper testbed like that for rent. A minor complaint is that once or twice, it seemed like the scripts InetZero guys ran to clear the routers after each session did not manage to execute properly. So sometimes I did not get the full testbed available. The technical support was not that responsive either, so a few vouchers were wasted in the end. Overall however, the InetZero’s lab guides were pretty helpful.
There are a lot of other reading materials out there for those who are interested. I came across a few useful MPLS guides and books that were either available for free online or shared by a friend. Online forums are a useful source of quick guides and advice as well. Other people used Day One guides, Proteus lab guide and remote proctored exams. Perhaps they are useful but I did not use them so I cannot comment.
In terms of setting up a lab, Junosphere is a useful online tool that one can use to set up a network using Juniper equipment. From what they explain on the web and youtube, it looks more than enough to prepare a candidate. I did try to have a go by buying a $50 session but the connection turned out to be too slow. It might be the slow home broadband. It might be because I live in some remote part of the world. Whatever it was, Junosphere did not work out due to the high latency.
For others who are looking for alternatives, I have colleagues who run VMXs on VMWare/Virtualbox to practice and they seemed happy with it. So perhaps others may follow the same path. There are also those expensive JNCIE bootcamps which are instructor-led training with access to a full lab. Didn’t attend that either due to cost reasons.
3. The exam
It took me two attempts to pass the exam, both of them in Juniper’s office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I thought I was well-prepared the first time but was not so pleasantly surprised at the sort of depth they go for in the exam. In the first seating, it took a while to familiarize with the network topology, trying to remember which routers go where without having to refer to the network diagram every few minutes. I had no idea how to solve a few of the questions but everything seemed ok in the end. Whatever that could be pinged were successfully pinged so I walked out pretty confident that it was a pass. 2 weeks later the result came out – it was a fail. Nice.
I was pretty okay with the result since it’s quite normal for people to fail these ‘E’-level exams on the first try. I noted down the troublesome areas, upgraded the Junos in the lab to the version they used in the exam, added a few more physical interfaces to the setup and redid all the lab exercises. I added a few lab scenarios myself to be more familiar with the more complex topics. After a month or so of preparation, I decided to register for another exam seating, with roughly 8 weeks to prepare.
This time the pressure was higher as taking these exams were not cheap. Luckily, my wife was great in managing our expenses so kudos to her. This time I felt more comfortable and asked for clarification from the proctor if I was not sure about the questions. It was not a smooth seating though as I made some silly mistakes in the configs and was not able to rectify things before the proctor asked us to stop. I left the exam room feeling pretty disappointed. To my surprise, when the result came out 2 weeks later, it was a pass!
4. The aftermath
Passing the exam in the second attempt was truly a pleasant surprise. I actually had been preparing to retake the exam the third time when the result came out since I thought I did not make the cut. It was such a relief to not have to go through the revision process again. For reference, in terms of cost, I spent about USD 4.5k for the ‘E’-level study materials and exam.
How have things changed after that? A few congratulations were received here and there and then it’s back to work as usual. Now, more complicated assignments land on my desk at work which I guess is good for experience and career development. It’s also nice to understand a lot better what I am doing at work. Best of all? I now have more free time at home and to exercise. So for those who are aiming for the ‘E’ level exam, just go for it guys – it will be a rewarding experience.