A Deeper Look at Cisco’s SDN Certifications

Wendell Odom
By Wendell Odom January 22, 2015 09:05

It’s time to look in depth at one of the SDN certs in the market: Cisco’s Network Programmability certs. I’ve written about the emerging SDN certifications before, and will continue to update those certs as news appears. However, I’ve not yet blogged to any depth about any one certification here at SDNSkills.com. This post begins a new series that does exactly that with a deeper dive into one branch of SDN certifications: those currently offered by Cisco Systems.

Series Intro

The plan for this series is as follows: Work through some details about at least half of the 8 Cisco exams related to SDN (billed as network programmability by Cisco). I think half of them should be enough to get a sense for the whole, even if I don’t look at every single one of the eight exams. For each exam, I’ll look at the associated courses, the exam topics, take the exams, and write a summary of impressions. I’ll probably weave in and out of this topic over the coming months, hitting the first exam here in January.


SDN Market and Certifications Perspective

Some of you might already be thinking: Cisco and SDN? Isn’t SDN what the Open Networking Foundation (www.opennetworking.org) defines as completely open, and what Cisco’s calling SDN not quite the same? Why am I writing about Cisco SDN certs?

First, Cisco dominates market share in traditional routing and switching, with a large market share in other product areas. Unsurprisingly, Cisco carries that same dominance, maybe more, in the related IT certification world. Until those facts change, it makes sense to me to look at Cisco certs in that space.

Second, no matter how you think about SDN, sitting here early in 2015, it’s unclear which vendors will win significant market share with SDN products and solutions. The ONF vision of SDN could be dominant, with many new vendors eating into Cisco’s share of the network device market. VMWare could come to dominate Data Center networking with products like NSX, with overlays sitting on top of any IP network. Or Cisco might remain dominant by pushing their policy-driven SDN model that uses ACI, with OpFlex and OnePK as key components. Or the winner(s) may be from some other angle. It’s still to hard to tell, so there’s no guidance yet on which might matter most for certifications in the future.

Figure 1: Major Branches of the SDN Market Today


Finally, looking at any of these certs can help us all figure out what we should be learning when re-tooling for SDN. Frankly, I don’t expect that this series will cause hordes of you that had no plans to pursue these certs suddenly decide to now go after them. Some of you may, which is great, but more importantly, a deeper examination can you’ll continue to help us all figure out what to learn.

Now on to an overview of Cisco’s SDN certs!


Overview: Cisco Network Programmability Certifications

Cisco uses the term “network programmability” in the titles of their SDN certifications, but make no mistake, these certs are SDN certs. Breaking down the basics:

Four different certs for four different roles: There are four separate certifications, aimed at four job roles: network engineer, network design, network app developer, and business app developer. The certification names cisco.com are:

Specialist certs, not CCNA, CCNP…: All four certifications are specialist certs, not career certs (that is, they aren’t CCNA, CCNP, etc.)

Two exams per cert: Each cert requires two exams: one about ACI, and one that’s more general

One Video Course per Exam, Plus One More: Cisco has/will publish a video course for each exam. To find the courses, follow the links per the exam pages (linked in the list of SDN certifications just above.) They also have one introductory course as well.

Figure 2 summarizes the certifications.

Figure 2: Cisco’s SDN Certifications


Now that you see the basic mechanics of Cisco’s SDN certification program, the rest of this post gives a few opinions about this certification series.


Focus on Job Roles

Cisco has always focused on job roles in relation to their certifications, but that focus just isn’t obvious with some of the more established certs. The SDN certs make the job role focus obvious. In fact, the focus on job roles causes the different certs to have some overlapping technical content, because each role requires some of the same knowledge base. For instance, you will find One Platform Kit (OnePK) details in all four certs, and ACI in all four as well.

Wendell’s opinion: If you decide to pursue one of these certifications, it does make sense to choose the one closest to your traditional job role. However, the content overlap makes it tempting to go ahead and go for a pair of these certs. The most obvious pairings for getting two are:

  • Get network engineer and network design specialist Certs
  • Get the two development-focused certs


Figure 3: Most Likely Combinations for Multiple Certifications


Specialist Certifications, Not Career Certifications

Cisco places most of their certifications into two broad categories: Career and Specialist. Career certifications cover more mature technology, and the certs themselves are generally more stable as a result. Career certs include all the CCNA, CCNP, and CCIE certifications.

Cisco often starts new technology in Specialist certifications, meant for anyone, but more focused on Cisco resellers (channel partners).

Figure 4: Summary of Current Cisco Career Certs and Specialist Certs


Note that Cisco has four topics that happen to have both career and specialist certifications at the current time (video, security, data center, and service provider), but there are different career certifications and specialist certifications for each of these topics.

Wendell’s opinion: Cisco’s choice of releasing these SDN certs as specialist certs instead of career certs makes perfect sense: it’s newer technology.


ACI: Part of Every Certification

Is Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) actually SDN? Some might argue yes, some might argue no, but it’s certainly the leading product area of Cisco’s foray into SDN or SDN-like technologies. Unsurprisingly, ACI sits inside every certification path. Basically, of the two exams for each certification, one covers the topics for that job role while ignoring ACI, while the second focuses on that job role when using ACI.



Finally, each certification has some stated prerequisite. Interestingly, the prerequisites vary widely. For those who have been around Cisco certifications for a while, the prerequisites may seem a little strange. Figure 5 spells out the prerequisites:


Figure 5: Prerequisites for Cisco’s SDN Certifications


Note also that any CCNP and any CCNA can serve as the prerequisites for the respective certifications. That is, Cisco doesn’t require Data Center, or Route/Switch, or any one particular topic.

Also note that the one certification with no prerequisite, Cisco Business Application Engineer Specialist, actually teaches some CCNA and CCNP level materials. It teaches basics of the IOS CLI, IP configuration, as well as ACLs and QoS. So, while a business application developer does not need to have a certification from Cisco, they will need to learn something about how IOS devices work before they can receive this certification.

Wendell’s opinions: The CCNP prerequisite for both networking-focused SDN certs sets the bar pretty high. I personally believe that the job roles do require CCNP-level skills for some topics, particularly for some R/S and DC topics. However, the high level of prerequisite may well suppress the number of people pursuing these certs in their current form.

The choice of “any” CCNP or CCNA as perquisites is frankly a bit curious. Personally, I think it’s more of a practicality: the more applicable your CCNA or CCNP is to SDN, the more likely you would be interested in these SDN certifications in the first place. So, if CCNP restricts the eligible candidates to some degree, making it “any” CCNP opens it up a little more. But I still believe that CCNP R/S and DC folks make the best fit.


Next Post…

Next post in this series, I’ll start to break down the exams and related courses. Thanks for reading!



SDN Appears in Cisco Career Certs: The New CCNA (and CCNP) Cloud
SDN Jobs Vs. Traditional Jobs, 3QCY14
Wendell Odom
By Wendell Odom January 22, 2015 09:05
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