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What to know before taking the CCNP Data Center exam

With a focus on data center network implementation and support, CCNP Data Center is a subset certification from Cisco. But is taking the exam really worth all the effort for IT pros?

Each year, IT pros sign up in droves for the Cisco Certified Network Professional training classes and certification tests. Since the process is complex and ever-changing, it's important to know the basics about becoming certified -- and whether it will pay off down the road.

Here are some helpful hints to know what to expect when training for the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) Data Center Certification, and what it could mean for your career.

What is the CCNP certification?

Cisco's networking portfolio has five levels: Beginner, Associate, Professional, Expert and Architect, which center mainly on networking topics. Data Center, a subset certification geared toward IT pros working specifically with data center networks, focuses on internal communication, such as exchanges among servers, storage systems and network devices rather than external network connections.

There are three categories of Data Center certifications. The Associate level focuses on simple device installation and troubleshooting, such as setting up a Cisco Nexus 100v switch. The Professional level requires a higher level of data center networking expertise, such as deploying a Cisco Data Center Unified Fabric. The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert certification requires a two-part, eight-hour, timed exam that tests skills in diagnosing, configuring and troubleshooting complex data center topologies. As part of the test, a student may need to reroute data center traffic once a major node goes down.

In January 2015, Cisco replaced the traditional CCNP with CCNP Routing and Switching. As part of the overhaul, Cisco removed wireless, VoIP and video content, and added advanced IPv6, Cisco StackWise, virtual switch services and dynamic multipoint VPN networking topics.

What are some CCNP Data Center training options?

Cisco partners with third parties, such as CBT Nuggets, Learning Tree International and Unitek Education, to develop training and testing programs, design course materials and conduct certification tests to show students the format and type of questions used in the exams.

The schools provide students with many study options, such as a PDF, CD or book. Traditional classes lasting several weeks are also an option. Boot camps compress training times into several days and students go to class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The cheating problem with IT certifications

Cheating is a common problem with certification tests. Since cheating tarnishes a certification's value, Cisco and third parties have put checks in place.

"I had to provide two forms of identify when I took the test," said Elvin Emilio Arias Soto, senior network engineer at Instituto Dominicano de Aviación Civil, the Dominican Republic's civil aviation authority.

Vendors also use technology to thwart cheaters. Test centers record every session and look for subtle actions, like unusual head movements indicating that a test taker had an embedded camera in their glasses. Cisco uses analytics, such as test answer patterns and testing aberrations, to identify cheaters. Cisco bans anyone caught cheating from taking another certification test.

Self-study options, in which students buy the materials and study autonomously, appeal to the independent thinker. Elvin Emilio Arias Soto, senior network engineer at Instituto Dominicano de Aviación Civil, the Dominican Republic's civil aviation authority, opted for self-pacing because of the flexibility. He isn't alone; younger IT professionals and millennials tend to prefer online training options. People who are comfortable with technology often expect training classes to adhere to their schedules, not vice versa.

Is the CCNP Data Center certification worth it?

Some IT pros think their job experience should stand for itself and find the certification process a waste of time and money. However, companies continue to use certifications as a way to identify potential candidates. Job postings requiring CCNP certifications have risen 6% year over year, according to job posting site

 In the second quarter of 2016, salaries of IT pros with certifications rose almost twice as much as those without them, according to IT compensation survey company Foote Partners LLC.

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