Global Knowledge Cisco CCNA Boot Camp and Entertainment Networking

In the entertainment technology industry, we have a long history of taking technologies from other industries, adapting them, and then beating those square pegs into the round holes we find in our field. Over the last 15 years or so, we have gone through this same process with office networking technologies: In entertainment control networks, we need predictable latency (delivery time), high performance,  and very high reliability; many office networks trade off things like latency for other factors like accessibility and cost. 

I've built literally hundreds of networks over the years, and while those networks have been reliable, I learned everything I know (as many do in our field) in a trial and error way--I never had a class or really even read a whole book on the topic. And so, last year, when I was gearing up to expand the networking sections of the new edition of my book, tentatively titled Networking and Control Systems for Live Entertainment (due out sometime later this summer), I figured it was time to find out if I had stumbled into the right way of doing things, or had developed some bad networking habits along the way.

Professional IT training programs are generally based on certification tracks that can be very confusing to those who don't work in enterprise IT. But after a lot of searching, I decided on a Cisco CCNA Boot Camp from Global Knowledge. CCNA stands for "Cisco Certified Network Associate", which "validates the ability to install, configure, operate, and troubleshoot medium-size routed and switched networks, including implementation and verification of connections to remote sites in a WAN." We rarely ever connect to WAN's in live entertainment (let me know if anyone's actually done this), and the vast majority of systems we build don't even have routers, but I thought this would at least be a good overview.

The CCNA bootcamp is pricey (especially when you're paying out of your own pocket, which, from talking to my classmates, is apparently rare), but I figured that in this field, you get what you pay for (and the NY location alone is worth the price--I shot a bunch of time lapses and the shuttle Enterprise from their spectacular office overlooking New York Harbor off the Battery). I signed up for the course last summer, and it was very interesting, although it was an enormous amount of information in a short period, especially for someone who had never touched enterprise grade Cisco equipment (which is all configured by command line). 

A lot of the covered topics (as you might expect) were really way outside what anyone's likely to encounter our field.  For example, we mostly build closed networks out of switches, but our (excellent) instructor, Rauf Khan, said that Cisco considers a "small" network to be one with less than 100 routers. The vast majority of show networks have way less than that--we typically have zero routers in closed, entertainment control networks (see my Gravesend Inn network writeup for an exception).  In the end, I felt like a precision watchmaker trying to learn about tower clocks. The watchmaker and the tower clock engineer are both keeping time, but the clocktower keepers work at a different scale, and also have to worry about back doors to the tower clock that don't exist in the watch.

I really didn't care about the certification, and didn't have a lot of time to prepare, but since I had already paid for the test as part of the Global Knowledge bootcamp, I figured I'd go ahead and take it. At the very least, as someone who writes a lot of tests for my students, and was one of the subject matter experts who helped write the PLASA ETCP Entertainment Electrician certification exam, I thought it would be interesting to sit on the other side of the test.

I thought the test (which is given on a secured, locked down computer at a testing center of your choice) was generally very well written, with lots of interactive simulations (I wish we could afford these in our industry!), and drag and drop questions in addition to standard multiple choice questions (you can see some examples here).  My one big gripe is that (unlike the ETCP exams) you are not allowed to use any sort of calculator. This means that you have to do a lot of binary conversions either in your head (virtually impossible for me, who struggles to remember his own phone number) or with a dry erase marker (they don't allow paper into the exam for security reasons).  I understand and completely approve of Cisco not allowing the use of something like a subnet calculator, or even a calculator that does binary-decimal conversion--I make my own students do some of those conversions by hand so they learn the process.  But having to sit in front of a computer and do arithmetic by hand in 2012 seems an awful lot like hazing to me.

Surprisingly to me, I missed passing the test only by about 50 points out of 1000. Had I gotten a 500, I would have been fine and given up, but since Global Knowledge pays for two sittings of the test, I got an old Cisco router from friends at PRG, built up a study network, and spent a bunch of time building networks and testing out all the stuff from the exam. I took the exam again later in the summer and did worse. I'm still pretty baffled by that.

After failing the test twice, Global Knowledge ends their "guarantee" by allowing you let you sit in the class again, which I did this past week. I still didn't care about the certification that much but I figured it would be a good opportunity to review things and see what's new (not much, it turns out).  The class (with the same instructor) was once again excellent, and I got a lot of things cleared up, other concepts  reinforced, and verified for myself a lot of the new information in my book.

The CCNA exam itself is actually made up of the information from two other exams, Interconnecting Cisco Network Devices (ICND) 1 and 2.  There is a fair amount of overlap between the two, but, generally, it seems that ICND 2 covers a lot more on routing, and other more advanced issues.   Since I really don't care about the certification, and don't have a lot of time available this summer, I wasn't going to go for the CCNA.  But I figured I'd buy an ICND1 exam, and I'm glad a did: I passed today with 887 out of 1000 (passing score was 805)!

The ICND1 gives a certification for "Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT)", which "validates the ability to install, operate and troubleshoot a small enterprise branch network, including basic network security."  It still covers a lot of stuff that we don't do much in our industry, but it is certainly better aligned with our systems than ICND2, and therefore, CCNA. If you work in entertainment (or industrial control, since we do a lot of things the same way), and you want to learn more about enterprise networking, than I would probably recommend an ICND1 course instead of CCNA, unless you have a huge amount of time to work on things just for academic interest.

Having the certification really doesn't mean any thing to my career, but it was a nice way to wrap up this process.  And, now, I've jumped the first (pretty high) bar along the many, many steps of Cisco certification.  At least until 2015, when this certification expires...