Cisco’s network certification lineup underwent a major overhaul last year, and one of the big changes is that specialisation options appear at the professional level with the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP).
Before Cisco rearchitected its certifications, there were 10 concentrations associated with Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Cisco’s foundational certification. As of last year, the CCNA no longer has different tracks. It’s focused on networking fundamentals, and there’s only one exam.
Concentrations begin with the CCNP, which is a more advanced certification and requires two exams. The first exam is focused on core principles, and the second exam digs into one of six areas of specialisation:
- CCNP Enterprise: What was formerly CCNP Routing and Switching is now CCNP Enterprise. The core exam focuses on topics such as dual-stack (IPv4 and IPv6) architecture, virtualisation, infrastructure, network assurance, security, and automation, according to Cisco. Concentration exams focus on topics such as network design, SD-WAN, wireless, and automation. (For each professional-level certification, candidates choose one concentration exam.)
- CCNP Data Center: The core exam focuses on skills associated with implementing core data center technologies, including network, compute, storage network, automation and security. The concentration exams tackle designing, configuring, implementing and troubleshooting Cisco hardware and infrastructure.
- CCNP Security: The core exam focuses on knowledge of security infrastructure. The security concentration exams cover topics such as securing networks with Cisco’s firewall products, implementing and configuring Cisco’s identity services engine, and securing email with Cisco’s email security appliance.
- CCNP Service Provider: The core exam focuses on knowledge of service provider infrastructure. Concentration exams focus on topics such as advanced routing, VPN services, and automation.
- CCNP Collaboration: The core exam focuses on knowledge of collaboration infrastructure. The collaboration concentration exams cover topics such as implementing Cisco collaboration applications and deploying automation for Cisco collaboration solutions.
- Cisco Certified DevNet Professional: The core exam focuses on knowledge of software development and design including using APIs, Cisco platforms, application deployment and security, and infrastructure and automation. Concentration exams focus on topics such as data center automation, security automation, DevOps automation, IoT, and cloud.
Do you need a CCNP?
The CCNP is one of the top 15 technology certifications that employers seek, according to a survey from staffing specialist Robert Half Technology of more than 3,000 senior managers. It falls next to two other Cisco entries on the list of in-demand IT certifications: the entry-level CCNA and the senior-level Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE).
Essentially, a CCNP certification is a shorthand for employers that shows a candidate has a certain minimum level of knowledge.
At the start of this century, a formal certification wasn’t as big a deal, says Paul Browning, author of several CCNP preparation books and founder of How To Network, a training company that specialises in Cisco certifications. “You could get by just on experience.”
Today, though, AI-powered screening tools on the major online job sites are specifically looking for the certification, he says. As a result, the resume might not get through the initial screening, even if the candidate is otherwise qualified.
In addition, employers are incentivised to hire people with the credential by Cisco itself, Browning says. “You get a better rate from Cisco if you have certified engineers,” he says. “You get a discount on equipment and enhanced support and technical assistance.”
For companies in the services space, certified engineers are a plus when dealing with enterprise clients.
“Our customers enter engagements with a higher level of confidence and ease if they have a Cisco environment and have been paired with a Cisco certified engineer,” says Michael Fitzgerald, senior director of engineering at data-center provider Flexential. “It is one way our professional services group can show off their skills and expertise.”
Getting started with CCNP
There are no formal prerequisites to getting the CCNP certification. Candidates don’t even have to have a CCNA first.
However, Cisco suggests that candidates need to have a good understanding of the exam topics before taking the test, and the typical candidate has three to five years of experience implementing enterprise networking solutions.
“You can jump straight to the CCNP,” says How to Network’s Browning. “Say, you’ve been working in the industry for a number of years and you’re quite experienced. Rather than jumping through hoops and spending hundreds of dollars on the CCNA, you can go straight to the CCNP.”
What the CCNP covers
The core exam is a written, multiple-choice exam that focuses on a deeper-level understanding of the concepts introduced in the CCNA. That includes building bigger networks with more complicated solutions and determining more effective troubleshooting.
Then the concentration exams go much deeper into specific areas. Which concentration you should pick depends on where you want to go in your career.
“Hot topics like security will open up new opportunities,” says George Moore, CTO at Cengage, an online learning platform. “But right now, all tech jobs are in high demand, so individuals may be more interested in understanding how the intricate details of routing on the internet work and may choose that path.”
When do people usually get the CCNP?
In general, people get the CCNP after three or more years of hands-on experience on live enterprise networks.
Getting the CCNP can help professionals get promoted, says Scott Lynch, SANS instructor and cyber security operations manager at SSC Space U.S., or to see additional or expanded responsibilities and opportunities in their companies.
“The CCNP has become the certification and training path that engineers pursue to grow in their careers,” he says.
It can be useful when making a lateral move to a related field, like cybersecurity.
Taking the exam and what it costs
The testing for the CCNP is handled by testing company Pearson. The core exam for CCNP Enterprise, for example, is called “350-401 ENCOR” and costs US$400. The concentration exams are US$300 each. You can see a list of all the exams here.
The tests are proctored and can be taken either in-person, at a physical location, or online.
To get ready for the tests, How to Network’s Browning recommends that candidates allow for three months of study per test, at two hours a day. “It’s a lot,” he admits.
Even experienced networking professionals aren’t advised to just go in and wing it. “You need to go through the syllabus and see how Cisco wants you to answer the questions,” he says.
What’s next after the CCNP?
Technology, in general, is changing at a more rapid pace than ever before, and networking, in particular, is undergoing rapid transformation due to the impact of cloud and edge computing and automation, as well as increased cybersecurity demands.
“Anyone who stops at CCNP—or even at the CCIE—isn’t serving themselves in the best manner,” says Mark Leary, director of network analytics and automation at research firm IDC.
Leary suggests, after a CCNP, networking professionals don’t just look at the CCIE, the most advanced Cisco networking certification, but also branch out to other IT areas, and learn to work with other areas of the business,
“Today, there’s much more of a broader focus,” Leary says. “What is the cross-IT project contribution that you’re making? That is much more valuable these days than 10 years ago when you just worried about the number of ports and network uptime.”