Certifications for the SMB Network Technician

Small to Medium Businesses (SMB) have unique challenges from the perspective of technical expertise. The challenges are more related to the limited number of employees that work for or service businesses that meet this criteria. I often find organizations with a hundred (or more employees) that have a single technical resource on staff. This person may be responsible for everything from backups and business continuity planning to Firewall design and configuration.

Training and certifications are often used to get, keep and gauge the competency of a technician employee. The reason for seeking a certification should not be to obtain the certificate itself. The reason to seek the certification is to get the knowledge obtained during the process. Since the SMB space does more with less from a human resource perspective, the certifications sought may be different than in the enterprise environment. Although other certifications are mentioned, this article focuses on the relevancy of Cisco Certifications to the SMB environment.

Non Cisco Certifications

The first group of certifications that must be mentioned is the non-Cisco certifications. Those working in an SMB environment will most likely find themselves dealing with issues related to operating systems, desktops, backups and proprietary applications far more than they deal with network issues. So depending on the environment, an individual might pursue the applicable Linux or Microsoft Certifications prior to pursuing the Cisco skills.

The next thing worth mentioning is that not all networks are Cisco networks. Some small to medium businesses use other solutions for routing, switching and security. For example, some organizations will use commodity switches, a Sonicwall Firewall, and rely on their communication company for routing. In that case, Cisco certifications would only provide the benefit of exposing the individual to network theory. This individual might also get solid basis of theory buy going through the Wireshark Certification process.

Cisco Certifications

If a small to medium sized network is primarily Cisco, the first network certification that should be sought first is the CCENT/CCNA. Although I classified the CCENT and CCNA together, the CCENT is actually a subset of the CCNA certification. Obtaining the CCENT is half of the process of obtaining the CCNA (although there is an alternative single exam approach to the CCNA). The study required for achieving these certificates require the study of network protocols, theory and application to Cisco equipment. This is a really good basis for someone who regularly deals with Cisco routers and switches. The CCNA is also a prerequisite for the other Certifications that are mentioned in this article.

The next obvious thing that is important is security. Almost every organization has some connectivity to the Internet. This typically requires a firewall of some sort. Cisco has this certification path aptly called the CCNA Security. However, in my experience, this is not a standalone security certification that meets the requirements of a SMB network technician.

Key Concept—The CCNA Security certification does not include the ASA Firewall.

The problem with the CCNA Security (from an SMB standpoint) is that it omits the ASA, Cisco’s flagship firewall product. The typical SMB environment seems to have one of the following firewalls:

  1. open source firewall (Smoothwall, Untangled, etc)
  2. Sonicwall
  3. ASA 5505/5510
  4. Cisco IOS (with stateful firewall)
  5. various over the counter consumer grade firewalls

The Cisco CCNA Security certification is about securing IOS, not building appropriate firewall controls using the ASA Appliance. Someone in the SMB space who is responsible for security should seek the knowledge on the applicable firewalls they are responsible for. From the above list, there are two Cisco examples of firewall. These are both covered in depth in the Cisco Firewall Security Specialist certification. The CCNA Security is a prerequisite to achieve this certification.

Beyond the firewall capability of Cisco devices, there is often a need to configure, troubleshoot and design VPN solutions. In some cases these are built with non-Cisco solutions. When dealing with Cisco solutions, the two products that can be used are IOS Routers and ASA Firewalls. Cisco has certification programs and training materials that map to both of these as well. The “Cisco VPN Security Specialist” certificate is two courses and exams that address the configuration of VPN solutions using IOS Routers and ASA Firewalls. Again, the CCNA Security is a prerequisite for this certification.

There are other ways that these can be combined as appropriate. For example, some individual’s organization may deal exclusively with ASAs to provide both VPNs and Firewalling capabilities. In that case, the “ASA Specialist” is a specialization that is made up of two courses and exams that cover the necessary skills.

In addition to the routing, switching, firewall and VPN skills, other networking technologies are often found in SMB environments. For example, wireless and voice over IP are quickly becoming the responsibility of almost every technology services department. Some environments use non-Cisco solutions, but Cisco solutions are regularly found in the SMB environments as well as large enterprises. Again, the appropriate skills should be obtained to support the environments that fall under your responsibility.

What about other Cisco certifications like CCNP? Actually, there are now several variants of the CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional). The traditional path is the Routing and Switching CCNP. CCNP tracks now include Wireless, Voice, Security, and Service Provider Operation. The CCNP certifications are very good indicators of skill. When compared to specializations, these certifications do seem to have more buying power in the job market. So it really depends on what is motivating you (maybe you want to escape your current job or take your knowledge to the next level in a particular area) whether the CCNP is the best certification and skill-set to pursue.

Certifications really do a couple of things. First, they force an individual to continue in their pursuit of knowledge. This is the greatest overall benefit of certifications. Second, they act as a gauge for employers to estimate the skill and dedication of a potential employee. For those supporting small to medium businesses, there is a regular need for knowledge of a wide variety of products. From a routing and switching standpoint, it should be expected that Cisco products will be regularly encountered.

Many SMB organization have all of the same technologies that are found in the larger enterprises. In this article, we focused on the Cisco certification programs. Some networks may utilize other vendor’s equipment. In smaller organizations, the challenge is supporting such a broad range of technologies with fewer people. If that challenge seems impossible, the organization may choose to outsource specific tasks and responsibilities to well qualified systems integrators or consultants.

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About Paul Stewart, CCIE 26009 (Security)

Paul is a Network and Security Engineer, Trainer and Blogger who enjoys understanding how things really work. With over 15 years of experience in the technology industry, Paul has helped many organizations build, maintain and secure their networks and systems.
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