Networking giant, Cisco, is overhauling its certification portfolio from the introduction of an entry level to specialist technologies. Gary Flood examines the changes, which are resulting in tougher examinations.

Some fings ain't what they used to be, goes the old East End expression, a maxim that holds as true for the decline of standards in English international football as it does for certification. But change, of course, doesn't always have to be for the worst - as seems to be the case with networking giant Cisco's current revamp of its qualifications stack.

The Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certificate is one of the core exams in the information technology market, the networking world's equivalent of the classic Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). But, paralleling Microsoft's own overhaul of its education portfolio, there was a certain sense that CCNA, as the MCSE, was slightly resting on its laurels as a qualification.

'Ten years ago all you really needed to know in networking was routing and switching, basically,' says Tony Gibbs, Technical Manager of Fast Lane Consulting and Education, a training house in the networking field. But technology has changed that - a lot. Think about the way things like converged networks and voice over IP (Internet Protocol), all things wireless (from mobile to Wi-Fi to WiMax) and so on have exploded on to the landscape.

'A lot of the CCNA course was getting stale,' is the frank opinion of Robert Chapman, managing director of training specialist firm Firebrand Training (the former Training Camp). 'There were things in there until recently about ISDN that really weren't relevant any more.'

As Fred Weiller, director of marketing for Cisco's learning division in the US, acknowledges: 'As the network has evolved we have had to evolve, too. We needed to much better segment our qualifications in terms of technology.' A sentiment echoed by his colleague, Christine Yoshida, senior manager of learning and development at the company: 'We have to make sure our portfolio continues to be relevant to both the market and the workplace.'

What, specifically, has the company done in response? Cisco has expanded in two dimensions: vertically and horizontally. It's also, to be frank, made the process of getting the magic letters after your name much tougher.

Vertically, the company has added another layer to its qualifications. As of July 2007 a new entry-level qualification was introduced, the Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician, the CCENT, which is based on an introductory concepts exam accompanied by a more skills-focused test.

CCENT leads on to the CCNA itself, which is not being replaced but overhauled (see below). Beyond that lie two more layers: some may want to progress on to becoming Cisco Certified Network Professionals (CCNPs) and a few may aspire to be CCNEs, Cisco Certified Network Experts.

'Yes, we have made the exams harder,' confirms Yoshida. 'When you pass these exams you can be much more confident you posses the higher skills sets the market demands.' Part of this process has been to introduce an element of hands-on network configuration, using real-time simulation scenarios.

What has been happening 'horizontally'? Cisco has, over the last couple of years, quietly been adding a set of technology-specific specialist qualifications in the new 'sexy' technologies it feels it needs to address beyond the old heartland topics of routing and switching: wireless, unified communications, rich media and (network) security. This process is far from over, says Yoshida: 'We are reviewing this on an ongoing basis and it is a continuing process,' though she declined to be specific on which new specialist certification will come on stream first in 2008.

That isn't quite all that's been changed: in a possibly surprising 'first' for the company, as of last year it is now possible to get CCNA courseware in languages other than English, such as Chinese, Spanish and Russian, to 'make the programme more global and accessible,' she says.

How has the market responded to all this? Firebrand's Chapman is one of many who agree that something needed to be done. 'The changes were long overdue and it's good to see things just not relevant to today's network engineers finally getting stripped out. You could argue it took Cisco too long to get there but CCNA is such a strongly recognised qualification I don't think that's a real criticism. It is sensible to continue to expand the qualifications and keep engineers stimulated.'

At the same time, the transition will make some demands. Apart from the increase in toughness of the exams, Cisco's channel partners will have to make a certain amount of new investment to keep up. Cisco's business model is very much built on the contribution of its partners here, and it will - and does - expect its resellers to keep up and be able to demonstrate they can support its equipment in the field. To be able to bid for certain projects they will have to have staff trained in the new qualifications, such as the technology specialisms in security and so on. 'There is a clear requirement for these firms to be specialists and better qualified,' confirms Mel Jones, Cisco product manager at training company, Global Knowledge.

That message seems to be getting through: 'The new exams are very good,' says Daljit Paul, service operations manager at one such reseller, Networks First. 'Now all the material is highly relevant, from routing to the newest things in VoIP.'

There may also be a wider market issue here. Cisco's Yoshida claims that a big part of the impetus behind the move was taking notice of warning flags set by commentators like IDC that we face a global shortfall in networking skills in the next five years. That sounds like a nobler reason to tinker with your education assets than the fact you were still talking about outdated technologies, but still: does Cisco's move tell us to expect IT training to get more complex in the next few years?

Useful web links

Cisco Certification Home Page (a good place to start)
Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) info