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Cisco Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

Ed Tittel and Mary Kyle
Updated Aug 05, 2022

Cisco Systems Inc. specializes in networking and communications products and services. The company is probably best known for its business routing and switching products, which direct data, voice, and video traffic across networks around the world. However, Cisco also offers storage networking, applications for unified communications, telepresence and collaboration (WebEx), and an array of services from simple product support to complete solutions for data centers and cloud management.

To ensure that IT professionals have the skills and knowledge necessary to support Cisco products and solve customers’ technology problems on many fronts, the Cisco Career Certification program is all-embracing. That is, it begins at the entry level, then advances to associate, professional, and expert levels, and (in some certification areas) caps things off at the architect level.

Each level offers one or more credentials. Obtaining a credential usually involves passing one or more certification exams. Most Cisco exams are delivered by Pearson VUE. For higher-level credentials, candidates must also prove they meet necessary prerequisites. The higher the level of certification, the more credentials and prerequisites one needs to meet those requirements.

Cisco certification program overview

Certifications within Cisco’s portfolio include the following credentials:

  • Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT)
  • Cisco Certified Technician (CCT)
  • Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)
  • Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA)
  • Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
  • Cisco Certified Design Professional (CCDP)
  • Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)
  • Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE)
  • Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr)

There are many certifications and paths one can take in Cisco’s career program. That said, its two main paths cover network operation and network design. A typical Cisco networking certification ladder begins with the entry-level CCENT credential, moves up to the CCNA, onto the CCNP and culminates with the CCIE. The design-oriented might instead consider starting with the CCENT, moving up to the CCDA, then the professional-level CCDP, followed by the CCDE, and finish the program with the CCAr.

The Cisco Career Certification program also includes a number of specializations. These certifications acknowledge a professional’s skills in a specific Cisco technology, such as data center application services, voicemail and messaging or rich media. Cisco specializations are organized into two primary categories: one targeting technical specialists and another targeting digital transformation specialists. Between these two categories, there are currently 15 specializations among which IT pros can choose.

The Technical Specialist category includes specializations across six subcategories:

  • Collaboration
  • Data Center (FlexPod)
  • Network Programmability
  • Operating System Software
  • Service Provider
  • Internet of things (IoT)

Digital Transformation Specialists includes credentials geared to Business Architecture and Customer Success.

Achieving a specialist credential generally requires passing one or two exams. Some credentials also impose prerequisites.

Entry-, associate- and professional-level credentials are valid for three years, CCIE and specialist certifications are valid for two years and the CCAr is valid for five years. To keep certifications current, Cisco professionals need to recertify by passing a recertification exam or advancing to a higher level in Cisco’s certification hierarchy.

Cisco’s entry-level certifications

Cisco has two entry-level credentials: the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) and the Cisco Certified Technician (CCT). No prerequisites are needed to obtain either the CCENT or CCT credential, and candidates must pass a single exam to earn each credential.

CCENT certified professionals install, maintain and troubleshoot small networks or a branch of an enterprise network, and implement basic network security. The CCENT credential is a prerequisite for some associate-level CCNA solution track credentials and the CCDA.

CCTs work onsite at customer locations, diagnosing issues and repairing or replacing network-related equipment. A CCT can choose one of several specialty tracks, which currently includes Data Center and Routing and Switching.

CertificationExamsNumber of QuestionsTime to Complete
CCENT100-105 ICND145-5590 minutes
CCT Data Center010-151 DCTECH65-7590 minutes
CCT Routing & Switching640-692 RSTECH60-7090 minutes

Cisco’s associate-Level Certifications

Cisco’s associate-level certifications include the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and the Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA). One must pass one or two certification exams to achieve a CCNA or CCDA credential, depending on the track you choose.

The CCNA recognizes basic skills in installing, supporting, and troubleshooting wired and/or wireless networks. One can choose from several tracks, including Cloud, Collaboration, Cyber Ops, Data Center, Industrial, Routing and Switching, Security, Service Provider and Wireless. The CCNA is a prerequisite for the professional-level CCNP certification. Prerequisites for the CCNA vary depending on the solution track chosen as do the number of required exams. All solution tracks require either one or two exams.

Cisco created the CCDA to identify individuals who can design basic wired and wireless networks, and incorporate security and voice solutions. The CCDA is a prerequisite for the CCDP certification. To obtain the CCDA, candidates must possess either a valid CCENT, CCNA Routing and Switching (or any CCIE certification), and pass a single additional exam.

CertificationExamsNumber of QuestionsTime to Complete
CCDA200-310 DESGN55-6575 minutes
CCNA Cloud210-451 CLDFND55-6590 minutes
210-455 CLDADM55-6590 minutes
CCNA Collaboration210-060 CICD55-6575 minutes
210-065 CIVND55-6575 minutes
CCNA Cyber Ops210-250 SECFND55-6090 minutes
210-255 SECOPS60-7090 minutes
CCNA Data Center200-150 DCICN55-6590 minutes
200-155 DCICT65-75120 minutes
CCNA Industrial200-601 IMINS265-7590 minutes
CCNA Routing and Switching**200-125 CCNA60-7090 minutes
100-105 ICND145-5590 minutes
200-105 ICND255-6590 minutes
CCNA Security210-260 IINS60-7090 minutes
CCNA Service Provider640-875 SPNGN165-7590 minutes
640-878 SPNGN265-7590 minutes
CCNA Wireless200-355 WIFUND60-7090 minutes

**Candidates for the CCNA Routing and Switching may take exam 200-125 OR exam 100-105 plus 200-105.

Cisco’s professional-level certifications

Cisco’s professional-level credentials include two main programs: the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and the Cisco Certified Design Professional (CCDP). To obtain the CCDP, one must pass three certification exams and possess both the CCDA and CCNA Routing and Switching credentials or any Cisco CCIE or CCDE certification.

All CCNP solution tracks, except Routing and Switching, require candidates to pass four exams. Only three exams are required for the CCNP: Routing and Switching credential. Prerequisites for all CCNP solution tracks include either the lower-level CCNA credential or any CCIE credential. The CCNP: Service Provider credential also accepts the Cisco Certified Internet Professional (CCIP) credential as a prerequisite (which retired in 2012).

The CCNP credential recognizes professionals who plan, deploy, and troubleshoot local networks and wide area networks. The CCNP tracks are the same as those for the CCNA, except for Industrial and Cyber Ops, which are not offered in the CCNP track. The CCNP is recommended to climb up to the next step on the cert ladder – the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert.

The CCDP identifies proficiency in designing and deploying scalable networks and multilayer-switched networks. From the CCDP, you can move on to the Cisco Certified Design Expert.

CertificationExamsNumber of QuestionsTime to Complete
CCDP300-101 ROUTE45-65120 minutes
300-115 SWITCH30-40120 minutes
300-320 ARCH60-7075 minutes
CCNP Cloud300-460 CLDINF55-6590 minutes
300-465 CLDDES55-6590 minutes
300-470 CLDAUT55-6590 minutes
300-475 CLDACI55-6590 minutes
CCNP Collaboration300-070 CIPTV165-7575 minutes
300-075 CIPTV250-6075 minutes
300-080 CTCOLLAB55-6575 minutes
300-085 CAPPS55-6575 minutes
CCNP Data Center**300-175 DCUCI55-6590 minutes
300-165 DCII55-6590 minutes
300-170 DCVAI55-6590 minutes
300-160 DCID55-6590 minutes
300-180 DCIT70-8090 minutes
CCNP Routing and Switching300-101 ROUTE45-65120 minutes
300-115 SWITCH30-40120 minutes
300-135 TSHOOT15-25120 minutes
CCNP Security300-208 SISAS55-6590 minutes
300-206 SENSS65-7590 minutes
300-209 SIMOS65-7590 minutes
300-210 SITCS65-7590 minutes
CCNP Service Provider642-883 SPROUTE65-7590 minutes
642-885 SPADVROUTE65-7590 minutes
642-887 SPCORE65-7590 minutes
642-889 SPEDGE65-7590 minutes
CCNP Wireless300-360 WIDESIGN55-6590 minutes
300-365 WIDEPLOY55-6590 minutes
300-370 WITSHOOT55-6590 minutes
300-375 WISECURE55-6590 minutes

**CCNP Data Center may take either the 300-160 or 300-180 exam.

Cisco’s expert-level certifications

Cisco’s expert-level credentials embrace two primary certifications: the coveted Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and the Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE). Neither certification imposes prerequisites, but one must pass a written exam and a rigorous practical exam to earn either of these credentials.

Beginning in July 2016, Cisco updated its expert-level exams to include an evolving technologies domain. This new domain targets cloud, network programmability and the IoT, and it accounts for 10 percent of the total exam score. Cisco may change the topics included in this domain to reflect emerging technologies as they reach strong enough commercial interest, potential and presence to make them examworthy. The company describes this mechanism as a way to help future-proof its certifications so that employers may assume that those who hold current credentials are also up to speed on important new networking technologies.

For many network-track professionals, achieving the CCIE is the highlight of their careers. A CCIE has expert technical skills and knowledge of Cisco network products and solutions in one of the CCIE technical tracks, which currently include Collaboration, Data Center, Routing and Switching, Security, Service Provider, and Wireless.

The CCDE identifies experts who design infrastructure solutions for large enterprise environments, which include technological, operational, business and budget aspects of a project.

Cisco’s architect-level certifications

For persons seeking positions such as network architect or data center architect, a smart move is to acquire the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr) certification. The CCAr is like the Ph.D. of the Cisco Career Certification program – it’s the highest level of certification that Cisco offers. This credential validates the skills of a senior network infrastructure architect, someone who can plan and design IT infrastructures based on business strategies. Many people consider the CCAr the most difficult tech certification to achieve.

To earn the CCDE certification, you must design a network solution to implement an assigned strategy; then, you must appear before a Cisco-appointed panel to explain and defend that solution.

Whether you’re following a network operations or network design career path, Cisco certifications are uniquely positioned to assist IT professionals as they prepare to fulfill various Cisco-related career roles. Regardless of your chosen career path, job opportunities are plentiful for skilled Cisco professionals. A simple search for Cisco CCNA professionals on two popular job boards – SimplyHired and Indeed – yielded between 7,500 and 9,500 job postings each.

Job opportunities vary by factors, such as experience and whether you’re focused on network operations or network design. While certainly not exhaustive, the following list identifies some common job opportunities by certification:

  • CCENT: Help desk or technician roles
  • CCT: Engineer (field, network, application support) or systems administrator
  • CCNA: Engineer (network, telecommunications), technician (network, network operations) or analyst (network, network operations center)
  • CCDA: Engineer (network, system, design, lead), analyst (interface), interface developer or technical specialist
  • CCNP: Network administrator, engineer (support, network) or advanced technician, as well as senior-level roles
  • CCDP: Senior-level roles; senior network design engineer, senior analyst, cyber protection analyst or network designer
  • CCIE: Expert-level roles; network architect, engineer (lead, systems, network) or senior network administrator
  • CCDE: Expert-level roles; systems engineer, senior network engineer, network architect, network design engineer or IT infrastructure team lead
  • CCAr: Architect (lead, network, enterprise, voice data and more)

Training and Resources

Cisco maintains a comprehensive list of training and self-study resources. These resources include various forms of online learning, practice exams, learning labs, links to which appear on each certification’s web page. The Cisco Learning Network offers candidates a free basic membership that includes access to exam topics, live seminars, IT training videos, study groups, forums, study materials and much more. The subscription-based Cisco Platinum Learning Library provides professionals with on-demand learning and access to more than 400 courses, hands-on vLabs, the support library, and more. Additional training materials are also available from Cisco Press.

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