Today I Passed the CCNA Service Provider Exam

Or the CCNP Jr., as I’ve come to call it. Studying for this exam provides a nice overview of various service provider technologies and general architecture, as well as a glimpse into Cisco’s service provider portfolio, including the IOS-XR operating system.

This certification consists of two separate exams (SPNGN1 and SPNGN2), with no prerequisites. Several of Cisco’s CCNA-level tracks require the ICND1/CCENT certification first, but the CCNA Service Provider certification does not. I had fun studying for this certification, but whether you are working for a service provider or not, I would not recommend it as your entry point into networking, despite being at the “associate” level. In my opinion, you would be far better served by completing the traditional R&S CCNA and then CCNP, rather than pursue this certification first, especially if you are paying for these exams out of your own pocket.

From an entry-level standpoint, these two exams are much more difficult than the CCNA R&S certification. I call this certification the CCNP Jr. because it goes into many topics that are not covered at the CCNA R&S level, but are covered on the CCNP. However, the content is not as deep as what is on the CCNP. For example, by comparing the blueprints, you see that the various routing protocols are covered, but unlike the CCNP, you’re not going to have to go as deep as knowing the different nerd knobs, default settings, and how to tweak them. The CCNA SP does cover IS-IS, though, which I don’t believe is covered on any other certification track below the CCIE level.

The first exam covers topics on the ICND1/CCENT, such as subnetting and the formats of different kinds of addresses. SPNGN1 covers many topics, too many in fact to fit on a single exam, so while you will need to know everything on the blueprint, you will not be asked questions for every single topic. Don’t overthink it, though. You will not be asked any really deep questions. For example, the blueprint says you need to know how to configure NAT and DHCP server operations. At the CCIE level, this is a very deep topic with lots of different configurations and settings. At the CCNA level, you’re going to be asked questions on how the technology works in general, and some very basic configurations. You won’t need to know configurations for every possible scenario like you do with the CCIE.

People might complain that the exams still cover things like ATM and Frame Relay. For the enterprise, this is less relevant, but for the service provider, these technologies are still deployed, even if they are in their sunset phase. This means if you’re going to work for a service provider, it does not hurt to know about these older technologies. You may be asked to troubleshoot one of these connection types at some point, and it would not be good to go in completely blind.

The second exam (SPNGN2) was much more difficult than the first, in my opinion. This exam covers more CCNP- and even CCIE-level topics (such as LDP and MPLS), though of course still at a very high level. Having years of operational experience did help me dramatically in passing the exams. Though having the real-world knowledge and experience also made answering some of the questions more difficult just because I know the underlying details of the questions being asked, which could change the answers depending on how I interpreted different words.

I had a couple of questions where the answers could be different depending on information they did not present as part of the question (such as default settings being different depending on the unspecified platform). I left comments on any questions that I felt could have been worded better. I even had one question that was just plain wrong (the question itself asked something that was impossible). Luckily, in that particular instance, I knew what answer they were looking for, but I let them know why the question being asked was impossible. These kinds of questions are damaging to those who are just learning and don’t necessarily have the operational experience yet to back up the knowledge, in my opinion.

The topic distribution according to the SPNGN2 blueprint is pretty accurate, with nearly a third of the questions relating to software packaging and operations on both IOS-XE and IOS-XR. Make sure you look at the official Cisco documentation and understand these topics well! Likewise, as indicated on the blueprint, you will need to know high-level details of the various service- provider oriented hardware platforms. This is one of the reasons why I think this certification in its current state is not really that valuable. You are better served by learning theory and concepts rather than product particulars that you can research when necessary.

The two exams together represent an interesting service provider-oriented challenge. I felt like many of the topics covered were actually above what I would expect from entry-level personnel. I think that someone looking for an entry-level position in the service provider world would definitely be able to discuss many service provider topics intelligently by studying for these exams. They are absolutely just a starting point, though. I’d like to reiterate that I would not pay for this certification out of your own pocket. I feel getting the CCNP R&S is more important and will do more for you than getting this certification.

If you already have the CCNP R&S and/or somebody else is paying for these exams, by all means give it a go! There is no doubt you will learn things that will set you apart from the traditional enterprise-oriented network engineer, meaning the CCNA Service Provider curriculum goes quite a bit above and beyond the CCNA R&S curriculum. Always remember, though, that the goal is to learn the content, not to obtain the trophy. Many organizations do not even care about certifications, especially service providers. Use this as a path for learning, not as an ultimate goal.

For both exams, you can learn the vast majority of the topics through the free official Cisco documentation. Here are some selected topics:

Good luck in your studies!