CCIE Preparation: Vendors and Workbooks
This article is Part 3 in a 7-Part Series.
Choosing a training vendor is a key decision to make early on in your CCIE studies. Who/what are they, what do they offer, and why do they exist? It’s not cheap if you’re paying for it yourself, so you want to know what you’re getting into. This post runs through what the training vendors offer, and some recommendations.
Cisco has only recently begun to offer official CCIE training, through the Cisco 360 program. But the CCIE certification has been around for 20+ years, so there was a gap in the market. Enterprising outfits developed their own training programs, outside of official Cisco channels. These have been refined over 10+ years, with thousands of successful candidates validating their methods. With the advent of an official program, there has been a split - some companies resell the official program, while others continue to refine and develop their own programs. These companies outside of Cisco 360 are sometimes referred to as “grey market.” Don’t worry about that though - there is no compulsory training program for the CCIE. It doesn’t have any support implications like buying grey market hardware!
Services & Products Offered
The exact mix of products and services will vary by training vendor. Generally they will offer most of these:
- Workbooks: Extensive books of lab exercises, covering not just sample questions, but also a detailed breakdown of the solution, the technologies, solution verification, and alternative answers. Almost all technologies in the blueprint are covered here. Most vendors have multiple workbooks, each with their own structure/focus - e.g. INE Volume 1 focuses on individual technologies, while Volume 2 has multi-protocol labs. You will usually want to buy the whole set of books offered by the vendor. These form the backbone of your studies.
- Video Courses: Online or downloadable video courses where an instructor works through most of the technologies on the CCIE blueprint, explaining them with the aid of diagrams and configuration/debugs on real lab gear. Great for getting a handle on the technologies, but do not expect to watch a few videos and become an expert. These go reasonably deep, but they’re still only just getting you started.
- Audio Courses: Similar to the video courses, but without pictures. These are designed to work without the video, although you do lose a bit with no diagrams. Helpful for filling in those long drives, and retaining information.
- Rack Rentals: Most vendors will offer access to “pods” of equipment, cabled to match their workbooks. You can rent these in blocks of time, for practising lab scenarios.
- Bootcamps: Intensive training courses, run over 1–2 weeks, with 20–30 students. These are ideal for late in your preparation, when you need a final push. More on these in a future post.
- Forums/Mailing Lists: Some vendors run free forums or mailing lists - e.g. ieoc.com is associated with INE, while onlinestudylist.com is associated with IPExpert. You should hang around those forums for general study questions/answers, and help with specific lab exercises.
- Mock Labs: These are practice exams that aim to simulate lab conditions. You will have a fixed time window to complete the lab, and it will be marked at the end. Grading is done either completely automatically, or via a combination of automatic scripting and manual review. These are an excellent tool for gauging your progress.
I have some experience with these vendors - they are not the only ones around, but they are all solid, reputable companies. I believe they are all honestly trying their best to help you pass the CCIE lab, although they all take slightly different approaches. I’m not paid anything by these companies - quite the opposite, as I have paid my own hard-earned money for their services.
- INE: Possibly the largest grey market vendor. Offers the full range of workbooks, videos, bootcamps, mock labs, etc. Top quality resources, with excellent instructors that often help out on forums and mailing lists. They have many good promotions offering bundled materials with great discounts and add-ons. Very visible, very well-known.
- IPExpert: IPExpert is very similar to INE - they have the full range of offerings, they’ve been around a while, and they’re always working hard to improve things. Instructors like @icemarkom are particularly active on Twitter, mailing lists, etc., and will do whatever they can to help you. IPExpert is in intense competition with INE. The competition has sometimes been a little big ugly, but it has led to great deals for students.
- Cisco 360: This is the “official” Cisco CCIE training program. It comprises workbooks, training videos, study manuals, mock labs, and boot camps. It was developed by third parties, in conjunction with Cisco. Somewhat confusingly, elements of the program are sold by both Cisco and official training partners. It is priced in a similar manner to Cisco equipment - i.e. reassuringly expensive. I’m not convinced of the quality of their workbooks & study guides, but their Mock Labs are excellent, if you can afford them. They have a similar Troubleshooting setup to the real lab, and the automated grading is brutal.
- Micronics: Micronics offers workbooks, bootcamps, and rack rentals. They also re-sell Cisco 360 Mock Labs. Narbik Kocharians is a legend in the CCIE training industry, and delivers a unique bootcamp experience. I particularly enjoyed this bootcamp, and the accompanying workbooks. The workbooks are primarily technology-focused, rather than multi-protocol labs. Note the workbooks are included for free if you attend the bootcamp.
- Routing-Bits: This is a little different - Ruhann offers a PDF set of notes for CCIE. These cover all topics, in study note format. It’s currently around 400 pages of content. Load it up on the iPad, and flip through it any time you get a chance. Highly recommended.
Pay attention to the product formats that are offered. Some vendors offer their materials in “open” formats that can be downloaded, stored, viewed on any device, etc. You can even get printed versions, but you should not use these. Get used to viewing it on-screen. Others use tools such as LockLizard to restrict access to the content. I’m not going to get into whether this is good or bad, but if it is a concern for you, make sure you find out in advance what formats the materials are in. Also feel free to ask for a sample - you’re going to spend a lot of money on this, so make sure you like the style. Vendors are happy to help with this. Watch out for promotions too - you can get some tremendous deals. Check vendor Facebook pages and Twitter feeds.
I have seen other, less reputable firms that offer “Real Labs!” and “Guaranteed Pass!” This is just cheating. The firms listed above do not indulge in or condone that behaviour, and you should steer clear of it too.
Stick with One, or Mix it up?
Is it enough to just use one vendor, and follow through all their materials? Or should you get materials from more than one vendor? My recommendation here is to have one primary vendor, and mainly follow their workbooks and videos. This gives you consistency, and hopefully means you don’t miss anything. But if you can afford it, add in one or two items from other vendors, to mix things up and avoid complacency.
It’s particularly useful to try a couple of Mock Labs from another vendor. If you’ve been working through workbooks from one vendor, you get used to the physical topology, and a certain style of questioning. Doing a Mock Lab from another vendor will shake you up a bit. That can help reduce some exam stress.
No Silver Bullet
No training vendor will hand you a CCIE on a plate. But selecting a reputable vendor, and following their “system” will give your studies much-needed structure, and help bring it together. In theory, you can pass with just the Cisco documentation, but if you can in any way afford it, invest in at least the workbooks. You still have to work bloody hard though.