Economic concerns have forced many solution providers to question the value of network certifications. Of course, some industry certifications are required to gain access to vendor channel programs and support, but that does little to make the related expenses more palatable.
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What's more, solution providers often live under the fear that investing in employees' training and certification could amount to throwing good money after bad, resulting in employees taking their new certified knowledge to greener pastures.
Vendor-required certifications can be thought of as a necessary evil, but solution providers should not stop at just that conclusion. They should also consider the benefits offered beyond channel program membership (a task easier said than done).
Further muddling the value proposition and cost/benefit analysis of certification is the existence of vendor-neutral network certifications. Those certifications are more generic when it comes to knowledge of a vendor's particular product but often cover a technology category in more detail. But how can those vendor-neutral certifications improve the bottom line? Where is the value, and where does the benefit come from? In other words: Are vendor-neutral certifications worth it?
What constitutes a vendor-neutral network certification?
"Vendor neutral" may very well be a misnomer for certifications offered by independent organizations, especially since many of those certifications require the demonstration of knowledge on specific industry platforms, hardware products and software applications. Even so, it is the lack of a vendor's blessing that implies that third-party certifications are vendor neutral. Beyond semantics, there are several other factors that shift a certification into the domain of vendor neutrality. Those factors may include cross-product integration skills, the use of third-party tools, or a communalization of features across competing vendors' products -- and that is where the real value starts to show.
Achieving certification under a third-party education and testing process often demonstrates the understanding of a complete technology segment, such as networking, VoIP, operating systems, or desktop support and troubleshooting. Simply put, vendor-neutral certifications are more complete and focus more on the methodology and technology.
What vendor-neutral network certifications are available?
Hundreds of IT certifications are available from dozens of providers, but many fit into niche markets, and the list grows every year. Solution providers are best off focusing on the hot areas of networking (wired, wireless, network operating systems), communications (VoIP, wireless, video) and security (network, OS, desktop and application), all of which fit relatively well into the data center and the small and medium enterprise markets.
Vendor-neutral certifications that fit into the networking, security and communications areas include the following:
|Vendor||Certification or certification scope||Skill set|
|CompTIA||Network+||General networking knowledge|
|Server+||Network operating systems (NOS)|
|Security+||General computer security|
|Linux+||Linux operating systems|
|Brainbench||Information Security Administrator||Set of tests aimed at security for those in administrator positions|
|IT Manager||Basic IT management concepts|
|Network Administrator||Network management skills|
|IT Business Analyst||IT business planning and execution|
|SCP||Security Certified Network Specialist (SCNS)||Securing networks (wired and wireless) from internal and external intrusions|
|Security Certified Network Professional certification (SCNP)||Securing NOS from attacks and IP traffic forensics|
|CWNP||CWTS, CWNA, CWSE, CWNE, CWNT||Series of certifications that focus on the various aspects of wireless networking|
|ICCP||Certified IT Compliance Professional (CITCP)||Aspects of compliance and security in the enterprise|
|Certified IT Consultant (CITC)||Geared toward individuals offering a broad range of IT consulting services|
|CTP||CCNT (Certified in Convergent Network Technologies)||Telephony, networks, VoIP and several other converged technologies|
|LPI||LPIC-1, LPIC-2, LPIC-3||Linux certifications for deploying/ managing Linux in data centers and enterprises|
|Thomson Prometric||SAIR Linux GNU||Multi-vendor Linux certification for large-scale Linux support|
|(ISC)2||CISSP Certified Information Systems Security Professional||Security topics aimed at those looking to secure Internet connected networks|
|ISACA||CISA, CISM, CGEIT||Security, compliance and governance certifications for enterprise level professionals|
Of course, the above list covers only a fraction of the certifications available to IT professionals. What's more, each of the certifications listed may comprise multiple classes and exams, further complicating the calculation of value of each certification. Some of the certifications listed cost as little as $49 and are supported by self study, while others can cost thousands of dollars and may require numerous classroom hours. All of that will need to be weighed against the benefits offered to determine whether the certification is a worthwhile investment.
Although vendor-neutral certifications are for the most part independent, many vendors will accept those certifications as prerequisites to entry into a channel program. For example, the CCNT certification is accepted by many telecom vendors as proof of ability for entry into a channel relationship. That holds true for many smaller vendors that are looking for some proof of expertise.
Of course, there are many other reasons to consider vendor-neutral certifications. First off, those certifications can be used as marketing tools. For example, a solution provider servicing desktop PCs could advertise that all of its technicians are A+ certified, lending some credibility to the organization. Other solution providers can use certifications for creating new markets, such as compliance consulting or security forensics, where the related certifications and education requirements create the needed background of knowledge to be successful.
Certifications also prove to be a good form of employee retention and development. Solution providers can use the value of certifications to "treat" employees who are critical to the firm's success. Many solution providers may worry that paying for a certification may lead to the employee seeking work elsewhere, but there is a simple trick to prevent that. A solution provider can easily add a clause to the employment contract stating that if an employee leaves the organization, he will be responsible for repaying the employer for any certification costs run up during the last year.
Other benefits to certification come from the world of social (business) networking and other connections. Most certified professionals have access to groups, organizations and others by virtue of their certification status. That could speed resolution of issues and development of new business opportunities or provide information that is not publicly available.
Other benefits include creating an environment on commonality, where each certified profession follows much the same course for deploying and supporting a technology. That makes it easier to estimate project costs while also helping to guarantee that another certified professional could pick up the reins if need be.
Those are some of the advantages, but there are probably many others. The only real downside to certification is the cost and time spent to achieve a certification. Approaching certifications in a pragmatic fashion and determining the benefits before engaging should help solution providers to feel less apprehensive about the expenses and should help to build a more professional team that is easier to market to prospective clients.
Frank J. Ohlhorst is an award-winning technology journalist and systems professional specializing in testing, deploying and analyzing products and services. He writes for several technology publications. His website can be found at www.ohlhorst.net.