Cloud certifications for solution providers: Are they worth the investment?

Cloud certifications promise market differentiation for solution providers, but some observers say the field is too broad to certify against.

Certification programs -- a long-time fixture in the IT channel -- now target cloud computing.

It's hardly surprising. Certification has followed successive waves of technology. The NetWare Certified Engineer stamp emerged in the 1980s when local-area networking was a young technology. The Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) credential took off in the early 2000s as security consulting matured as a discipline. Overall, there have been vendor-driven certifications focused on specific products and vendor-neutral certifications covering particular facets of technology.

A similar pattern is surfacing in cloud computing. Cisco Systems Inc., IBM and Microsoft offer cloud certifications from the vendor camp. Cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services Inc. and Rackspace Inc. also offer certification: Amazon announced its AWS Certification Program in April, while Rackspace offers a CloudU Certificate covering the "fundamentals of cloud computing."

On the vendor-neutral side, CompTIA Inc. launched its Cloud Essentials certification in 2011, which covers the technical and business aspects of cloud. Cloud Essentials, as the name suggests, seeks to cultivate a basic knowledge of the cloud model. Next month, the Cloud Credential Council, an international organization that aims to advance cloud certification, will begin to roll out a higher-level certification program.

I don't think it is possible for somebody to adequately certify as a cloud computing person because it is such a broad area.
John TreadwayCloud Technology Partners

A seal of approval for cloud know-how is par for the course in IT, industry observers said.

"If you look at the IT industry, in general, it is a very certification-centric industry," noted Sudhir Verma, chief services officer at Force 3 , a federal IT solutions provider based in Crofton, Md.

The certification emphasis is due, in part, to customers seeking assurance that the consultants they hire possess, at least a base level of knowledge, he said. The same thinking holds true for the cloud.

"The cloud world is getting complex and everybody is now in the cloud business one way or another," Verma said. "How do you cut through that? Whose advice should you take?"

Why certify?

Breaking away from the pack appears to be the main motivation for pursuing cloud certification, as it has been with other technologies.

"It is a differentiator in the market," said Jim Smid, chief technology officer at Iron Bow Technologies LLC, an IT solutions provider based in Chantilly, Va. "There is some risk in terms of going to an integrator or solutions provider who is going to put all these pieces together and not knowing if they really have all the capabilities."

Iron Bow in August announced that it earned Cisco's Master Cloud Builder Specialization. This certification encompasses both Cisco solutions and those of its cloud ecosystem partners. Smid called Cisco's program a "marathon certification," noting that it covers networking, storage, virtualization, security and cloud management.

"You have to be able to demonstrate all of those different pieces working together," Smid explained. "It is very cross-disciplinary in terms of having people who understand the entire converged infrastructure stack."

The certification process traditionally involves taking a class or two and passing a test. The Master Cloud Builder program calls for channel partners to study a business case and come up with a proposal and a full-scale demo. Iron Bow, for instance, ran its cloud demo on VCE's Vblock technology, a converged infrastructure system that combines Cisco, VMware and EMC products. The demo process culminates in an onsite audit, conducted by a third-party auditor.

Less than half of the partners who expressed interest in Master Cloud Builder certification made it through to the onsite audit stage, Smid said, citing feedback from Cisco.

Smid said Iron Bow will pursue additional cloud certifications where they make sense. But at this point, the Master Cloud Builder certification stands out as a multi-vendor initiative.

"In terms of a really comprehensive, multi-vendor approach to cloud certification, the Cisco [program] is the best one we have seen and probably the most critical in terms of proving we have the capabilities to offer these kinds of solutions," Smid explained.

The Cloud Credential Council, meanwhile, is developing a vendor-neutral certification track, called the Cloud Certification Program, that complements vendor-provided cloud training and certification. The program emphasizes the business and best practice side of cloud computing, offering professionals the benefit of a "fully rounded" certification, noted Mark Skilton, a lead author for the upcoming certification program and global director for the Strategy Office for Capgemini Infrastructure Services.

Other plusses include a globally recognized certification and the ability to learn about best practices, Skilton added.

The Cloud Credential Council and ITpreneurs, a company that offers IT best practices training, partnered with CompTIA on the Cloud Essentials certification. IT professionals can earn a Cloud Technology Associate certification from the Cloud Credential Council by passing CompTIA's Cloud Essentials exam and the Cloud Credential Council's Virtualization Essentials exam. The council's next step is to launch professional-level cloud certifications that go beyond Cloud Essentials. The organization plans to certify five cloud roles: Solutions Architect, Developer, Service Manager, Administrator and Security/Governance.

Skilton said the Solutions Architect certification will be the first to debut, with a pilot beginning in September. Service Manager will follow a month or two later, he added.

"We believe those are the biggest needs in the market at the moment," Skilton said.

There are no formal prerequisites for the five professional-level certifications, but Cloud Essentials can provide the foundation, Skilton noted.

Too broad to certify?

Not everyone is sold on cloud certification, however.

John Treadway, senior vice president with Cloud Technology Partners Inc., a Boston-based consulting company that designs and builds cloud solutions, said cloud computing is a difficult field to pin down.

"I don't think it is possible for somebody to adequately certify as a cloud computing person because it is such a broad area," he said. "It is not like cloud computing is easily pegged into a single discipline."

Treadway said building and operating a cloud requires knowledge spanning every IT discipline. He also cited the range of cloud applications, platforms and infrastructures.

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Experience provides a better teacher than a broad-brush cloud certification, Treadway suggested. "The only way to get the knowledge of how to do it is to actually do it and learn from your failures and mistakes and get better," he said.

On the other hand, Treadway said he sees an opportunity for certifications targeting specific, cloud-related solutions such as OpenStack, an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platform.

Verma, however, said he sees value in vendor-neutral cloud certification as a differentiator. That said, he wonders how long that particular advantage will last. He cited the example of CISSP: Initially very few individuals were certified, but over time the certification has become a norm in IT security. The concern, he said, is that vendor-neutral cloud certification will also become a commodity; if that happens, the value of the certification as a differentiator will be lost.

Verma also questions what level of confidence a vendor-specific cloud certification will bring customers, given the multi-vendor nature of cloud deployments.

"There is not a single product manufacturer or vendor who covers everything in the cloud from one end to the other," he said.

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