Talking Shop: Ten tips for passing the Server+ exam

Prepare for the Server + exam

Like other CompTIA exams, the Server+ certification tests your mastery of a broad selection of topics. You must prove expertise in all of the following areas to earn Server+ accreditation:
  • Planning and specifications
  • Installation
  • Configuration
  • Upgrading
  • Proactive maintenance
  • Environmental issues
  • Troubleshooting
  • Problem determination
  • Disaster recovery

The Server+ exam (exam number SKO-001) covers so many subjects that it would be a disservice to try and record everything you need to know in a single column. So instead, I created a list to help you target 10 critical areas you should study as you prepare for your Server+ certification.

#1: Server types
Expect to be tested upon the roles and functions different servers provide. Know the characteristics of all of the following server types:
  • Workgroup servers
  • Departmental servers
  • Enterprise servers
  • Server appliances

You should familiarize yourself with the many functions network servers fulfill. While it's not necessary to have real-world experience administering all the types of network servers the Server+ exam covers, you should understand the differences between servers that act as gateways, routers, bridges, firewalls, and proxies. Review study materials that explain the functionality of other server types, too, such as terminal servers, mail servers, Web servers, and FTP servers.

#2: IDE/ATA facts
The Server+ exam will test you on disk subsystems, so you must memorize many Integrated Device Electronics (IDE)/Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) facts.

Remember that IDE/ATA drives can be a master or a slave. IDE/ATA disk adapters typically have two channels, and only two disks can be attached per channel. Thus, IDE/ATA adapters have a practical limitation of only four drives.

Know the throughput speeds supported by different IDE/ATA disk drives, including the speeds for Ultra ATA and Ultra Direct Memory Access (DMA) disks. Study up on the connectors that this disk standard uses, too.

#3: SCSI facts
Learn all there is to know about Small Computer System Interface (SCSI) drives. Specifically, study the differences and characteristics that define SCSI-1, SCSI-2, and SCSI-3 standards. Memorize the bus speed, transfer rate, maximum number of devices supported, and cable types for each standard. Also learn the maximum cable lengths supported by each SCSI standard.

Don't forget several key SCSI facts. SCSI offers faster throughput than IDE/ATA-based disks. SCSI isn't a standard for disk controllers. SCSI is a bus controller standard. This is an important distinction, as many SCSI disks can be linked together and they need not all be physically located inside a system. In fact, many SCSI disk drives are external peripherals.

Another important item to remember is that each end of a SCSI bus must be terminated. Typically, one end terminates where it attaches to a SCSI card, while the other end terminates where it attaches to the last disk drive in a set. You can also terminate a SCSI bus using a physical terminator instead of a disk drive.

Spend some time reviewing the three SCSI termination types: passive, active, and forced perfect termination. Know the differences between them.

#4: RAID configurations
Most server administrators must know how to install and troubleshoot redundant array of inexpensive/independent disks (RAID) configurations. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Server+ exam tests your RAID skills.

Familiarize yourself with RAID controller characteristics and memorize the differences between different RAID configurations. Pay particular attention to the following:
  • RAID 0 (stripe set without parity)
  • RAID 1 (disk mirroring and disk duplexing)
  • RAID 0/1 (RAID 0+1 or RAID 10)
  • RAID 5 (stripe set with parity)

#5: Installation preparation
I recommend that you always keep a test vendor's motivation in mind when preparing for an exam. CompTIA is an association composed of various IT vendors and manufacturers. As such, it makes sense that many CompTIA exams will test the candidate's knowledge of best practices, since one of CompTIA's goals is to help set practical standards and guidelines. Server+ does just that.

Expect to be tested on the best practices associated with preparing a server installation. You should know how to plan an installation, verify that the location will support the installation and that all ordered hardware is ready, and know how to verify hardware compatibility. You should also know how to install all the hardware according to standard industry practices aimed at minimizing electrostatic discharge (ESD), which can damage equipment.

#6: Backup and recovery
Making backups is a critical task that server administrators perform. When preparing for the Server+ exam, you must know the differences between backup types (full, incremental, and differential). You must also know how to manage multiple backup sets and rotate backup media to protect against data loss.

Of course, backups do no good unless data can be recovered from them. Spend time studying best practices for verifying and recovering data from backups.

As part of your backup and recovery study, be sure to review quarter-inch cartridge (QIC) tape drive standards. Familiarize yourself with the different tape standards and memorize the tape cartridges each uses, as well as each QIC cartridge's storage capacity and access method (IDE, SCSI, etc.).

#7: Diagnosing system issues
If you're going to pass the Server+ exam, you must prove that you know how to use common diagnostic tools, both hardware- and software-based, to identify system issues. I recommend that you spend time working with the Windows NT Server 4.0 and Windows 2000 Server Event Viewers and Task Managers, Novell's MONITOR.EXE command and SYS$LOG.ERR, VOL$LOG.ERR, TSS$LOG.ERR log files, and common performance-monitoring tools in Linux and UNIX.

Since troubleshooting is such a critical undertaking, you should also master the use of the following commands and their switches in Windows:
  • Ipconfig.exe
  • Nbtstat.exe
  • Netdiag.exe
  • Netstat.exe
  • Nslookup.exe
  • Pathping.exe
  • Ping.exe
  • Tracert.exe

For troubleshooting NetWare networks, learn how to use CONFIG.NLM, IPXCON.NLM, and TCPCON.NLM. For Linux and UNIX network diagnosis, remember that the ifconfig, netstat, ping, and traceroute commands can all be used.

#8: Disaster recovery plan
One of the most overlooked aspects of a disaster recovery plan is testing. Although many organizations implement disaster recovery plans, few organizations actually test them to ensure that they work.

CompTIA looks for the following steps in disaster planning:
  • Plan for redundancy.
  • Use hot swap, warm swap, and hot spare techniques to ensure availability as needed.
  • Use fault tolerance and fault recovery concepts to create your plan.
  • After identifying risks and reviewing the prior items, create a disaster recovery plan.
  • Identify the types of backup hardware that will be used.
  • Identify the types of backup and restoration routines that will be used.
  • Confirm and use off-site storage for backups.
  • Document and test your disaster plan regularly and make any needed updates.

This disaster recovery emphasis proves wrong those pundits who claim certification training doesn't map to real-world applications. Disaster planning is but one element of the Server+ exam that has real-world impact. In addition to testing your understanding of different fault tolerant concepts, such as RAID configurations, different tape characteristics, and backup strategies, you're tested on your ability to combine these concepts into a single strategy that protects against data loss. Those are as real-world as real-world skills get.

#9: Upgrading without disruption
CompTIA lists upgrading as a Server+ exam objective. Specifically, the exam focuses on adding new processors, memory, and hard disks to servers, as well as upgrading a server's BIOS, adapters, and other peripherals. You'll also be tested on your ability to perform these additions and upgrades without disrupting users.

Learn all the steps that constitute a proper upgrade checklist. Understand the importance of regularly scheduling downtime and the proper manner in which hardware peripheral upgrades and additions should be performed.

Pay particular attention to the last step of the upgrade checklist, which reminds server operators to document the changes they have just made. Documentation is an important part of any upgrade, so be sure that it's included as an upgrade step.

#10: Environmental issues
Several environment factors must be considered when administering servers. Ambient air temperature and humidity are two concerns. It's critical to guard against ESD. Power surges, spikes, and brownouts must be anticipated, as should total power losses. Be prepared to be tested on best practices for physically securing computer equipment. Know how to secure a server room, protect against floods and fire, and implement antitheft measures.

Eckel's take
These 10 tips should help you concentrate your Server+ studies. You're sure to find other topics covered on the exam, so I recommend you review a self-paced study guide. Once you've finished your reading, give a practice test a run, too. Doing so will help prepare you for the testing experience and should build your confidence.

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