The Network+ exam: Your first list to study

Don't let your network expertise accreditation lapse with the MCSE! Erik Eckel says you should get Network+ certified by year's end. This week's IT Certification Corner has the details behind CompTIA's Network+ exam, along with a list of topics to study.

Just last week, I finished remodeling my deck. As the typical homeowner with several power tools and just enough knowledge of them not to get hurt, I found myself having intriguing conversations with lumberyard pros. Notched stringers, balusters, joists, cleats, truss joints, micro lams: Deck construction has a language all its own.

Information technology is no different. If you work in IT, you take for granted the wide variety of terminology you use daily. Whether I’m discussing Cat 5 cable, MAC addresses, or the OSI model, you know what I’m talking about.

In the past, thousands of IT professionals demonstrated their command of computer terms and concepts by passing Microsoft’s Networking Essentials examination as part of the Windows NT 4.0 MCSE track. Unfortunately, that exam has been retired.

But the importance of networking fundamentals hasn’t changed. If you’re like me, you want your resume to demonstrate your networking mastery. Pass the Network+ exam, and your problem is solved.

The Network+ exam
CompTIA offers the Network+ exam for $190, and you can take it at any Prometric or VUE testing center. IT pros whose organizations are CompTIA members will have to pay a testing fee of only $140.

Candidates are given 90 minutes to complete the standard format exam, which includes 65 questions. A revised version is planned for January 2002. One of the best features of CompTIA certifications is that they never expire. Once you pass the exam, you are Network+ certified for life. Certainly, the fundamentals of the exam won’t change. While there are sure to be subtle modifications, I expect the lion’s share of the topics will remain the same.

Even so, I recommend that Windows NT 4 MCPs and MCSEs take the Network+ exam sometime in the next three months. If you passed the Network Essentials accreditation from Microsoft, which expires at the end of December, you’ll want to ensure that your resume continues to include a network-focused certification.

The Network+ exam objectives are broken down into two sections, as defined by CompTIA. The first focuses on Knowledge of Networking Technology, and the second targets Knowledge of Networking Practices. Questions on networking technology constitute some three-quarters of the exam, while only one-quarter of the exam tests networking practices.

This week, we’ll get the easy stuff out of the way. I’ll review the networking practices topics you should review before sitting for the Network+ test. Next week, I’ll present your study list for the networking technology skills portion of the exam.

Knowledge of Networking Practices topics
Although the questions will constitute only one-quarter of your exam, don’t underestimate the importance of mastering the networking practices objectives. As an IT professional, you should know most of them already. With any luck, all you’ll need to do is brush up on the specifics.

The networking practices objectives are themselves separated into three categories:
  • Implementing the Installation of the Network
  • Maintaining and Supporting the Network
  • Troubleshooting the Network

Here are the specifics you should study in each category.

Implementing the Installation of the Network
Know that administrative passwords, user accounts, IP configurations, and standard operating procedures should all be prepared before a network is deployed. Determine where printers will be located, which naming conventions will be used, which subnets will be formed, and so on, before you open boxes.

Ensure that you understand, too, the impact that environmental factors can have on computer equipment. I once knew a consultant who traced an organization’s data networking bottleneck to an adjustable light switch. Know the difference between power surges, spikes, sags, brownouts, and blackouts.

Remember that electrostatic discharges (ESD) can fry electrical components. Electromagnetic interference (EMI) can wreak havoc with cabling, which can be especially common near elevator shafts and motors. What’s one of the most common sources of EMI? Power cords and fluorescent lighting. Don’t forget that humidity is bad, as it encourages ESD. Air conditioning is critical, as it helps prevent overheating.

Radio frequency interference (RFI) can disrupt cable transmissions, too. Shielded network cables or fiber optic cabling are typically used to protect data communications from EMI and RFI.

Familiarize yourself with the Windows NT Event Viewer. Know how to make sense of various error messages. Refresh yourself on the basic information that can be found in basic Windows and NetWare log files.

Memorize how far cables can be strung before attenuation sets in. Remember that patch cord lengths count when factoring maximum cable lengths.

Study network connectors. Be able to pick SCSI, BNC, RJ-45, and DB connectors out of a lineup.

Review the functions of, and know how to use, the following:
  • Patch panels
  • Repeaters
  • Hubs
  • Bridges
  • Routers
  • Brouters
  • Network adapters
  • Print servers

Be particularly fluent regarding network interface card (NIC) installation. Study up on NIC jumper settings, IRQ configurations, and drivers. Keep in mind that an analog modem can burn up if it’s plugged into a digital-jack outlet.

Maintaining and Supporting the Network
CompTIA’s Network+ exam requires that you know how to identify vendor test documentation for patches, fixes, and upgrades. You’ll also have to demonstrate the ability to:
  • Conduct backups
  • Apply patches
  • Administer and update antivirus software

While that doesn’t sound like much, it’s easy to get tripped up on the differences between full, differential, and incremental backups. Virus protection expertise involves more than just installing protective software. Study up on the differences between macro and boot-sector viruses.

Don’t underestimate the importance of baselines, too. They’re critical for helping detect network malfunctions and gauging the impact of different changes as they are made to the network.

Troubleshooting the Network
It’s important to know how to diagnose network issues, as the topic could compose more than 10 percent of your exam. Identify network failures by following a systematic approach:
  1. Begin by determining whether the problem is networkwide.
  2. Learn whether the problem is limited to a single workstation, LAN, or WAN.
  3. See if you can replicate the problem and determine if it’s consistent.
  4. Solve the problem using standard troubleshooting methods.

CompTIA’s Network+ troubleshooting model includes eight steps, which you should know inside out:
  1. Identify the exact issue.
  2. Re-create the problem.
  3. Isolate the cause.
  4. Formulate a correction.
  5. Implement the correction.
  6. Test the solution.
  7. Document the cause and solution.
  8. Give feedback.

The Network+ model also recommends determining whether an issue is due to a system or the system’s operator. Therefore, when trying to determine whether the system or operator is the cause, a second individual should try performing the same action that caused a problem on an identical or equivalent workstation. The second operator should then perform the action on the original operator's system. You must also remember to check and ensure that both operators are following standard operating procedures.

Know how to read a NIC’s link light and know that it means a proper data-link layer connection has been made. Know to check for power lights and how to read critical NetWare and Windows NT error log files.

For NetWare, know what’s found in the following log files and how to read them:

For Windows NT, know what’s found in the following log files and how to read them:
  • Application Log
  • System Log
  • Security Log

If you want to breeze through network troubleshooting questions, you should also know how to check physical connection issues, server status, and DNS, WINS, and HOST file errors. You should also know the warning signs of virus infestation, how to check account status, and the proper diagnostics to run for different network failures.

You’ll need to master the various network tools, too. Make sure that you’re familiar with the operation of crossover cables, protocol analyzers, hardware loopback connectors, tone generators, and tone locators. In fact, I recommend that you know how to wire Category 5 cables and crossover cables from scratch.

Eckel's take
As has probably become apparent, the Network+ exam is no pushover. And the topics listed above account for only one-quarter of the exam. However, you’ll find that the terms, processes, strategies, and facts you memorize for the Network+ exam have real-world application on an almost daily basis. Plus, once you earn that CompTIA certification, you know its shelf life will be much longer than the next server OS you load.

Instead of devoting energy to recertification, take some of the time you save and begin that remodeling project you’ve been putting off. Your local Home Depot staff will be happy to explain the difference between treated lumber and Thomsonized wood.

How do you plan to study for the Network+ exam?
We look forward to getting your input and hearing about your experiences regarding this topic. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.


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