Some confusion continues to surround the differences between Microsoft’s new Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) certification and its long-popular Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification. Simply put, the MCSA is a midlevel certification you can obtain between your MCP and your MCSE. The MCSA is designed for system administrators and help desk support professionals who implement, manage, and/or troubleshoot existing Microsoft network and system infrastructures. Meanwhile, the MCSE certification is a higher-level accreditation that requires the individual to design networks and solutions using Windows products.

The MCSA is a nice stepping-stone toward the ultimate goal of becoming an MCSE, if that is your chosen path. If you never plan on designing networks, you can forgo taking the seven tests you need for the MCSE and obtain the MCSA with only four tests. One benefit of pursuing the MCSA first is that if you decide you want to go for the MCSE, all the MCSA exams will count toward the MCSE. You’ll simply have to take three additional tests.

Many IT professionals have apparently taken up this line of thinking and are pursuing the MCSA certification. According to a CertCities poll, 75 percent of respondents said they plan to get an MCSA certification, either as an end-goal or as a stepping-stone on the way to the MCSE.

I’ve recently completed my MCSA certification in Windows 2000, so I’ll walk you through the basics of what you need to know to obtain the MCSA.

MCSA requirements
A typical MCSA candidate should have at least six to 12 months of IT experience before pursuing this certification. To achieve the MCSA, you are required to pass three core exams and one elective exam. For more details on the MCSA requirements you can peruse Microsoft’s official requirements.

You can take the test, which costs $125, at Prometric or VUE testing centers, and you have 150 minutes to complete it. As a result of Microsoft’s new scoring policy, you receive only a pass/fail grade. Many of us are unhappy about this because it does not help us determine our weak areas if we fail, so I recommend that you exert all your efforts to make sure that you pass it the first time. For more information on Microsoft’s pass/fail policy, see this article.

MCSA skills being measured
According to Microsoft’s published requirements, to be successful on this test you must have a thorough understanding of the following topics:

  • Creating, Configuring, Managing, Securing, and Troubleshooting File, Print, and Web Resources
  • Configuring, Administering, and Troubleshooting the Network Infrastructure
  • Managing, Securing, and Troubleshooting Servers and Client Computers
  • Configuring, Managing, Securing, and Troubleshooting Active Directory Organizational Units and Group Policy
  • Configuring, Securing, and Troubleshooting Remote Access

Let’s take a closer look at these requirements.

Creating, Configuring, Managing, Securing, and Troubleshooting File, Print, and Web Resources
You should be able to publish various sources into Active Directory and manage file systems, permissions, and disk quotas. In addition, you need to know how to configure shared resources (printers, shared folders, and Web folders).

You will also be tested on how to manage, troubleshoot, and implement an Internet Information Services (IIS) Web server. It is important to understand how to create virtual directories and servers, start and stop services, and implement encryption (SSL). You must also know how to troubleshoot Internet browsing from client computers and maintain and configure an FTP site.

Finally, one of the most important concepts to learn is how to monitor and manage network security, which includes auditing and detecting unauthorized activity or breaches on your servers. To help in this area, I recommend that you read Hacking Exposed—Windows 2000 byJoel Scambray and Stuart McClure.

Configuring, Administering, and Troubleshooting the Network Infrastructure
You need to effectively troubleshoot routing problems using various diagnostic utilities. They include: Tracert, Ping, Pathping, and Ipconfig. You should also understand TCP/IP and how it relates to servers and clients on the OSI model. It is important to know the difference between DNS and WINS, as well as to understand the following terms: subnet masks, default gateways, network IDs, and broadcast addresses.

Since you’ll probably have to troubleshoot and fix DHCP on servers and client computers on many occasions, the MCSA requires that you know how to detect unauthorized DHCP servers on your network and troubleshoot, configure, and administer DNS, WINS, and NETBIOS protocols. Don’t forget to freshen up on how HOSTS and LMHOSTS files work with Windows 2000.

Managing, Securing, and Troubleshooting Servers and Client Computers
You must be able to install and configure server and client computer hardware and troubleshoot servers and workstations that will not boot. You need to understand what Safe Mode, the Recovery Console, and parallel installations are and how they can help you recover a system that won’t boot. Furthermore, you must be able to monitor and troubleshoot server and workstation performance by using the System Monitor, Event Viewer, and Task Manager. Be sure that you understand what various counters mean within the Performance Monitor tool.

As an MCSA, you will need to know how to manage and install Windows 2000 updates. You’ll also need to be able to quickly install service packs, hotfixes, and security flaws that Microsoft posts.

Configuring, Managing, Securing, and Troubleshooting Active Directory Organizational Units and Group Policy
You must be able to create, manage, and troubleshoot user and group objects within Active Directory (AD). You must also know how to create and manage accounts for new and existing users. When there are problems with groups, you must be able to resolve the problem in good time.

When working with AD, you must know how to manage object and container permissions and diagnose AD replication problems. When deploying new software or updates, you should be able to publish these updates quickly and effectively via group policies, as well as implement, manage, and troubleshoot group policy-related issues.

Configuring, Securing, and Troubleshooting Remote Access
You must know how to properly configure and troubleshoot remote access and virtual private network connections (VPN). You must also understand how to configure a remote access policy and troubleshoot it when it fails.

With Windows 2000, Terminal Services is now available by default, and you must be able to implement and troubleshoot Terminal Services for remote access. In addition, you must understand how to install and configure Terminal Services and understand the licensing ramifications you may encounter. Finally, you’ll need to understand Network Address Translation (NAT) and Internet Connection Sharing.

IT professionals might want the MCSA designation on Windows 2000 for a number of reasons. For some, it will be their first Windows certification; for others, it will be a springboard to earning a Win2K MCSE or maybe a complement to an MCSE on Windows NT 4.0. Whatever the case may be, this article should give you a starting point for obtaining the skills needed to successfully add this designation to your resume.