The beginning of a new year is an ideal time to take stock
of your career and your goals. Not all resolutions are about weight loss or
exercising—many people vow on January 1 that this will be the year they find
that perfect job, finish up a degree, or earn a certification.

If you fall into the latter group, there are resources out
there that can help turn your resolution into reality. And why not start at the
top? Considered by most to be the pinnacle of networking certifications and
dubbed the “worldwide doctorate of networking” by Cisco, the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)
certification offers five
different areas of focus

  • Routing
    and Switching track
  • Security
  • Service
    Provider track
  • Storage
    Networking track
  • Voice

By far, the most popular track is Routing and Switching. If
you’ve decided to pursue this CCIE track, you’re in luck: Cisco recently
unveiled a new resource to help you prepare.

Last month, Cisco announced its CCIE Assessor
Lab for Routing and Switching
, an opportunity to assess strengths
and weaknesses and improve exam readiness using Cisco equipment and lab
scenarios—all from your own computer. This is a unique offering because it’s
the first service offered by Cisco to help certification candidates prepare and
practice for the CCIE lab exam.

Earning a CCIE certification requires passing two tests—a
written exam and a lab exam. The written portion is a computerized exam that
costs $300. It’s basically a summarization of all the exams required to pass the
Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) certification. You must pass the
written test before taking the hands-on lab exam.

You can only take the lab exam at specific Cisco offices;
there are only 10
throughout the world. Known to be especially grueling, the lab exam
is also rather expensive. The test itself costs $1,250—and that’s not counting
travel costs.

So, while earning a CCIE certification can offer many benefits
to your career, it doesn’t come cheap. That’s why you want to make sure you’re
as prepared as possible before you handy over that hefty check. Enter the CCIE
Assessor Lab.

While there are a variety of resources available to help you
prepare for the written exam—including Cisco Press books, simulation tests, and
quick prep guides—it
can be much more difficult to study for the hands-on lab portion.
According to Cisco recommendations, the best preparation for the hands-on lab
exam is years of real-world experience on complex networks.

However, if you don’t have that kind of expertise, don’t
give up hope. First of all, real-world experience isn’t a requirement for
certification. And even those who have such experience would be unlikely to encounter
every situation that’s on the lab exam.

Because of this, several companies have begun offering
services to help candidates prepare for the lab exam. One example is certification
boot camps, where you spend a week either online or in a classroom working out
scenarios meant to model the lab exam.

Alternatively, some candidates buy their own rack of Cisco
equipment to model the lab exam. They can then buy practice labs for studying
purposes. In fact, Cisco Press now offers a book of its own CCIE lab

One of the most popular options for CCIE candidates is to
rent a rack of CCIE lab equipment, connect to that rack over the Internet, and
use practice labs to simulate the real exam. (Check out my 2002 TechRepublic
article, “Rent
Cisco practice racks from online providers,”
for more information.) Expect
to pay up to $150 or more for 24 hours usage of these racks.

In addition to cost, using online practice labs have a
couple drawbacks. One main problem is the lack of assistance. If you run into a
problem that you can’t solve, you have no one to help you. And there’s no way
to tell if you missed anything. Another concern is the fact that they are still
simulations—not the real thing.

When preparing for my CCIE certification, I purchased a mock
test from an online provider. For about $750, this package included eight hours
of rack access, a mock test, and a CCIE-certified mock proctor. The mock proctor
answered my questions throughout the day just as a real proctor would, graded
my test when I finished, and gave me an in-depth review of how I did, what
mistakes I made, and what I needed to work on.

And that brings us back to Cisco’s new CCIE Assessor Lab,
which is similar to the package I just described. With the Assessor Lab, you get
four hours, a rack of equipment, and an automatically generated computerized
score report when finished. While Cisco currently only offers this package for
the Routing and Switching track, it plans to add packages for the Security and
Voice tracks soon.

This package costs $349. However, Cisco is currently
offering a discounted price of $279 for each CCIE Assessor Lab scheduled before
March 31, 2006.

In conclusion, let’s look at the advantages and drawbacks of
Cisco’s new CCIE Assessor Lab.


  • Real
    Cisco proctors write these labs and update them periodically, which
    presents a big advantage over other third-party offerings.
  • The
    graded report offers much more detail than the actual lab exam.
  • This gives
    you an idea of what the lab exam will be like without the exorbitant cost
    and time that taking a trial run at the real lab would entail.


  • The
    package is only four hours long, while the real lab exam is about eight hours.
  • The
    test is computer-graded, and no real proctor is available while taking the

What’s your take on this new offering from Cisco? Post your
comments in this article’s discussion.

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David Davis has worked
in the IT industry for 12 years and holds several certifications, including
CCIE, MCSE+I, CISSP, CCNA, CCDA, and CCNP. He currently manages a group of
systems/network administrators for a privately owned retail company and
performs networking/systems consulting on a part-time basis.