As it currently stands, seven new Microsoft Windows Server 2003 certification exams are scheduled for beta testing in the months of June and August. I’ll briefly run through the purpose for each of those exams and then compare their objectives to provide a list of the top 10 subject areas you should focus on to be ready to upgrade your certification.

Two of the new exams are upgrades for existing certifications. The others will be a part of a track toward certification under the new operating system for those not already holding a Microsoft MCSA or MCSE certification. All of the exams are geared toward administrators who have experience using the network operating system in an environment supporting at least 250 users in at least three physical locations with a minimum of three domain controllers.

The exams
The seven new exams soon to be making their first appearance, in numerical order, are:

Areas of focus
The key topics for these exams overlap a great deal. Not only does this signal the overall importance of the topics, but also provides you with a means of optimizing your studies. For example, when a topic appears on three exams, you should breathe easier knowing that the time you must invest in mastering that topic for one exam will be offset by time you don’t have to spend doing the same for two other exams.

With that said, the following list consists of the top 10 topic areas you should begin to master now. Doing so will prepare you to authenticate your skills with the new network operating system when the upcoming exams release:

#1: Recognize the importance of IPSec security
Almost anytime you see the phrase “network security” as part of a topic (domain/objective), IPSec falls into one or more of the subobjectives. One of the first places to turn for information to get you on the right track in mastering this subject is “How to: Configure IPSec Tunneling in Windows Server 2003.” To round out the security domain, you should also read the document “Security Innovations in Windows Server 2003.”

#2: Understand PKI
Just as “network security” so often implies IPSec, “security infrastructure” implies Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). Start with the “Technical Overview of Windows Server 2003 Security Services” and then read the secedit commands.

#3: Know what Active Directory can now do
All vendors like to use their certification exams as extensions of their marketing tools. As a result, they do not ask questions that point out flaws in the network operating system. Instead, they ask questions about how much greater their features are than they were or how they are better than a competitor’s. With the release of Windows 2003, Active Directory has some new tools and features you should become familiar with.

#4: Know the improvements to networking
As simple as TCP/IP and its components have become to implement and configure, Microsoft is always looking for ways to make improvements. When steps are simplified, they often have a way of becoming test fodder, so be sure to download the “Technical Overview of Windows Server 2003 Networking and Communications.”

#5: Realize the steps necessary to upgrade
What’s the use of releasing a new network operating system if those you certify in it don’t know how to upgrade from the previous NOS? Expect to see some questions on differences between 2000 and 2003, which you can find in the reviewer’s guide. You’ll also spot more questions about how to move from Windows 2000 to Windows 2003. For this, you should study the white paper “Upgrading from Windows 2000 Server to Windows Server 2003.”

#6: Understand software and updating
This topic includes not only software updates, but also the security of updating. Common sense factors in a great deal here. Microsoft wants you to keep software updated and to place security above everything else. You will benefit from reading “Guide to Application Compatibility Changes in Windows Server 2003.”

#7: Know the fundamentals of Terminal Services
A few new items have been added to TS this time around, and there are features of Windows XP that can be integrated. For an in-depth explanation, read the “Technical Overview of Windows Server 2003 Terminal Services.”

#8: Be familiar with disaster recovery
No longer confined to a RAID implementation (but you better still know the levels), there is now Automated System Recovery (ASR). ASR allows a single-step restore of the OS, system state, and hardware configuration in case disaster strikes. As of this writing, there are no specific postings of any value to study for this topic on Windows 2003. However, ASR became available with the release of Windows XP, and you can learn about the technology by reading “How to Set up and Use Automated System Recovery in Windows XP.”

#9: Appreciate “high availability”
Most of the time, high availability implies the use of a cluster and/or load balancing. But it’s not enough to understand this concept. You’ll need to know the tools and when to use them. To get a jump on this information, read “Technical Overview of Windows Server 2003 Clustering Services.”

#10: Comprehend the possibilities of Group Policy
Although actually a subset of Active Directory, Group Policy goes a long way toward making large systems manageable. It’s also a technology that Microsoft is extremely proud of. Start your studies with the “Group Policy Infrastructure White Paper” and supplement that with the download “Troubleshooting Group Policy in Windows Server 2003.”

Emmett’s recommendation
Microsoft Windows Server 2003 is a network OS that will be easing its way into large enterprises for the next several years. As it gains acceptance, the need for certified administrators will grow. The certification exams for this technology are scheduled to go to beta this summer, and with a bit of study, you can get a jump-start on your certification preparations.