Cloud networking certifications: Which one is right for you?

Cloud networking certifications: Which one is right for you?

Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud offer career boosting certifications in cloud networking.

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For network professionals looking to advance their career, cloud certifications can lead to more employment opportunities at higher salaries. In fact, the most in-demand certification across all of IT for 2022 is the entry level Amazon Web Services (AWS) Certified Cloud Practitioner, according to the latest report from recruiting firm Robert Half.

A credential can be exceptionally beneficial because it allows holders to demonstrate that they understand complex network designs and are able to help their organisations achieve business objectives in the cloud, says Ruby Nahal, cloud architect at Mission Cloud Services, a managed services provider.

"It's a continuous process to acquire critical skills and keep up with advancements and trends in your industry," says Gary Arora, co-dean of the Deloitte Cloud Institute, a cloud training organisation. "Especially in our rapidly changing line of work, cloud certifications will keep you current and confident."

But which cloud networking certification? Unlike a Cisco certification, which is recognised at any Cisco shop in the world, each cloud service provider has its own unique infrastructure. So, you need to choose between the Big 3 cloud platforms: AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Services.

What are the cloud networking certification options?

Each cloud service provider has its own certification track, with both entry level and advanced certifications. For IT professionals who want to specialise in cloud networking, you first need to pass an entry-level exam, then move up to the advanced options: AWS Advanced Networking Certification, Microsoft Azure Network Engineer Associate, or Google Professional Cloud Network Engineer.

When viewed as a group, all three certifications play an important role in the transfer of data and workloads to the cloud. 

"They are all very accessible to a broad base of existing, predominantly Cisco-trained engineers, to move their skills to the cloud," says Ann Wood, director of strategic alliances for network services and infrastructure firm BT Americas.

Wood notes that concepts related to software-defined networking, network security, virtual private networks (VPNs), load-balancing, network performance, and automation are not only portable, but apply across multi-cloud environments. "All three certifications overlap with each other on these topics," she says.

But network pros seeking to validate their cloud skills need to start somewhere. So, what are the considerations that IT professionals need to take into account when deciding on a certification track?

AWS vs. Microsoft vs. Google Cloud

The choice of which networking certification to pursue depends on a variety of factors. AWS is the market share leader, so if you’re simply looking at the most popular certification track, then AWS would be your first pick. However, if you’re working at a company that is planning a big shift to Azure, then getting the Microsoft cert might be the smart career move.

And since Google lags AWS and Azure in market share, you might find the field less crowded and your skills more in demand if you become certified in Google cloud networking. In fact, Global Knowledge, the IT training firm, ranked Google Cloud Professional Data Engineer and Google Cloud Professional Cloud Architect first and second, respectively, in its list of top paying certifications.

John Annand, a director in the infrastructure team at Info-Tech Research Group, says that when it comes to general cloud certification, it's really a toss-up between AWS and Azure. "Both provide detailed and specific knowledge on how to use their respective vendor’s tools to solve traditional problems the enterprise experiences in the public cloud," he says.

Apu Shah, a partner at IT consulting firm 28Stone Consulting gives the edge to AWS. "Amazon single-handedly created the cloud industry and continues to be the leader in innovation with its offerings," he says. "Both Azure and Google are worthy competitors and continue to gain market share, but there remains a very high demand for skilled AWS engineers."

Regardless of the path selected, it's important to remember that all professional or expert level certifications require a solid foundation based on several years of broad exposure to networking concepts. Don't attempt these certifications without preparing for them, Shah says. "Make a plan, pace yourself, take sample exams, and use online course materials to fill in your knowledge gaps."

It also pays to have realistic expectations. While certification can certainly strengthen resumes and advance careers, there's no guarantee that a newly acquired certificate will quickly lead to an ideal job opportunity. "It may take longer than you anticipate," Shah cautions.

Yet inaction is also a danger. "It's natural to be intimidated by the amount of work required, but don't make the biggest mistake of all -- doing nothing," he says.

How to get started with cloud networking certifications

The best way to get started is by visiting the certification issuer's website. "CSPs like AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google all provide free documentation and training to learn their platforms," says Ahmed Azam, vice president of infrastructure and cloud services at financial services firm Northwestern Mutual.

Entry level certifications are offered by all three of the major cloud providers. Prepare for those exams, Arora recommends, and assess your proficiency. "Then you can gradually build depth in your areas of interest and level-up to the next certification."

Before making a final certification exam selection, it's advisable to seek advice and support from technology colleagues. "Get some guidance from these professionals on what exams have had practical value to their careers," Azam advises.

Learning platforms, such as Pluralsight, A Cloud Guru, and LinkedIn Learning, offer an immersive and interactive way to learn about a specific platform and gain the skills necessary to achieve certification. 

Here's a closer look at the Big 3 cloud networking certs:

AWS Advanced Networking Certification

The AWS Advanced Networking Certification tests applicants on native cloud architectures, hybrid architectures, and all core services related to AWS networking. It also touches on advanced network security aspects. 

"Overall, it's a deep dive into the best practices of architecting AWS networks and hybrid networks, and those are very advantageous skills to have in the market as AWS adoption continues to grow quickly," Nahal says.

"This is now becoming an expected certificate by companies who have migrated or considering migrating to AWS," adds Jeff Woods, solution architect in the cloud and infrastructure practice at IT professional resourcing and managed services firm Experis.

Although certainly a potential career-booster, obtaining AWS advanced certification is hardly a snap. "This is a very difficult certification to pass," Woods says. "The exam is challenging, even for seasoned professionals."

This certification is intended for individuals with five years of hands-on experience architecting and implementing network solutions. Candidates should have experience with AWS security best practices, AWS storage options, and AWS networking, have knowledge of advanced networking architectures and interconnectivity options, and be able to design, implement and optimise global, cloud networks.

Azure Network Engineer Associate

Microsoft is a bit late to the game when it comes to it networking-focused certifications. It announced the Azure Network Engineer Associated certification in June of 2021.

Candidates for the Network Engineer certification should have expertise in recommending, planning, implementing, and maintaining Azure networking solutions, including hybrid networking, connectivity, routing, security, and private access to Azure services. They also need expert Azure administration skills since professionals in this role deploy networking solutions by using the Azure portal.

Azure network engineers work with solution architects, cloud administrators, security engineers, application developers, and DevOps engineers to deliver Azure solutions. The exam for this certification requires applications to design and implement VPNs, load balancers, firewalls, application gateways, web application firewalls, etc.

Google Professional Cloud Network Engineer

Google recommends that candidates for this certification have at least three years of industry experience and at least one year of experience with the Google Cloud.

The Cloud Network Engineer is expected to be able to use the Google Cloud Console and/or command line interface to implement and manage network services, application and container networking, hybrid and multi-cloud connectivity, virtual private clouds (VPCs), and security.

What if I flunk the test?

"If you fail your certification exam, the best thing to do is try to understand the areas of the exam where you underperformed." Azam says. "Most certification exams will give you a sense of how you performed in each domain; this information should guide you on the areas you will need to focus on as you prepare to retake the exam."

Vinny Carpenter, vice president, cloud and DevOps, at Northwestern Mutual, points out that everyone studies and learns differently. "What worked for me was taking lots of practice exams," he says. "Rather than studying the guide, I learned best by taking practice exams and studying the questions I got wrong."

Should I go for multiple certifications?

Possessing multiple certifications can be very useful, particularly in today's rapidly expanding multi-cloud environment. "One certification exam does not assess all the skills needed," Azam says. "This has led to the creation of specialised certification exams that target knowledge around data/databases, networking, security, machine learning/artificial intelligence, and so on."

What ultimately makes an enterprise IT expert highly sought after is the ability to interpret and meet business needs rather than simply regurgitating technical facts memorised for a certification exam. "It’s a dangerous fallacy to think you can get one and only one certification and then know everything you'll need to know," Annand says.

Technologies appear, evolve, and disappear rapidly. "If you want to remain in a technical operations role, you’re on a path of constant learning," Annand says. "Moving up into a strategy or leadership role requires less deep technical knowledge and more of an ability to communicate, negotiate, and prioritise." These skills can't be taught by certifications.

Azam agrees. "Certifications are a fantastic way to learn and demonstrate knowledge and competence in a specific technology," he says. However, certifications are not the end-all. 

"While certifications are a great way to attain the fundamental knowledge of cloud, the value of hands-on experience and solving real-life problems with cloud computing cannot be underestimated," he says.

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