Demystifying the Changes to CCIE R&S v5.0

Why a blog about CCIE Routing and Switching?

At almost every Cisco Live session where I’ve presented during the past four years, I get asked to write down the speech in a blog. I don’t know if it’s due to my non-native English accent, which might be difficult to understand at times, or if it’s simply the diversity of learning styles and preferences – or both. In any case, I too have felt that it could be valuable to put some thoughts down in a blog and share them with a broader audience.


So, now that CCIE Routing and Switching v5.0 (CCIE R&S) is out, I'll be sharing some recurrent discussion points, hoping that they might help some of you as you prepare for your CCIE R&S certification.


Where can I find the official documentation?

If you are reading this article, it is, hopefully, not a surprise that the CCIE R&S certification has just undergone a major program revision. As of June 4, 2014, the four-year-old CCIE R&S v4.0 has been retired worldwide and replaced by CCIE R&S v5.0. With this new version, there are a number of important changes to the program – both in terms of content and exam format – that candidates will want to be aware of when preparing for the exam.


There are a number of official CCIE R&S documents, supporting videos, and session recordings that have been published on the Cisco Learning Network and other sites. Here are some useful links:


Rather than review the content in the links above, I will instead give my personal opinion regarding the changes.


Wait, why change the exam? Relevancy! Validity!

As you know, the only constant in life is change. This is especially true in the IT industry, where the pace of change is rapidly increasing. And since CCIE certifications are validating and endorsing the Expert-level skills of network engineers, these certifications have to stay aligned with the current technologies that are widely used in the field. This alignment ensures that the certifications remain relevant in the market and maintain their established reputation as being some of the most respected IT certifications.


Let’s focus more specifically on CCIE R&S. It validates the Expert-level skills of engineers, whose job tasks are related to the network infrastructure, including Layer 2, Layer 3, and VPN technologies. Though the infrastructure technologies have not dramatically changed from four years ago when CCIE  R&S was last revised, there are a number of technologies that have become either more or less relevant, and therefore some adjustments to the curriculum were required in order to keep the certification aligned with current job roles.


At the end of the day, don’t you or your current or future employer want this certification to validate the skills that you use every day, and not obsolete ones?


Like General Eric Shinseki once said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

In a nutshell, what has changed? Virtual! Diagnostic!

In order to improve the exam’s relevancy, adjustments were made to both the content and the lab exam format. You will definitely want to carefully review the official documentation and get a comprehensive list of the changes. What you will discover is that most of the topic changes apply to the written exam. The lab exam has essentially added two substantial topics (DMVPN and IPsec) and removed some other large topics like Frame Relay, PfR, and ZBF. Hopefully, a minimally qualified candidate (MQC) is already working with, or at least able to learn, these two new lab topics in a relatively short period of time. I think that the new lab exam format is actually more significant than the addition of these two topics. Indeed, the new lab exam is now fully virtual, has new timing and scoring rules, and, last but not least, has a whole new exam module called “diagnostic.”




What is the new diagnostic module and why has it been added?

The addition of the new diagnostic (DIAG) module increases the modular approach of the lab exam, introduced with CCIE R&S v4.0, from two to three modules.


The main objective of DIAG is to evaluate the candidate’s thought process when troubleshooting a networking issue. This deepens the assessment of the candidate’s troubleshooting skill, which is the key differentiator between an MQC and a non-MQC at the Expert level.


Just like a medical doctor or a mechanic, professionals need to identify what the problem is before fixing it. Similarly, a network engineer must analyze what the root cause of an issue is before effectively applying a possible solution.


In the troubleshooting (TS) module, points are granted when any possible solution that does not violate any guidelines or constraints is effectively implemented. All that matters in TS is that the symptom is resolved and that the solution is appropriate, regardless of how the candidate came to identify the root cause.


On the other hand, DIAG focuses exactly on the first few steps of the troubleshooting activities or workflow. Which device, interface, or feature is or is not causing the reported symptoms? What information is missing in order to progress in the troubleshooting workflow? What is the order of operations that produced the reported symptoms? What changes should or should not be performed in order to isolate the issue without causing more harm to the network?


These are some examples of question styles that DIAG will use in order to assess the root cause analysis of a networking issue. In some ways, this kind of assessment was present in the very early days of the CCIE exam, when the lab exam spanned two days and the proctor verbally asked the candidate to explain the rationale that led to identifying the root causes. However, there were no formal points granted for these explanations, and in many cases, the reliability of the assessment could be biased by the proctor’s subjectivity.


As explained and demonstrated in the online resources, the format of the new DIAG module has been designed so that there is only one possible answer to the question being asked, thus removing all subjectivity and ensuring a deterministic scoring.


Another important aspect of DIAG that I’d like to mention is that, in my opinion, it should be familiar to experienced engineers, who are used to troubleshooting networking issues while not having direct access to the console of remote devices. The questions are presented like support tickets for which somebody – a customer, a first-line support person, or a colleague – is providing a set of documents and asking the candidate to help resolve an issue. This is hopefully a very common situation for an MQC.


Going virtual makes it more realistic!

Governments, academia, and other industries extensively use simulators for training and testing purposes because of obvious advantages, including minimizing cost and risk compared to using real gear, environments, or situations. Think about airline companies using flight simulators, the military using war games, Formula 1 drivers training on racing simulators, medical doctors practicing in simulated clinical environments, etc.


There are far fewer limits in the virtual world as compared to the real world for offering options that dramatically improve the diversity of assessment environments, situations, circumstances, or conditions, and that are simply not possible to simulate otherwise.


With CCIE R&S v4.0, the troubleshooting module was already using virtual routers and switches, but the configuration module was still based on a fixed set of five hardware routers and four switches. So, the lab scenarios were not very plausible or realistic. How many networks have only five routers? If any, how many technologies could be tested using this very limited number of nodes? Using virtual routers completely eliminates this huge limitation. Now we can easily build network topologies that mimic real-world enterprise networks, featuring a more realistic combination of technologies. This in turn, dramatically improves the relevancy of the lab scenarios. In other words, going virtual makes it more realistic!


What else?

There are other important changes to the lab exam, briefly mentioned above and detailed in the official documentation – like new scoring and timing rules – that you will want to understand before taking a shot at the exam. I’ll share my thoughts about these changes in upcoming blog posts. I’ll also give some recommendations about how to approach the exam and build an efficient strategy to tackle it. But for now, I’ll conclude this post with this thought: All of these changes to the program were done to protect YOUR investment of energy, time, money, and resources that are required when legitimately pursuing your career certification, and ultimately advancing your career! On a side note, these changes help me – and the whole certification team – sleep well at night, knowing that any pass/fail decision made on any exam attempt was valid, reliable, fair, and, quite simply, deserved.


Please share your feedback in the comments below, and I'll do my best to respond in a timely manner.