My VCAP5-DCD Experience

The VCAP-DCD550 is a hard exam. I’d go as far as to say the hardest exam I’ve ever done. Basically, unless you’ve actually worked for a VMware reseller as a designer and had hands-on experience installing and maintaining the technology, it will be a very tough slog indeed.

However, even with this knowledge and experience, it’s still a difficult exam to master. Part of the challenge is getting your head around all of the terminology, best practices and VMware’s way of design and implementation. It’s been widely acknowledged that the DCD510 version was easier yet longer, as multiple choice was added to the mix and I also believe you couldn’t go back to review a question once you’d clicked “Next”. Having done many exams before this one, namely Cisco exams, this wouldn’t have been anything new to me but for anyone who’s used to being able to go back and review it’s tough! No time to second guess, and that clock will tick down in brutal fashion.

Where does the VCAP (soon to be called VCIX) stand on the scale?

This is a good question, something I don’t really know myself! Since there’s now an Associate level of certification, namely VMware Certified Associate, I guess it’s the VMware equivalent of a CCIE (Cisco) so if we were to look at it objectively:

[CCNA] > [CCNP] > [CCIE] > [CCAr] vs [VCA] > [VCP] > [VCAP / VCIX] > [VCDX]

Do employers know about this qualification?

Not really, and I’m saying this from the perspective of a consultant who speaks to quite a wide range of companies, from both a pre-sales and existing client perspective. It’s gaining traction in the marketplace only because more and more people are attempting to get it, and I think that’s great. I believe that the future of computing is virtualisation (which of course forms the backbone of cloud computing), and anybody who disagrees would more than likely be someone who’s been sitting in a basement for the past 10 years. The skills you learn as a VMware consultant will be transferrable from one vendor to another, because at the end of the day the core principles are much the same. We are definitely seeing a shift from traditional data centre architecture of distinct layers (compute, networking and storage) into hyperconverged infrastructure. Now essentially what this means is taking those layers and putting them into a single box. Nutanix for example has created a “black box” where 4 “nodes” co-exist in a single 2RU unit. I see a few problems with this for small scale deployments – example, what happens if the unit needs to be brought down for maintenance? Surely all nodes would go down, and if your business were running on a single black box, everything would go down. As you scale out, I’m sure it gets less risky but these boxes are around £120,000 each! They also come with other prerequisites such as minimum of 10GbE networking. So to put this solution in would require a fairly decent network infrastructure or another CapEx spend.

The more people that obtain this qualification, the more aware the marketplace will be of it and the more valued it will become. Just as the CCIE is ubiquitous with the elite of the world of networking, so will advanced VMware certifications in the world of virtualisation.

Back to the exam!

I always kick off certification acquisition the same way no matter what the process: book the exam. Does it require multiple exams? Same thing, just book the first one you need to get the qualification.

I completed the VCAP-DCA550 in June after a few months of studying. I found this exam tough but fun, get the blueprint and lab everything out over and over again. My day-to-day job got easier through this process as I started learning of quicker way to do things. Simple things like changing the default PSP on an ESXi host.

I decided to keep the momentum going by getting the VCAP-DCD550 as well, although a lot of people in the community are waiting on the VCIX6-DCD exam which is due out very soon now. Personally, I love getting certifications so one more wouldn’t hurt and I plan on taking the VCIX6-DCD when it’s out in any case, so nothing was lost there. I can’t see the actual content being very different, although I’ve heard rumours that the exam is going to match the 510 more closely given the extremely high failure rate of the 550 version. Not many people pass it first time around – a lot of people have failed it 4 / 5 times and given up altogether.

Having designed quite a few VMware infrastructures now myself, as well as implement them, I picked up some bad habits. Once you’ve booked the exam, I strongly recommend you join the Google+ study group and make yourself known to the community. There are a lot of very clever like-minded people there who have the same goals as you do: be better at VMware infrastructure design. There’s a wealth of knowledge there as well as exam experiences and advice.

The next thing you should do is take a look at the exam simulator built by a great guy called Jason Grierson at www.virtualtiers.net – this will give you some idea of what to expect come exam day. Note that this simulator was built around the 510 version and as such the multiple choice won’t feature in the 550 but the actual questions and answers are still relevant to the 550, things such as Availability, Manageability, Security etc. Once you reach the end of the test exam, you’ll be able to download a very good study pack.

I bought myself a copy of the official study guide from Amazon. This isn’t a long book and won’t take you long to read, but it’s very technical so it needs a lot of concentration (I struggle to concentrate hard for long periods of time, so it took me a long time to read it all and absorb it). This will teach you the correct way of thinking with regards to designing VMware infrastructure as VMware would.

In the real world, I’m a huge advocate of Veeam and use it religiously in my design and deployments. In this exam, you’ll have to switch to being an advocate of VDP (VMware Data Protection). This is actually included with vSphere Essentials Plus and above, whereas VDP Advanced is a standalone product (note as of vSphere 6 Advanced is included with vSphere Essentials Plus and up). They’re both separate appliances, used mainly for backing up your infrastructure locally. If you need cross-site data protection, SRM (Site Recovery Manager) will be your new friend.

Learning the dependencies and nuts and bolts of all of these products is a very important aspect of being successful with this exam.

In large deployments, Auto Deploy and stateless ESXi instances is something that is very useful. In smaller deployments ( < 50 hosts) I probably wouldn’t use it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know it. Remember that VMware wants you to advocate their products, and part of being a good designer is knowing about all the different options out there and not talking to customers with blinkers on – this is someting a bad salesperson will do, only because they don’t know what else is out there so it’s their product or they’re not interested. This is not in the best interests of the customer.

Another whitepaper I found very useful for my studies was this sample VCDX application – in it you’ll learn how a VCDX approaches designing a vSphere platform and rationalising design choices. I am in fact busy designing a private cloud solution platform and this also helped with my studies, but you could do a mock design based loosely on this whitepaper which puts you in the position of thinking like a designer.

Further resources include dependency mappings which were put together by members of the Google+ study group.

VMware’s Networking Best Practices whitepaper is also a good read and will stand you in good stead for the exam.

Remember not to focus on third party vendors, it’s VMware or nothing for this exam. If you decide to pursue your VCDX afterwards, that’s when you can start thinking third party.

Should you take a course?

I’ve heard mixed things about the Design Workshop that VMware offers and decided against it – some people said that 90% of the information was useful to know, but irrelevant at the end of the day. Since time is quite precious for me, I decided to go back to my own designs and replace third party solutions with VMware solutions. What would Veeam be replaced with? What would a NetApp SAN be replaced with for a converged infrastructure?

There are a number of other books out there that people have found useful, but I didn’t need to use them. I’m sure I’ll be reading them at some point to learn more, but the official study guide was the only book I went and bought.

That’s all I used to study, but I can’t stress enough that nothing will truly prepare you for this exam. I failed it the first time, partly because my studies were too focussed on actual designing rather than VMware features. I filled in those knowledge gaps and passed on my second attempt – I had to make distinct mental notes during the exam on what I realised I didn’t know enough about. Those damn dependencies!!

If you have any questions I will do my best to advise (but note I will not break the NDA so don’t bother asking about specific questions).

The learning doesn’t stop once the exam is passed, in fact it’s only just begun!

And lastly, good luck! It’s a tough but passable exam and I would encourage anyone who wants to prove their design knowledge to book the exam and pass it.

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