Make your mark with these top network administration certs
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Certification Magazine.
Network administration is a popular IT niche full of challenge and variety. An admin may install a new server on Monday, spend Tuesday eradicating security vulnerabilities, and get his Wednesday going by hunting down a network bottleneck. Some networks admins routinely juggle scary-long task lists while others manage a more reasonable workload — it’s all determined by the size of the network(s) they manage and the scope of their job role.
According to IT salary tracking firm PayScale, network admins earn a decent paycheck for all this work: $53,483 per year on average. As experience goes up, network administrator paychecks can rise into the mid-$70,000 range. There are plenty of openings too: A recent check of the SimplyHired job board revealed more than 90,000 open network administrator positions.
Whether you’re an experienced network administrator looking to upgrade your current position, or a newbie who’d like to make your mark, the right network administration certs can help pave the way. There are literally dozens of networking-related certifications available, but these nine stand above the rest:
These credentials certify basic networking knowledge and, in some cases, additional know-how related to a particular vendor’s products. If you possess solid self-study skills and foundational IT knowledge, then you can self-prep for any of these certs. If formal classwork is more your style, classes are widely available.
CompTIA Network+ — Network+ is the go-to certification for those seeking an entry-level networking certification that isn’t tied to a particular vendor’s products. An individual with Network+ in hand might serve as the administrator of a small corporate network, or work as an IT support specialist. Pay-Scale’s range of starting annual salaries for this cert is approximately $40,000 to $60,000.
Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) — The CCNA is a widely recognized credential that provides evidence of general entry-level networking knowledge and also serves as a stepping stone to higher-level (and more valuable) Cisco certifications.It’s a worthwhile cert even if you don’t plan to climb the Cisco certification ladder. The CCNA can open the door to entry-level networking admin and support positions — whether or not a Cisco-based environment is being utilized. PayScale’s range of starting annual salaries for this cert is roughly $50,000 to $90,000.
Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA): Infrastructure — MTA: Infrastruture is the first certification on the Microsoft Windows networking track. You won’t see this one requested by name in many job postings, but even though the certification may not be widely-known, the products it covers (Microsoft Windows and Windows Server) are widely used. If you’re looking for an admin or support role in a Windows-based environment, this is a basic starting credential. PayScale’s range of starting annual salaries for this cert is roughly $40,000 to $45,000 for job candidates with 0-5 years Microsoft networking experience.
When you’re ready to prove network administration know-how that goes beyond the basics, you’ll need to step up from the three credentials listed above. The good news is that the higher you climb in networking skills and experience, the more certification options become realistically available to you.
Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) — The CCNP adds a lot more Cisco-specific know-how to the body of knowledge covered in the CCNA, which makes it most suitable for intermediate- to advanced-level admins who work in a Cisco-based networking environment. The core specialization is Routing and Switching, but tracks for wireless networking, security, and other specialties also exist, which may be even better suited to you depending on your career goals. CCNPs often work as network admins, or networking support, or in IT specialist positions such as network security. PayScale’s range of starting annual salaries for this cert is roughly $60,000 to $90,000.
Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) — It’s only one step up from the Microsoft MTA on paper, but the MCSA indicates a substantially greater skill level. It’s available in a variety of tracks tied to Microsoft product lines. The most appropriate for network admins is MCSA: Windows Server (either 2008 or 2012). There’s still some confusion lingering between this and the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator designation. They share the same acronym, but the latter (which covers Windows Server 2003) has been replaced by this one. IT pros with MCSA certification typically work as network admins or network support specialists in a Windows environment. PayScale’s range of starting annual salaries for this cert is roughly $50,000 to $80,000.
Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) — If you’re already a Windows Server network admin, then this is a great certification to plant on top of your existing MCSA. IT recruiters recognize it instantly. It’s higher level and better known, too. MCSE certification is available in a variety of tracks keyed to specific job roles, including Server Infrastructure, Desktop Infrastructure, and MCSE: Private Cloud. Choose the track that best fits your career aspirations. For example, if you’re looking to segue into cloud computing, MCSE: Private Cloud would fill the bill.
Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) — Linux is a favored web server operating system — a lot of the Internet runs on it, though not necessarily on Red Hat Linux.Although there are numerous different distributions of Linux, there’s a great deal of overlap among flavors, so an expert in Red Hat Linux is considered an expert in Linux in general. This certification is frequently cited in job postings seeking Linux systems administrators or technical support engineers.
It’s lonely at the top. Generally speaking, you want one or the other of the following two super certs to make a splash when you’re targeting top-level network admin jobs.
Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) —If your ultimate goal is a high-end job managing large and complex networks for big organizations (and making big bucks), then earning Cisco’s CCIE Routing and Switching credential will pretty much stamp your resume with “in demand.” To earn it, you’ll have to demonstrate absolute mastery of Cisco’s routers and switches, as well as the software that runs on them — hardware and software that underpins much of the Internet as well as corporate networks. CCIEs often work for Cisco Partners as consultants, or in data centers as senior network engineers or network architects. The CCIE has multiple track options, but routing and switching is considered the core specialization. PayScale’s range of starting annual salaries for this cert is roughly $90,000 to $130,000.
Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) — The RHCE indicates high-end Linux mastery and signifies the ability to design as well as administer Linux networking environments. This is the top Linux certification available and has solid name recognition. Slap one of these on your resume, and IT recruiters will sit up and take notice. RHCE’s are often responsible for large networks and may work in data centers or serve as consultants. PayScale’s range of starting annual salaries for this cert is roughly $70,000 to $100,000.
EVEN MORE Certifications for Network Administrators
You might have noticed the absence from this list of certifications offered by Citrix and VMware. It’s not an oversight. While cloud-related credentials such as those companies offer have become increasingly valuable on a network administrator’s resume, both of these vendors require you to attend their training in order to take their certification exams.
That, in our view, makes them certificates of completion, rather than certifications. A true certification allows candidates to train however they wish, or even challenge the exam using on-the-job experience only. Even so, due to their increasing importance, you’d probably be well served by finding out more about what Citrix and VMware have to offer.
And while this list offers up top picks for network administration certs, there are lots of additional worthwhile contenders to consider. Juniper Networks, Teradata, HP and many other vendors offer a slew of credentials that may slot perfectly into your resume.