Geek of All Trades: The new certifications

There’s a whole “new” crop of reconfigured and reclassified Microsoft certification exams, but how much has the focus and the gravitas changed?

Greg Shields

The Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) is back, but does this mark a return to the good old days? Microsoft’s resurrection of the long-treasured MCSE could reignite certification’s glory days of long lines at testing centers and sold-out classrooms. The biggest question is: Do certifications still matter? And will today’s test objectives stand above the issues experienced by the last generation of MCSE-certified IT professionals?

Those questions will be fully answered in time. For now, though, we can peer deeply into the variety of new MCSEs with an eye toward the technologies Microsoft deems important. If you haven’t looked yet, you might be surprised at the focus of their attention.

I say “‘Cloud,’ you say ‘System Center’

The Microsoft certification overview Web site states the new generation of MCSEs has been reinvented “to maintain their market relevance as the industry shifts to the cloud.” The cloud is in fact a central theme in all of the current literature regarding the new certification program. The previous Microsoft IT professional certifications, the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), are categorized under Microsoft Certifications. The new Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) and MCSE certs are referred to as Microsoft Cloud-built Certifications.

While that distinction might be important to Microsoft, I wonder how it will be percieved by the everyday IT professional. Many don’t yet see themselves as caretakers of a cloud-based datacenter, although many work within virtual environments that fit the definition—more or less.

Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find the term “cloud” has special meaning for Microsoft. Look through the objectives in any new-generation MCSE exam. You’ll likely surmise that for Microsoft, “Cloud-built” does in fact mean “System Center.”

Microsoft Exam 70-415 is an excellent example. This exam is the first of two (the other being 70-416) required to upgrade a new-generation MCSA to an MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure. While you can easily accomplish the majority of objectives atop Windows Server 2012 by itself, a remarkable few require System Center experience.

For example, the 70-415 objective, “Implement Zero Touch deployment,” is a task you can only accomplish with the help of System Center Configuration Manager. Another objective, titled “Implement an updates infrastructure,” requires actions in Configuration Manager and System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM). Objectives in 70-416 include references to App-V (“Manage application virtualization environments” and “Design and implement a resilient virtual application delivery infrastructure”), as well as Configuration Manager (“Deploy applications to the desktop” and “Plan and implement application updates”).

The days are gone when a prospective MCSE could learn everything he needed from Windows Server. Getting MCSE-certified these days requires myriad “other” skills that will require additional effort.

MCSA: The new MCSE

It’s worth mentioning that the MCSE prerequisite certification—the MCSA—doesn’t appear to have the same focus on System Center. While System Center experience doesn’t appear necessary for a prospective MCSA test-taker, a casual review of objectives reveals a more mature MCSA. This isn’t your father’s entry-level certification. The objective domains in this generation’s MCSA exams feel eerily similar to those in the last generation’s MCSE.

Obtaining the MCSA requires passing three exams: Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012 (70-410), Administering Windows Server 2012 (70-411), and Configuring Advanced Windows Server 2012 Services (70-412). Passing these three now requires a broader range of topics that will greatly challenge the last generation’s “paper MCSEs.”

For example, answering the questions in the 70-411 exam (Administering Windows Server 2012) requires knowledge across a wide array of technologies with acronyms such as WDS, WSUS, DCS, DFS, FSRM, ERS, DNS, VPNs, NPS, NAP, SPNs, UGMC, RODCs, GPOs, CSEs and even a little DirectAccess to boot. As a test-taker, if these acronyms mean nothing, you’ve got a long road ahead. Obtaining today’s MCSA might indeed be just as challenging as obtaining the last generation’s MCSE.

MCSE ‘flavors’

The new MCSE has evolved beyond its original intent, so that realization is actually a good thing. An oft-noted problem of the last MCSE was its binary nature. You either had it, or you didn’t. As a consequence, the process of attainment became less important than the actual attaining. Jane may have taken a more challenging path to her certification, involving elective tests in obtuse and complex technologies. John chose Network Essentials and IIS. At the end of the day, though, both are MCSEs.

The new MCSE program attempts to change that perception by eliminating the previous generation’s electives. Replacing them is a variety of “flavors” of the MCSE. A candidate with server experience can obtain an MCSE: Server Infrastructure by taking one path. Another who focuses on desktops can take another path for the MCSE: Desktop Infrastructure. There are MCSE: SQL Server 2012 and MCSE: Private Cloud certifications also available.

One assumes that each of these new flavors better focuses the proven skills of the certification holder on the topics of interest to that person’s employer or potential employers.

‘A mile wide and an inch deep’

One of these flavors merits special attention due to its focus on essentially everything within the Microsoft wheelhouse—MCSE: Private Cloud. Among the range of new certifications, this one is a bit of an enigma. Its test objectives bring to mind a saying long ago associated with the objectives in the (ISC)2 CISSP exam: “They’re a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Like all flavors of the MCSE, obtaining the MCSE: Private Cloud first requires obtaining an MCSA. The difference here, however, is that that MCSA is in Windows Server 2008. The current MCSE: Private Cloud also notably tests against Windows Server 2008 R2 technologies and not Windows Server 2012. Then, you’ll need to complete two exams. One is 70-247 (Configuring and Deploying a Private Cloud with System Center 2012), and the other is 70-246 (Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012).

This MCSE is different in part because its focus is almost entirely on System Center technologies. It even tests against the core hypervisor that sits on Windows Server 2008 R2. To pass 70-247, you’ll need to know Hyper-V. You’ll also need experience in almost the entire System Center suite, including VMM, Data Protection Manager, App Controller, Service Manager, App-V and Operations Manager. Only Configuration Manager appears to be absent from the objectives.

Whereas the 70-247 exam focuses on laying down the building blocks for a private cloud, 70-246 tests on monitoring and operations. A review of its objectives reveals that it tests against the same System Center components in this exam as in the other one (with the exception of Orchestrator, which has been added to one objective domain). Only the tasks you’ll be accomplishing with those System Center components are different. As its name suggests, you won’t be building your private cloud here. You’ll be automating its operations.

Breadth of topics: a challenge for the classroom approach?

The Microsoft certification program has historically aligned its exams with Microsoft Official Academic Courses. That trend doesn’t change with this generation of MCSE. What may change, however, is the efficacy in learning the necessary content via the traditional classroom learning approach.

Bluntly put, there’s a ridiculous amount of content to cover, and the best classroom instructors tend to be those with personal experience in implementing the technologies they teach. That personal experience can be hard to find when the range of testable topics in any exam is so broad across Windows Server and the entire System Center portfolio.

That classroom learning experience might also be hindered by the sheer number of virtual machines (VMs) required to drive all these functions. That count of VMs is exacerbated by an insidious limitation of System Center. Each component must be installed to its own Windows Server instance. Powering them all might require a significant hardware investment for the learning centers that offer the courses. The System Center components are large in number and hungry in hardware requirements. You can’t help but wonder if alternative learning approaches such as prerecorded computer-based training might have an advantage here in best delivering the knowledge transfer.

Re-legitimizing the MCSE

Having said all this, this MCSE is indeed an impressive certification. The breadth of its content can be overwhelming for the typical IT professional just starting out in his career. That same breadth, however, is also this MCSE’s greatest strength. Many last-generation MCSE holders felt betrayed by the diminishing value of their certification effort as scores of minimally experienced individuals lined up with certification papers in hand.

Make no mistake, this MCSE appears to be quite a bit harder to obtain. While that difficulty might not reinvigorate a second explosion in Microsoft IT certification, it does stand to create a smaller and more reliable cadre of experienced and proven IT professionals. That’s the kind of certification legitimacy that ultimately benefits everyone.

Greg Shields

Greg Shields, MVP, is a partner at Concentrated Technology. Get more of Shields’ Jack-of-all-trades tips and tricks at