Ask any seasoned networking engineer and she will probably agree with you that troubleshooting skills are similar to an insurance policy everyone agrees that it’s a good idea, but nobody wants to pay for it, and when you need it, you need it badly. It’s also the skill that could make or break your career there's nothing worse than a lack of troubleshooting skills in a mission-critical network down situation. Having said all that, you would expect that people put great emphasis on gaining troubleshooting skills. Unfortunately, like with insurance policies, troubleshooting aspects of networking education are largely ignored ... at least until something really bad happens.
In this article, we first define various levels of troubleshooting, then we look into how the troubleshooting skills are covered in the Cisco® Career Certification processes. We finish this article by giving a few hints on how you can gain these valuable skills.
What Is Troubleshooting?
You could define network troubleshooting in a variety of ways. We will limit ourselves to a simple definition based on what you’re trying to troubleshoot:
The simplest variety of troubleshooting is configuration troubleshooting making sure your configuration works. It’s the simplest because you usually know the environment, you know what you did in the past, and you know what you want to achieve.
The break-fix troubleshooting is more complex you are faced with a broken (sometimes unknown) network, you work under time pressure, and you don’t have all the information you might need.
The hardest part of troubleshooting is debugging someone else’s software for example, trying to figure out if a certain router’s behavior is a result of your misconfiguration or a bug in the underlying software. This part of troubleshooting is best left to engineers with in-depth knowledge of the software in question for example, engineers in the Cisco Technical Assistance Center (TAC).
Troubleshooting and Cisco Career Certifications
Various Career Certifications from Cisco Systems include different levels of troubleshooting education and testing. The one most concentrated on troubleshooting is the CCNP certification which includes the Cisco Internetworking Troubleshooting (CIT) course, available from authorized Cisco Learning Partners as well as a targeted troubleshooting exam.
Recent changes to the CCIE certification have resulted in a different focus on troubleshooting. The CCIE certification process once included a two-day lab test that contained tough configuration exercises (including, obviously, configuration troubleshooting), and a half-day break-fix troubleshooting session. With the shortening of the CCIE lab exam to one day, the break-fix troubleshooting session has disappeared. The end result is that today’s CCIEs are not tested on their break-fix troubleshooting skills as they once were. The candidate’s ability to troubleshoot networks is actually being tested throughout today’s lab exam. The new CCIE lab format will not have a separate troubleshooting section, but will place a premium on time, which means that strong troubleshooting skills will be an essential element of success.
Currently, the CCIP certification includes minimal troubleshooting education or skills testing. Some of the CCIP courses (for example, the MPLS course) include detailed troubleshooting information. Others, such as the BSCI course, do not cover troubleshooting beyond a description of monitoring and debugging commands. This limited troubleshooting focus keeps with the current CCIP exam certification track because there is no troubleshooting-focused exam.
Gaining Troubleshooting Skills
With the current level of troubleshooting information in the certification training and exams, the question you need to ask is, "How will I gain these crucial skills?" All troubleshooting, regardless of its complexity, is best performed if you understand the technology you’re trying to troubleshoot. Therefore, you must focus on gaining as much insight into the technology as possible. This means, among other things:
Attending advanced courses, even if they are not part of the recommended curriculum. For example, if the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) or Integrated Intermediate System-to-Intermediate System (Integrated IS-IS) protocols are important to you, you need to consider attending the Configuring BGP on Cisco Routers (CBCR) and Configuring IS-IS on Cisco Routers (CISIS) courses because these topics are covered in far greater detail in these advanced courses than within the BSCI course. To learn about advanced instructor-led and e-learning courses available from authorized Cisco Learning Partners, visit http://www.cisco.com/en/US/learning/.
Reading Cisco Press books that cover the technologies you need in your job. These books usually contain more technology information than the corresponding training. Cisco Press recently released Troubleshooting IP Routing Protocols, which falls within the CCIE Professional Development series. It's the first in a series of troubleshooting-focused books. Visit www.ciscopress.com for a complete catalog of products and for updates on new releases available from Cisco Press.
To gain configuration-troubleshooting skills, you must perform as much configuration work as possible on tough assignments. Try to do the following:
Optimize your investment in the classes you attend. Forget the recipes that sometimes come with the configuration exercises and try to think about what needs to be done and how you will do it.
Find configuration lab exercises that slightly exceed your abilities. Several CCIE preparation Cisco Press books are a good source of these exercises if you own enough equipment to perform them or can get access to equipment through a remote lab. Many titles from the CCIE Professional Development Series, such as Cisco LAN Switching and Routing TCP/IP, Volume II, offer troubleshooting coverage. Another Cisco Press title, CCIE Practical Studies, Volume I, is made up entirely of labs that provide hands-on experience in a variety of CCIE topics. You should also consider doing remote lab exercises. The vendors that specialize in them are Skyline Computer Corporation (www.skylinecomputer.com) for the enterprise market and NIL Data Communications (www.ccip.com/ls/rlab) for the service provider market. For a list of Cisco Learning Partners who provide remote lab access and exercises, visit http://www.cisco.com/en/US/learning/.
There is only one way you’ll gain real break-fix troubleshooting skills: You need to perform that task. Playing with a real network is usually not an option and it’s hard to find a colleague who will break your router configurations in a challenging way. The only options left to you are attending courses that include troubleshooting exercises (some learning partners in Europe include a troubleshooting lab as part of their BGP, OSPF, EIGRP or IS-IS courses; check with them before registering for the course, and visit http://www.cisco.com/en/US/learning/ for a list of Cisco Learning Partners) or performing remote lab exercises focused on troubleshooting. These are exceedingly rare; the only ones I’m aware of are the BGP troubleshooting exercises from NIL Data Communications.
Troubleshooting is a crucial skill that can make or break your career. Unfortunately, it’s often neglected, and it is difficult to get the necessary hands-on experience. The few things that can help you in this respect are the following:
Attending advanced training classes to gain in-depth insight into the relevant technologies.
Reading advanced Cisco Press books.
Improving your hands-on skills by completing challenging lab exercises and dedicated troubleshooting exercises.
Last, but definitely not least, gaining real-life experience in operating a real network is the best training there is.