Breaking Down the New CCNA Exam: Automation and Programmability

by Jim Goughenour

This is the sixth and final in a series of articles on the six sections of Cisco’s CCNA certification exam 200-301, which earns the CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) certification.

In this series, we’re taking a look at all the many topics you need to know for the Cisco’s 200-301 CCNA certification exam. The 200-301 Exam blueprint is divided into 6 components, each component having a different weight associated with it.  Here are the categories, weights, and possibly the number of questions for each:

The sixth area of focus for the new CCNA exam is Automation and Programmability. Here is a breakdown from Cisco of the components of the Automation and Programmability section which makes up 10% of the total exam.

6.0 Automation and Programmability
6.1 Explain how automation impacts network management
6.2 Compare traditional networks with controller-based networking
6.3 Describe controller-based and software defined architectures (overlay, underlay, and fabric)

  • 6.3.a Separation of control plane and data plane
  • 6.3.b North-bound and South-bound APIs

6.4 Compare traditional campus device management with Cisco DNA Center enabled device management
6.5 Describe characteristics of REST-based APIs (CRUD, HTTP Verbs, and data encoding)
6.6 Recognize the capabilities of configuration management mechanisms Puppet, Chef, and Ansible
6.7 Interpret JSON encoded data

I don’t remember the first time I wrote a script in Notepad and pasted into a device, but I remember the feeling I got when all the variables I put into the Notepad script worked without any errors, and I have to tell you all – it was instant elation!

Of course the very first time I did the script, it had errors all over it, and did not take and it was frustrating. I share this brief experience with you as more and more, our jobs of configuring equipment one device at a time or with a master script with different values will fall to the wayside as we collectively embrace all that automation and programmability brings to the table.

So the final content of the new CCNA exam will focus on all that, and if I am convinced of anything, it is that to get life out of the remaining 15 years or so that I want to remain in this industry, it will be something I will have to embrace. My hope is that you embrace it as well.  So here is a look and remember, the topics of Exam 200-301 are covered in the training course Implementing and Administering Cisco Solutions (CCNA v1.0).

Explain how automation impacts network management

One of the aspects of my old job that I do not miss is maintenance windows. Could the 25,000 users just stop and take a dang coffee break while I reset some value on the routers that connect us to the Internet? Clearly the answer to that question is no! And a very resounding no to boot! So until we get on board with automating processes that used to be done manually, we will all continue to experience the trusty maintenance window. If they ask any questions here, they will most likely focus on doing things to a group of devices and having a management controller do it for us. As network administrators, we will need to set everything up on the front side, and let the controller do everything for us during our normal sleep hours.

Compare traditional networks with controller-based networking

There is the possibility that they will go a little deeper into this subject and compare and contrast the differences between traditional networks (Layer 2 access up to Layer 3 aggregation) and controller-based networks (Layer 3 access where all the devices are managed as a whole community). The truth is that we all probably have controller-based networks now, if you are using a WLAN controller. Unless you are managing a football stadium, you probably only have one or two controllers that manage the APs that provide wireless services. That is an example of controller-based networking. So don’t be too put off when we start to talk about doing that with our routers, switches, and WiFi gear.

Describe controller-based and software defined architectures (overlay, underlay, and fabric)

Taking an even deeper look at this whole subject of controller-based networking, this portion of your studies should reveal that we give meaningful names to pieces of the architecture so that we can write about it and talk about in planning meetings. Cisco is no exception to this phenomena, and at the top of this controller-based ecosystem will be the Cisco DNA Center. That is the controller. Now if you read anything about the DNA Center, remember this – DNA Center can but does not have to provide you with SDN (Software-Defined Networking). SDN in fact is just one of the services of DNA Center, but there are so many other wicked cool things that DNA Center can do. But in view of the topic at hand, overlay, underlay, and fabric are terms used to describe the operational attributes and functions of how we get to Software-Defined Networking.

Compare traditional campus device management with Cisco DNA Center enabled device management

Pretty much everything in this portion of the exam will focus on the differences between traditional or conventional network configuration and management and controller-based network configuration and management. So when it comes to conventional management, ask yourself this question: how many different gathering and evaluative servers do you have today to make sense of all the syslog and SNMP trap messages and NetFlow data and Stealthwatch data that is coming from your network? If the answer is more than 5 (which I kind of suspect that it will be for most of you), then DNA Center might be for you. DNA Center will eventually replace Prime Infrastructure, and as more applications are written for it, might eventually replace all those other servers too.

Describe characteristics of REST-based APIs (CRUD, HTTP Verbs, and data encoding)

I don’t recall exactly when I heard the phrase “language package” but I liked the phrase a lot. As I continue to teach and communicate about all things networking, I am always looking for things I can add to my current language package that will make the subject matter more interesting and engaging. So far, I am up to singing a verse out of the Jackson 5 song “ABC” when I teach subnetting and “there ain’t no hollaback girl” from Gwen Stefani when I talk about ICMP functionality.  Somewhere in all of this there is a rap modeled after Limp Bizkit or Eminem for IPv6 but that is still a work in progress.

Related to the subject at hand, what Cisco is looking for here is a high-level understanding of the language package that is used in the communication between controllers and network elements, and for a high-level understanding of the different data encoding formats that are used.

Recognize the capabilities of configuration management mechanisms Puppet, Chef, and Ansible

When it comes to configuration management tools, there is a reasonable expectation that you will have a high-level understanding that there are tools already available for things like versioning control of running configurations and the difference between agent-based versus agentless. Remember though that configuration management tools are really not good for troubleshooting, but they are very good for converting human friendly fields and check boxes into machine language that the network elements will understand and comply with.

Interpret JSON encoded data

The last part of this section is being able to look at some JSON encoded data and be able to tell what the device is going to do based on this data. Attribute/value pairs is how this is done, and if you read the JSON, you will be able to tell things like what interface is being addressed, what subnet mask is being applied, and what the gateway of that interface will be along with perhaps a description of the interface. Nothing too complex here, just basic logic work-through if they happen to ask.

So as I close out this series, again, I want to thank you all for taking the time to read it. Again, my hope is that it will be helpful in some way. Best of success to all of you as you engage and become CCNA Certified!  Know that we have all the confidence in the world that you will all pass the exam.  Reach out if we can help in any way!

Training Resources:
Implementing and Administering Cisco Solutions (CCNA v1.0)
Athena Continuous Training Program
Enterprise Networking Training 

Read the other articles from this series:
Section 1: Network Fundamentals
Section 2: Network Access
Section 3: IP Connectivity
Section 4: IP Services
Section 5 : Security Fundamentals

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