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Citrix CCA 1Y0-A20 XenApp 6.5 Exam Review and Study Guide

Citrix CCA

As I am doing quite a bit of Citrix design at the moment I thought it would be worthwhile doing the CCA for XenAppA 6.5 as a minimum. I sat the exam last week and am happy to say I passed reasonably comfortably. Unfortunately due to the release of XenDesktop7, my certification is immediately deemed as legacy! The designs I’m working on are all pretty much 6.5 based, so it seemed the most sensible to do.

I was not originally going to worry about the CCAA (A22) exam but after the CCA exam I thought it was worth giving it a go too. The list below was made for the CCA but covers virtually all the required CCAA content too; I have a follow up post coming for the differences and some exam tips later this week. Note: The CCAA equates to only a CCA in the new XD7 exam paths (CCA/CCP/CCE) anyway, but in my case I just took it for the challenge more than anything. The one other advantage with the older certs is (as I understand it) they don’t expire like the new ones, every 36 months!

Exam Review
Obviously I cant go into any detail on the exam itself but as per the official guide, it is 90 minutes long for native English speakers and consists of 68 questions with a slightly odd 61% pass mark required.

In comparison to other vendor exams I found it very interesting that you are surveyed in quite a bit of detail before and after the exam. This definitely shows Citrix are keen to listen to their customers. Whether they act on that feedback however, I couldn’t comment? For me, I would have liked to see some simulation questions, which I think genuinely test an individuals knowledge of the product, over the standard multiple choice style. These are included in the more advanced CCAA exams though.

In terms of difficulty, I would probably equate the XenApp 6.5 CCA exam as being on a par with an intro to mid level Microsoft MCP/MCTS, so definitely very achievable, even if you haven’t spent a huge amount of time using the product. Timing for the exam seemed very reasonable and at no point did I feel under pressure by the clock.

Prep Materials
I have listed my prep materials below for anyone else fool-hardy enough to follow me down the “legacy” cert path. I would say the materials below should be more than enough for you to pass both the CCA and CCAA should you so choose.  I probably “over-studied” for the CCA, however the exam was more of a by-product to wanting to dig into the material in detail in the first place as opposed to the key driver!

  • PluralSight aka TrainSignal Courses
    Thanks to the very kind folks at PluralSight / TrainSignal, as a VMware vExpert, I am very fortunate enough to have access to all of their content and courses for free this year. Even without this I would still be very happy to pay the $50 a month (without any contract commitment!) to access the huge catalogue of courses available.
    I tend to do my studying in phases, where I do several exams in the space of a few months, then take a break for a while. Being able to dip in and out of the training material with only a month commitment is really great, and at only a pound a day (if you live in the UK) its not going to break the bank, even if you are paying for it entirely yourself!
    Bada bing, bada boom! Elias Khnaser presents all of the Citrix courses on PluralSight. He is a great teacher, who gives plenty of real world examples and has a good speaking style which is at the right pace and pitch.
    The main XenApp material was based on 6.0 with a 2 hour update course to 6.5 bolted on the end. This is fair enough as its pointless re-recording a whole course for a “point” update, however there were a significant number of changes between the versions so you should bear this in mind. Ideally setup your lab in advance of the course, so you can see the differences as you follow along.

    • Citrix XenApp 6: Installation and Getting Started
      Very good rounded intro to the world of Citrix and XenApp. A great first toe in the water.
    • Citrix XenApp 6: Policies, Applications, and Printing
      This is where is gets interesting, and the true power of policy-based management comes through. The sheer number of policies is enough to make your head spin. I don’t think at this stage you need to know every single one, however you should try to get an appreciation for what you can achieve with the policies, as opposed to learning each individual setting by heart.
    • Citrix XenApp 6: Security and Advanced Administration
      Things get very interesting now with a large part of the content dedicated to NetScaler configuration. It only scratches the surface in terms of what you can do with a NetScaler but this is certainly great content. Elias also gives some great tips on the troubleshooting process for XenApp which are especially useful for the CCAA as well as tips for exam prep (if that’s your ultimate aim).
      If you want to go further, Citrix run some NetScaler Master Class webinars online once a month or so its always worth popping along to one of them and you can raise any questsion you might have at the end. The old ones are available on demand too.
    • Citrix XenApp 6.5
      A fairly brief overview of the key differences with XenApp 6.5. One or two features were not covered, but generally this should be enough to understand the differences and pass the A22 exam. It’s worth augmenting this with the XenApp 6.5 Release Notes.
    • Best Practices for Running XenApp / XenDesktop on vSphere
      In an ideal world, the only other thing I would have liked to see from this course was a little bit more architecture focus, and some rules of thumb on things like storage design. Yes, every application is different and you should always aim to implement a PoC where possible, but you need to have some idea on a baseline from where to start.
    • Citrix Provisioning Services 6.1
      If I had time I would have also like to go through this course too, but this is absolutely not required for the XenApp CCA but good to know and understand.
  • Once I finished the video courses, the next key sources of information I used were a number of PacktPub ebooks. I say ebooks specifically because they are generally cheaper than the paper versions and as most technologies are generally out of date in a couple of years, do I really need 2 kgs of dead tree choking up my bookshelf? Instead I can have an electronic copy, which I can share across all my devices for anywhere access, and I save a bit of space in my man cave for the next Terry Pratchett masterpiece! PacktPub ebooks are also DRM free and can be auto-sent to your Kindle account.
    At time of writing you cab get 40% off all orders from PacktPub with the voucher code “bawdanu” and you always get 50% off every second ebook (buy one get one half price). Bargain!

    • Getting Started with Citrix XenApp 6.5 by Guillermo Musumeci
      Although this book covers most of the same content as the TrainSignal course, there are still some really good ideas and tips, and one or two things not covered. It also helped to solidify and confirm the knowledge I gained from the video training.
    • Citrix XenApp Performance Essentials by Luca Dentella
      Quite a few good architectural suggestions and tips in this book. Great value; even more so if you get it under the 50% off deal!
  • Home Lab
    My number one tip for learning Citrix or any other technology is lab it, lab it, lab it! There is no substitute for hands on experience with a product to both help solidify understanding and help identify the more niggly issues you tend to find with any technology.
    I spun up a 6 virtual server lab in my NanoLab to make it as close to a real design as possible. Obviously you could collapse this all the way down into 3 VMs (DC, XA & NetScaler) if you wanted to. My setup included:

    • 1x Domain controller (1 vCPU, 2GB RAM)
      Running the Citrix license server role (which I used a 90 day Citrix eval license for). This also doubled up as the profile server for roaming profiles and redirected folders.
    • 1x DB Server (1 vCPU, 2GB RAM)
      This was running SQL Express only, but I wanted it on a separate VM to be more like a production environment.
    • 1x Web Interface Server (1 vCPU, 2GB RAM)
    • 1x NetScaler Gateway appliance (2vCPU, 2GB RAM) for testing secure access (which is a little tricky to setup!).
    • 2x XenApp Workers (1vCPU, 2GB RAM each)
      At least 2 is best so you can test using multiple Worker Groups, comparative policies etc.
  • The last item on the list is one I somehow managed to miss, even though I’m usually pretty thorough with these things. The Official A20 Exam Prep Guide. It contains a load of links to great prep content as well as ten example questions to give you a feel for the what the exam will be like. Must read item!

If you are currently working with Citrix products and are as yet undecided as to whether to take the exam or not, I would definitely say go for it! Remember… Nobody ever missed out on an interview for being certified! 🙂

The Self Study Era

I was prompted to write this article after the release of the new VMware Certified Associate (VCA) exam.

One of the most interesting and and best things about the VCP programme is the barrier to entry. Unfortunately in this age of brain dumps, it is all to easy to be a “paper MCSE”, having simply memorised all the answers to a load of exams and passed them without actually knowing the subject matter. Individuals like this usually become unstuck pretty quickly, and it makes a bit of a mockery of the whole process.

In this age of austerity, doom and gloom, employers won’t or don’t want to pay for professional training, which means this barrier can be pretty high! Gone are the days where companies may have the budget to send people on multiple training courses per year. I was extremely lucky at the start of my career to get the opportunity to attend all the courses for my MCSE (about 8 IIRC!) in the space of a couple of years! At many companies today, employees are lucky if they are sent on a single one in that time.

Fortunately it’s not as bad as it sounds, because gone are the days where there used to be only the official course books or in-person training available. Thanks to the wonders of the interweb, today we have many many more resources available to us, including:

  • Many free online community-generated resources. It never fails to impress me how people are willing to give up their free time to generate this content and help complete strangers improve their knowledge and skills.
  • Inexpensive virtualisation at home using VMware Workstation, GNS3, etc allowing you to virtualise and create an entire lab for whatever it is you’re studying. For most technology you can get away with as little as 8-16GB RAM in an old PC, as long as it has a CPU with VT-X extensions you’re golden! This for me is the best way to learn any product – lab it, lab it, lab it!
  • Free online labs from many vendors such as VMware’s http://www.projectnee.com/HOL and Microsoft’s http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/virtuallabs/ so even if you cant afford to have a home lab yourself, you can still get your hands on the tech.
  • If you work for a vendor partner you can often get access to their “Partner University” content for free.
  • Free practice exams from many of the vendors on their learning pages.

If your employer has minimal budgets for training, there is no point moping about it. Invest in yourself (be it financially or in time) and meet them half way.  Embrace the fact that you have joined one of the fastest moving industries in the world, show some initiative and study in your own time!

VMware Certified AssociateSo how does this relate specifically to the VCA I hear you ask? Well if I were starting my career again from scratch, the first thing I would be doing is passing the VMware Certified Associate exam of my choice, based on the free VCA training from VMware, and all of the free resources above. If you pull your finger out, you can even get 50% off the VCA exam for a limited time.

Once you have this one in the bag, then is the time to approach your employer and ask for them to fund your VCP course. They will know you’re serious as you have invested your own time, effort and money (for the exam), and they should already be starting to see the benefits in your additional skills.

At that point, considering the time and effort you have put into your development, if your employer isn’t willing or able to match that investment by paying for either exams or further training / materials, then maybe they’re not the right employer for you. Take your newly learned skills and put them to good use! 🙂

Cisco ICND1 640-822 Exam Review and Study Guide

I am embarrassed to say that I am a (seasoned?) IT professional who has never quite found the time to get down and dirty with Cisco networking. As I am about to start a new role as a Solution Architect for a managed service company (who are big into their Cisco gear, MPLS etc), I thought now would be the time to bone up on my 1s and 0s and certify in the Cisco space!

I can imagine that for someone new to IT, the CCENT / CCNA would perhaps be quite daunting, but even having worked with MS, VMware and storage environments for the past 9 years, I discovered that I still had plenty to learn (and in a geeky way, quite enjoyably so!). I did add to my burden by simultaneously going through interviews, completing handovers at my old job, and generally being ridiculously busy whilst trying to find the time to study for this, but even with all that on the go I passed the first exam (640-822) less than 6 weeks from beginning to study the subject. Based on this I would suggest that anyone dedicated to complete the CCENT could comfortably learn the content in full, pass it in 4 weeks of part-time personal study (in my case a couple of hours a night on the nights I had time to work).

I would also say at this point that for those people considering whether to do the ICND1/2 (2 exam) route, or the single CCNA exam, I don’t really know why virtually anyone would consider the latter? The combined exam costs twice as much as the single exam (give or take £2-3), and splitting the exam gives you an initial qualification (CCENT) and an easier ride. Unless you are so time poor that you can only afford enough time to do a single exam (saving you a whole 2 hours of your life), why not take the pressure off yourself and split it? Also if you did happen to mess it up, then you’ve only lost £100, not £200!

The exam itself was not too bad. One question I came across seemed to be bugged, (the responses in the sim to certain commands were conflicting), but other than that it was perfectly reasonable. Bear in mind that the pass mark for Cisco exams is considerably higher than MS / VMware ones, so if you are used to these, ensure you adjust your expectations accordingly. It is also slightly disconcerting not to be able to go back to a previous question; not that I regularly use this feature in other exams, but its always nice to know it’s there if you need it!

In terms of the actual resources I used to study for the exam, they were numerically limited in comparison to those I may use for a VMware or an MS exam, (and more expensive as I generally stick to free resources!), but I felt that to gain the knowledge in the quickest time, it was worth a the meagre financial investment I made (~£45 for training materials, ~£45 for my lab, plus the exam cost – normally covered by my employer, but I was working out my notice period at the time, so even attempting to claim for exams whilst walking out the door isn’t exactly ethical and might get me a slap from my old boss!).

Being a relatively old certification, there is obviously a wealth of different resources out there on the net, but the ones I chose to use are as follows:

  • CCNA Bootcamp by Chris Bryant – $44 (voucher code BULLDOG)
    I’ll say off the bat this is a simply great resource, taught in Chris’ inimitable laid back, easy style. Hey not only teaches you how to pass the exam, but gives plenty of real world advice and anicdotes too. He is also more than happy to answer any questions and does so promptly via twitter, email, Udemy etc. 90% of my learning came from these videos, along with the brilliant binary / subnetting practice questions provided as part of the accompanying ebook.I found that the best way to use the videos was to watch them whilst taking copious notes, then practicing every command and activity discussed using my GNS3 lab. The more you practice this, the better it will stick. I enjoy Chris’ style and have such confidence in his teaching, I have already pre-purchased his CCNA:Security and CCNP courses on Udemy, for which I am hoping to squeeze some time in next year.
  • CCNA 640-802 Official Cert Library, Updated (3rd Edition) by Wendell Odom – ~£15 (Kindle Edition)
    In my case I used this book to supplement / consolidate my video learning, and read the book after completing the video course. It is very well written, and any subjects not fully explained in Chris Bryant’s course are covered in detail here. There are also useful tests at the start of each section to help you guage your progress.You also have the option of buying the same book split into the two exams (ICND1 and ICND2) but the cost of the combined publication works out at half of that of buying the seperately, so why would you?One thing I always mention when it comes to tech books, is that unless you have a need to fill the shelves of your home office with dead trees, I would always recommend opting for the ebook version over the hard/softback. There are several reasons for this, but the two biggest are that the ebook is cheaper (we all like saving money, right?), and what is the point in killing a few trees for a book you will probably only read once or twice, and will be out of date within a couple of years anyway? Add to that the portability of ebooks for later reference and you have a compelling argument… the only draw back is putting money in the pocket of a company who is not particularly great at paying taxes, but other vendors are available!
  • Cisco Binary Game
    Not only is this great geeky fun, but it will hone your brain to very quickly do binary maths without the use of big tables etc, saving valuable time in your exams, and in your actual job. Chris Bryant does a great job in his course of teaching you the simplest and “correct” way of doing binary. Once you have this down and practiced with the binary game, you will easily be able to do binary conversions and subnetting etc in your head (especially when you start to see the patterns used to create subnets etc).
  • GNS3 – Graphical Network Simulator
    For me, this is an absolutely MUST HAVE resource, both for your studying, but also in your day job, where you can safely test any new configurations or commands to ensure you dont break your production environment! In essence it is a Cisco (other vendors are available) simulator, which allows you to build virtual networks using actual Cisco IOS images, and mess with them to your heart’s content. CBT nuggets kindly did a free intro video to GNS3 (link below).Getting hold of the IOS images is also very easy. I would simply say google is your friend (especially when searching for exact IOS image names). To understand how the IOS naming works, see this great little article.Once you have your lab up and running, all I can say is practice, practice, practice! Throughout every video session I had my lab running in parallel, and implemented each command several times on several machines, to really ingrain the commands and knowledge.

    The only drawback of GNS3 is its inability to simulate / emulate the ASICs in Cisco switches. For this they simply give you a fake switch you config from the GUI. If you want to be able to practice switch configuration to a greater level, I recommend getting your hands on a cheap second hand switch. I bought a 24-port Catalyst 2950 switch for just £30 on ebay, and a rollover cable and USB adapter for about £5. This gave me the ability to practice switchport and VLAN commands, have a physical play with the kit, and even link my physical switch into my GNS3 environment using the NIC on my GNS3 host machine! The only drawback is that it’s very loud, so I try to minimise the use of it in my home office! I can imagine the WAF (wife acceptance factor) of a full blown lab would not be great, an even better reason for using GNS3 wherever possible!

  • Intro to GNS3 by CBT Nuggetsfree!
    Great little one hour course showing you how to setup a basic GNS3 environment. They also have a much longer course which you can pay $5 for a month access, but it isn’t necessary for a simple setup.
  • Official Cisco ICND1 Study Resourcesfree! (mostly)
    There are plenty of free videos, pdfs, presentations and even whole lab sims available on the ICND1 page. I would suggest you go through all of them.
  • Cisco Official ICND1 Practice Questions
    Make sure you are able to complete all of these successfully before attempting the actual exam.

In closing, I think the key thing to remember when learning Cisco is lab, lab and more lab… GNS3 is a great resource and more than sufficient for your CCENT (and I would hazard your CCNA) studies. If you have the budget to buy a cheap switch as well (e.g. a 2950) then all the better.

Next steps: New job, Xmas, then CCNA in Jan.

MCTS: 70-246 Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 Exam Review

Well I am very pleased to say that I came back home today certified as an MCSE: Private Cloud… yay!

First off, I would say this is one of the trickiest MS exams I have taken. This is not because the subject is particularly difficult, but purely for the volume and depth of information you need to cover, as you are in effect being tested on your knowledge of no less than 7 enterprise applications as well as their interoperation!

I will admit that due to time constraints I wasn’t able to study all elements of SC2012 in the depth I would have liked (I have barely scratched the surface with App Controller and Config Manager), but I was fortunate not to have been hammered too badly because of this.

I have already listed my study materials in my previous post MCTS: 70-246 Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 Exam Prep and Study Guide, but once again I believe it is really getting as much hands on experience as you can, which makes all the difference.

I created a simple lab environment running the entire thing under VMware Workstation 8 on my desktop machine. The spec of the machine is:

  • Intel Quad Core i7 920 processor
  • 24GB RAM
  • Multiple SSDs (the test lab runs across 2 of them totalling around 150GB of space in use).
  • I also used a FreeNAS 0.7 appliance running on another vSphere box to provide some shared iSCSI storage for my Hyper-V clusters (doesnt need to be fast as only for a couple of test VMs and cluster quorum).

The only time I suffered any real performance issues with this setup were when installing windows updates. This wasn’t an issue for me as I kicked them off overnight, but if you were being a bit more proactive, you could build one VM first, update to all the latest patches, install Sliverlight, .NET3.5 / .NET4  (required by lots of SC products), then sysprep and clone the VMs instead.

As I was being a little lazy, I didn’t do much with nesting VMs this time, so immediately under WS8 I installed 9 VMs. You could of course nest most or all of these roles under your Hyper-V hosts, barring the DC which is required to auth the startup of your VM hosts, an issue which is now fixed in Windows Server 2012 (in theory). The performance reduction is minimal, it’s just a bit of a pain if you want to shut down your machine in a hurry…

HostnameRolesvCPUsvRAMvDisks
(Thin)
SV2008R2-MGTAD, DNS, SQL Server 2008 R2 SP124GB40GB
100GB
SCOMOperations Manager 2012, SQL Server 2008 R2 SP1 Reporting Services22GB40GB
SCCMConfiguration Manager 201212GB40GB
SCVMMVirtual Machine Manager 201212GB40GB
SCSMService Manager 201212GB40GB
SCACApplication Controller 201212GB40GB
SCORCHOrchestrator 201212GB40GB
HV1-FULLHyper-V under a full 2008 R2 OS installation24GB40GB
60GB
HV2-HVSHyper-V Server 2008 R224GB40GB
60GB

Hyper-V Server and 2008 R2 are not supported in a cluster configuration, but it will work (with a couple of red lines on your cluster validation report). As long as you implement the following steps, you can then nest 64 bit VMs inside your Hyper-V servers. See Velimir Kojic’s blog post for more info on this, but the headline points are:

  1. Enable virtualisation of VT-x/EPT. This is the same as you would do for virtualising ESX/ESXi under Workstation 8, allowing nested 64-bit VMs.
  2. Add the following line to your VMX files:
    hypervisor.cpuid.v0 = “FALSE”

I did initially try the unified installer but it proved to be a total pain, especially as some of the components were not recognised or were missing / different from the download links, and the installer itself refuses to install or even recognise a package if the install does not have the correct name (e.g. you have to download 2 editions of reportviewer, 2008 and 2010. You need to put them in separate directories with their original file names, and not just rename them to reportviewer2008.exe and reportviewer2010.exe – very annoying!). The same goes for the service packs, SQL installers etc. In the end I gave up with it and installed all the components manually, which I think probably teaches you more about the install process anyway.

Once I had my lab up and running I simply followed through all of the MS training on the Microsoft Virtual Academy. I genuinely cannot recommend these highly enough, and it really is very good of MS to provide them free of charge. When running through the videos, I tried to emulate every demo on screen, using my lab, then followed through reading as many articles as possible from the other links I included in my prep article.

Good luck to anyone attempting this exam in the future, next on my agenda was going to be the upgrade to Windows Server 2012, but I have decided to (at long last) slot in some time to aim for a CCNA first!

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MCTS: 70-246 Monitoring and Operating a Private Cloud with System Center 2012 Exam Prep and Study Guide

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