Continuing the Door to VoIP…

I have finished studying for the CCNA Voice and my notes from the Official Cert Guide are here. I am going to sit for the exam tomorrow. My three main study aids for this exam were the book, the video series from CBTnuggets, and the video series from INE.

Studying for this exam has been quite different from the other exams I’ve done in the past (and have studied for but yet to take, such as CCNP R&S). All the others were a combination of real-world theory, which could for the most part be applied to any vendor’s equipment, plus the Cisco-specific implementation of those theories and practices. While this exam is considered introductory to the world of Cisco VoIP and did provide some vendor-neutral background theory, it was geared mostly around Cisco VoIP implementations. In other words, it was very application-based, much like a Microsoft exam would be.

Comparing my three study sources is kind of interesting. The textbook was written by Jeremy Cioara, who also recorded the CBTnuggets video. I watched his video first as sort of an overview of the whole exam. I have found I typically retain more information if I watch the video first, then read the book and take notes, and then review the videos again. What was weird is his writing style for the book. He writes exactly the same way he talks, including humorous anecdotes that he always includes in his videos. I’ve never read something like that in a textbook before. As much as I love his videos, in the end I found that format distracting in a textbook. I think it’s just because I’m so used to dry purely-factual textbooks. Finally, there’s the video series from INE. The video series was presented very much like a textbook in a very dry, matter-of-fact way. This is kind of interesting, because this kind of presentation can get very boring (in fact, I fell asleep multiple times during the video series), but at the same time, I feel like I obtained the greatest amount of knowledge from the INE videos. I think Mark Snow is an excellent teacher. Conversely, I have found Jeremy Cioara’s videos very entertaining to watch and he is excellent at keeping your interest in the subject matter, but when I compare him to other videos from INE that I have watched in the past (for CCNP), I find that INE’s videos always contain a LOT more information. They are just presented in a more boring way that puts me to sleep occasionally. 🙂

Another difference for this exam, compared to my CCNA and CCDA, is that my heart isn’t truly into this (yet) the way it was for the previous two. I find the topic of VoIP to be interesting and I think it is good information to possess at a foundational level, which I now have. But at the same time, I don’t picture myself moving beyond this point into the more advanced voice realm unless it becomes a necessity of employment. To obtain the CCNA Voice, it is one exam @ $250. The next level, CCNP Voice, is FIVE exams @ $200 each. I don’t see myself spending $1000 of my own money on something like that. It would definitely have to be a necessity of employment. In the end, I’ll be happy to have those extra letters behind my name for employment purposes, but the base level of VoIP knowledge is good enough for me for now.

Opening the door to VoIP…

I just finished reading O’Reilly’s Packet Guide to VoIP and took notes.

Though I am still very strongly interested in obtaining my CCNP, I am going to need to present a design for a unified communications project for my (current) largest business client in the near future. I don’t know if I’m going to go as far as actually obtaining the CCNA Voice certification, but I am definitely going to learn what I need to for a small network of about 30 clients.

I’ve been thinking of using a Catalyst 3560 PoE switch coupled with probably a 2921 router. I’m not sure about phones yet; I haven’t looked that far into it. I’m also currently unsure about how I’ll provide connectivity to the outside world; whether it will be an ITSP via SIP trunk or some other method.

I’ve viewed the videos produced by Jeremy Cioara on CCNA Voice, and read part of the official textbook. I’ve also viewed about 1/4 of the CCNA Voice series produced by INE.

However, I realize that the world doesn’t necessarily revolve around Cisco. This company’s primary motivation for moving to VoIP is unified communications, ie complete integration with MS Outlook. I thought that reading this O’Reilly book on VoIP might create a broader picture for me with regards to VoIP. While the book was very informative, I can’t really say that that actually happened. The book pretty much read like a really long Wikipedia entry.

Because of my previous studies, I know Cisco pretty well at this point, which is why I am leaning toward using their products, even though I know they are more expensive than other solutions. I also know that that is one of Cisco’s goals with having such an extensive body of training and certifications; that definitely makes good business sense. I’m definitely interested in less expensive solutions than Cisco, but not if I have to invest the same amount of time in learning the system as I have with Cisco and networking in general.

So after I produce the design proposal for this unified communications project, I’d like to get back to more seriously studying for the CCNP. I was well on my way with the SWITCH exam and it probably wouldn’t take much to get back into it.

Moving forward… The IT Career Builder’s Toolkit

Things are beginning to look upward with regards to my progressing career. Even though I am 33, sometimes it still feels weird to acknowledge that I do, in fact, now have what I would consider a career and am on a path to what I believe will bring great things for my wife and I. I recently received a significant raise, and at my current company I have picked up a new business client whose network I now support.

The support I provide for this client is mostly help-desk level. So far it has mostly involved little day-to-day things like managing user accounts and dealing with people’s issues like installing/repairing software, printer drivers, installing new PCs, and things of that nature. In the past, I had the attitude that I am a network engineer in development, and since I have my CCNA and CCDA, and am studying for my CCNP, this kind of stuff was beneath me. This was absolutely the wrong attitude to take as I have learned quite a bit in the couple of months that I have been supporting this new client. That attitude has only held me back in the past.

Further proving to me that I previously had the wrong attitude, I just finished reading an excellent book called The IT Career Builder’s Toolkit by Matthew Moran. The book is very much all-encompassing of practically every aspect of an IT person’s career (though much of the information is general enough that it really could apply to any career). I will definitely be using this book as a reference and reminder to myself for years to come. However, by far the biggest thing I took away from it is that attitude is everything and every situation, good or bad, provides learning potential and will only further serve your base of knowledge.

Going back to my new business client whose network I support, more than ten years ago I learned all about Active Directory, back when it was a fresh product with Windows 2000. Because of this, I know all of the major concepts of what Active Directory is and some of the things that it can do, but I haven’t had a lot of actual hands-on experience with it simply because I haven’t needed to — I was either working with comparatively small networks, or different technologies were being used (such as a Macintosh-based network).

Part of me was worried about diving right in simply because I didn’t have the exact technical skills memorized (such as menu locations and things like that), but because I knew the concepts very well, it ended up not being a big deal at all to dive right in and learn the things I was missing as I went. This book also emphasized that aspect of learning and so it reinforced what I had already discovered on my own. It wasn’t long after getting to know their internal network (of which there was no documentation left by the previous IT service provider, of course), that I successfully migrated their entire business from hosted Exchange (provided by their previous company) to Microsoft’s Office365. There were little problems here and there, but I was able to fix all of them as they arose, and I think the migration went smoothly overall. My next major project will be to create a design proposal to migrate their PBX-based system to 100% VoIP.

The other thing I took away from the book is that even though I am working for the official title of “network engineer,” the fact is that anyone in IT is considered a “technologist” whose job is to find solutions to support the business needs. This means that I need to look less at the technical aspects and underlying details in the beginning and instead focus more on the business process: what the business is trying to accomplish and how to support those business goals.

In our capitalistic society, the end goal is to make money. I am a technologist whose goal is to help enable whatever business I support to make money. I need not have the attitude that I only fit into a certain container. That attitude restricts learning and only serves to hold me back.

*UPDATE May 2013: Shortly after reading this book, I discovered Matthew Moran’s site and he was offering entries into a drawing for a free signed copy of the 2nd edition of his book. I won and received a copy of the book (not signed though 🙂 ). I plan to have a look at it sometime, but I have to admit, at this point in time I am so used to ebooks that the fact that I don’t have an electronic copy is probably the only real reason I haven’t taken a look at it yet!

CCNP Switch Lab

With this layout, I’ll be able to cover the majority of the topics on the CCNP Switch exam. Probably the two biggest things I won’t be able to with this equipment are private VLANs and GLBP. But once you know the concepts of private VLANs, it’s really no big deal, and GLBP can be practiced in GNS3. Just for a point of reference, I purchased this equipment about five or six months ago. The 3550s were $85 each and the 2950s were $30. After learning about this equipment last year, I find it absolutely amazing that people will go out and buy unmanaged 16-port 10/100 switches for $60 or more just because it is new when you can get a used 48-port managed switch for $30 on eBay.Switch Blocks

Lab Terminal Server

CycladesTS-3000-F

The Avocent Cyclades TS-3000 GNU/Linux-based terminal server my wife purchased for me has made labbing with real equipment MUCH easier. Each port connects with a UTP cable to the console port on the equipment. The console server itself connects to the rest of the LAN. Each physical port on the terminal server is accessible via SSH on a port on its IP address. So, in its current configuration, I can access port 10 by establishing an SSH session to 192.168.1.5:7010. The Cyclades is extremely configurable, and can even be integrated into a full 802.1x environment, but for labbing, most of the default settings are just fine.

Before the terminal server, I had attempted to use a computer running Ubuntu with ten USB-to-RS232 adapters with console cables. I ran into two problems with this: the first was that the adapters were extremely unreliable. The second was that I found out that USB controllers only support so many devices. I thought I remembered reading somehwere years ago that you can connect 128 devices to a USB chain, but that is apparently not true. The controller in my computer wouldn’t allow more than 6 devices to connect simultaneously (even with a USB hub). With the terminal server, I don’t have this issue anymore.

The only downside to the terminal server is that even though you can use regular Ethernet cables, they must be wired differently. I spent some time with trial and error to figure it out. Hopefully the following information will save someone some time in the future when connecting the Avocent Cyclades TS to the console ports of Cisco equipment:

End 1: T568B > End 2: Cyclades ACS
Orange/White > Brown
Orange > Brown/White
Green/White > Green
Blue > Blue/White
Blue/White > Orange/White
Green > Green/White
Brown/White > Orange
Brown > Blue

End 1: T568A > End 2: Cyclades ACS
Green/White > Brown
Green > Brown/White
Orange/White > Orange
Blue > Blue
Blue/White > Green/White
Orange > Orange/White
Brown/White > Green
Brown > Blue/White

The T568A/B end of the cable connects to the console port of the Cisco equipment, while the other end connects to an available port on the Cyclades TS.