Back on the Certification Train: VCAP6-DCV Design

Do certifications matter? When talking about the industry, that’s a subject for a blog post (or series) all on its own.  When talking about myself, the answer is “it depends” – where the dependence is on time period and mood.  For the first 1/4 of my career I simply didn’t think about certifications at all. Then for the next 1/4 I was quite dismissive of certifications after having seen too many certification holders who displayed little or no competence in the areas in which they were “certified.” My opinion changed after my experience with the reality of the recruiting-HR complex, for whom certifications are often first-line filters, and after seeing first-hand the business value of certifications for value-added resellers (VARs).  After achieving a handful of certifications, I then became practically addicted to them for several years – so much so that at one point I sat & passed seven certification exams in less than a 3 month period (4 of which were 3hr+ VCAP exams).

But then, somehow, I stopped. It wasn’t a deliberate decision for me – it just sort of happened.  Similar to this blog, my attention simply seemed to go elsewhere and before I realized it a fairly long period of time had passed by without my having achieved any new certifications. In fact, I realized a few weeks ago that it had been so long that my VCP certs were actually about to expire (on September 4th) – and that’s not something I wanted to have happen. Luckily, passing a VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP) exam has a side benefit of also renewing/extending any of your existing VCPs – and since it had been so long for me, there are now quite a few VCAPs I need to obtain.  I decided to start with what I would consider the cornerstone advanced VMware certification: VCAP6-DCV.

I won’t try to list all of the available study materials out there for this exam.  Many people have already done a good job with this and I’d much rather let them have the credit.  One of the more comprehensive and useful ones is by Andras Herceg (@Konflikt_) on his vThing blog: 

Ultimately, despite all of this good work that had been done collecting relevant background material for the exam, I wasn’t going to have time to review all of it. I decided to review just two things:  the exam blueprint (the one essential resource for any exam, obviously) and the courseware for the VMware vSphere: Design and Deploy Fast Track which the VMware Certification page recommends as a pre-requisite before sitting the VCAP6-DCV.  For the courseware I was lucky: as a VMware employee I was able to review it without actually attending the class. I’ve attended older versions of the vSphere Design class in the past, and while the v6 release is clearly improved and updated for vSphere 6, the core fundamentals of vSphere design have not changed.  If you’ve taken a vSphere Design class in the past, reviewing that courseware along with the changes specific to vSphere 6 would be a good starting point.

So how was it?  Really good, actually – in fact, the best VCAP design exam experience I’ve had.  The reduction in the number of questions greatly reduced the focus on time management and let’s you focus strictly on the questions themselves – this is probably the single best improvement over older design exams.  The user interface, though, has also been greatly improved:  while the basic look & feel appears unchanged, the responsiveness and speed of the UI is massively better – it was a night & day difference.  Add in the little UI enhancements discussed here, particularly the + trick to repeat canvas elements in the diagram questions, and the exam has managed to remove most of the frustrating issues I’ve had with it in the past.  Great job by the VMware Education team!

Happily, I passed the exam on my first try so the pressure’s no longer there on the VCP expiration issue.  The exam experience has also reminded me of how much I enjoy taking these technical exams – yes, I know that’s strange and unpopular, but oh, well… After VMworld I’m looking forward to buckling down and getting all of my VCAPs updated, as well as the newer VCPs (I am sad that passing the VCAPs no longer also gets you the associated VCP; I may enjoy taking tech exams but I’m not a masochist!).  I’m also overdue for some non-VMware exams – most likely something “cloudy”.  After a (relatively) long time, it feels good to be back in motion!

Seasonal Learning Opportunities 2016

The 2016 seasonal update for our continuing quest to Always Be Learning.  You can compare and contrast with those for 2015 and 2014.

The following are simply in alphabetical order, and I’m sure only represent the tip of the iceberg of good deals. Please share any others you hear about in the comments.

[Updated 20161127@1941 EST with additional deals.]

Books and Videos


Apress are offering a Cyber Monday sale of $10 each for any of their ebooks or only $12.50 for any of their printed books (the print option is new this year!). The  site normally offers an Apress ebook Deal of the Day as well as a Springer Daily Deal.

Barnes and Noble

Why am I listing Barnes and Noble? For one reason only: for Black Friday they are offering a 30% discount on any single item. There are numerous restrictions on this, of course, but it can be very helpful, particularly for items that can’t normally be found discounted on other sites (like Amazon). For example, IT Architect: Foundation in the Art of Infrastructure Design: A Practical Guide for IT Architects by the VCDX trio of John Yani Arrasjid, Mark Gabryjelski, and Chris McCain is not discounted on Amazon at all – yielding a savings of over $17 when ordering the hardcover on B&N today.


Cisco Press are having their annual Black Friday/Cyber Monday Sale with 55% off eligible items using code CM2016. This includes books, ebooks, video training, practice exams, and more. They also consistently offer eBook and Video Deals of the Week (on their home page).


Not strictly speaking a Black Friday or Cyber Monday deal, but HumbleBundle are offering up to 16 O’Reilly ebooks on Unix and related technologies for the next 9+ days. For those who don’t know, HumbleBundle offer different  selections (bundles) of books, games, etc. that are sold “pay what you like” – though there are minimums, and increasing your offer unlocks additional items in the bundle. In this example, $15 will get you all of the ebooks – in multiple ebook formats. Highly recommended.


LeanPub and a few of their authors are giving readers Black Friday price reductions at various levels of discounts. While this is not a site-wide sale, there are some interesting ebooks included in the sale. For those who haven’t shopped LeanPub before: customers picks their own price to pay, with each book having a minimum price and a suggested price; for these deals that minimum price has been reduced. Painless Vim, for example, has a suggested price of $14.99 with a minimum price of $5.99 – which for this sale is reduced to only $1.99.


O’Reilly have been one of the premier publishers of IT books for decades, and in recent years have of course added ebooks, videos, and other media to their output. While O’Reilly have Ebook Deals of the Day (usually two) and Video Deal of the Week, their biggest sales are at this time of year.

Their annual Cyber Monday Sale is running again this year (till November 29th at 5am PST) and you can score 50% off any ebook or video, or 60% off when ordering $100 or more. And remember – O’Reilly sell/distribute books by other publishers as well including No Starch Press, Wrox, Wiley, Sybex, and many others.

Pearson IT Certification

Pearson are having the same annual Black Friday/Cyber Monday Sale as Cisco Press with 55% off any digital items and using the same CM2016 code. On their site you’ll find not only tech books from Cisco Press but also VMware Press,  and others, and of course video training, practice exams, and more.  If you miss this sale, they also consistently offer eBook and Video Deals of the Week (different from the ones on the Cisco Press site).


Cisco Learning Network

The Cisco Learning Network Store is having a Cyber Monday sale starting with 40% off a one-year subscription to their CCNA/CCNP practice toolkit, 25% off the CCIE Route & Switch Preferred Bundle, and 25% of the CCIE Collaboration Essentials Bundle. These deals are only available 8am-12 noon PST with other special deals to follow.

A Cloud Guru

A Cloud Guru is an online training site for – surprise, surprise – cloud related technology, and in this case mostly on AWS, with courses focused on specific AWS certifications. The courses are purchased once for lifetime access to study at your own pace. If you’ve been considering getting certified on AWS, or just want to learn more about the technology, now’s a good time to pull the trigger: A Cloud Guru are discounting all of their courses by 75% for this sale.

Cloud Academy

Another on-line training vendor for cloud-related technology is Cloud Academy who take a different approach with their training than A Cloud Guru. Cloud Academy offer subscriptions to their available courses at three different levels – Starter, Professional, and Professional Plus – which provide different types of material, at different prices, depending on which you choose. For this Black Friday Sale, the Starter level is discounted 30%, while the Professional is discounted 50%, off the monthly subscription price. The Professional Plus, billed annually, is also discounted 50%.

GNS3 Academy

You may know GNS3 as the best vendor-neutral networking simulator around, but did you realize they also offer training? This year they’re offering a Black Friday sale where all of their courses (normally priced between $19 – $49) are only $10 using coupon code BLACKFRIDAY. They also have some courses at a normal price of less than $10, as well as several free courses to check out at any time.


If you’re ready to take the leap for your CCIE, check out INE.  They’re offering three deals until midnight Pacific time tonight (November 27th): 30% off All Access Passes, 50% rack rental tokens, and 40% off CCIE Ultimate study bundles – which include lab workbooks, advanced training courses, and, yes, rack rental tokens.


Pluralsight have rapidly become the leader in IT video training with one of the widest selections of material, broadest topic coverage, very frequent additions to their catalog, and some of the best instructors (and most certified) in the industry. Their Black Friday sale discounts their annual subscription by 33% for their

VMware Education

For their “Cyber Week” celebration, which extends until December 2nd, VMware are discounting select courses from their online store by 25%.  Course coverage includes VMware NSX, Horizon, AirWatch, and (unsurprisingly) VMware vSphere. In addition to the normal courses, you can get 25% off exam preps, certification exam vouchers, and VMware Learning Zone subscriptions.

Take advantage of everything that’s out there, and get prepared for another year of learning and growth!

Cisco Throws Its Hat in the HCI Ring with HyperFlex

To the surprise of no one but to the delight of some, Cisco unveiled their official entry into the hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) market today. While there have been preceding Cisco partnerships with HCI vendors like SimpliVity and Maxta, the newly-announced Cisco HyperFlex Systems provide the first Cisco-only branded and supported HCI offering.

Cisco HyperFlex Systems: Hardware


The HyperFlex systems consists of two main physical components: Cisco UCS servers for compute and storage, and UCS Fabric Interconnects (FIs)for management. The FIs can be either 6248 or 6296, and there will be two flavors of the servers: HX220c nodes, based upon the UCS C220 platform, and HX240c nodes, based upon the UCS C240 platform. A hybrid cluster that includes UCS B200 blades will also be supported.

The product will be initially offered as bundles of servers plus Fabric Interconnects, with individual servers available to add-on to an existing cluster. The smallest bundle will consist of three nodes (plus FIs) and is priced at under $60k US, while a four node bundle will be offered for less than $70k.


HyperFlex clusters require a minimum of three converged servers, and in the first release can support as many as eight in the same cluster. Servers will be fully configurable at time of order, so customers won’t be as restricted in their component choices as with many other HCI vendors. It’s also worth noting that different node types can be mixed within the same cluster.

New Fabric Interconnects are required for HyperFlex systems, but there are future plans to allow customers to re-use existing FIs, and/or to incorporate into existing UCS systems, rather than having to purchase new FIs.

Cisco HyperFlex Systems: Software


Unsurprisingly, VMware vSphere is the hypervisor of choice for HyperFlex, and systems will ship with vSphere pre-installed. Hyper-V support will rapidly follow, and the development team is looking hard at both KVM and containers – with the latter a more likely tertiary target than KVM itself.

Storage services

The defining characteristic of HCI – software-defined storage, or as I prefer to call it in this context, aggregated DAS – is provided by Cisco’s HX Data Platform using technology from HCI startup vendor Springpath. Cisco states that their storage implementation is more performant, more resilient, and allows for faster recovery than other HCI platforms.  With HX Data Platform all write data is striped across all nodes simultaneously, rather than the more typical write-local-and-remote methodology.

As has become table stakes for HCI, inline deduplication and inline compression are both provided, though unlike some vendors neither can be turned off but are always enabled.


Cisco, echoing my own experience, says that customers have insisted that they do not want yet-another-management-interface, as is so common in both converged and hyperconverged products, but instead want this new architecture to get incorporated within the context of their current management platforms.  On-going HyperFlex management is comprised of UCS Manager and vCenter, with vCenter expected to be the primary interface for daily operations. HCI operations are embedded within the vCenter UI via the standard UCS Manager plugin and an HX Data Platform plugin. The HX plugin integrates pointer-based snapshots into the vCenter Snapshot Manager, and provides rapid VAAI-assisted VM cloning.

Further down the road are UCS Director and ACI integrations to help Cisco tie HyperFlex into the rest of their datacenter infrastructure and provide full automation and orchestration capabilities (which are lacking in this first release).


With HyperFlex, Cisco is trying to address some of the deficiencies seen by many of the current crop of HCI vendors:

Independent scaling of compute vs. capacity

HyperFlex supports the addition of compute-only nodes into the cluster. These compute hosts connect to shared storage presented by the converged nodes via a proprietary IOVisor software (not to be confused with the open source and networking-focused IO Visor project).

In the initial release, compute-only nodes can be added to a cluster that already has at least four converged nodes, with a total of four compute-only nodes supported in a  cluster. This means that the largest cluster size supported in the first release is twelve: eight converged nodes and four compute-only nodes. Going forward, there will need to be at least as many converged nodes as compute-only nodes.

Cisco has stressed that is a matter of qualification time and cycles to begin supporting larger cluster sizes, rather than a technical or hard limitation.

Complete convergence

As many people have noted, despite the hyper-moniker the current slate of HCI vendors don’t handle networking convergence at all. With UCS Manager and the Fabric Interconnects, Cisco is providing the same level of convergence as with their standard UCS servers, which, to be frank, helped popularize the entire idea of “converged infrastrucure.” In addition, Cisco has the full SDN capabilities of ACI to wrap and extend the solution from the application to the edge – something no one, other than VMware themselves, can do today.


Until we get our hands on it and break play with it, the jury is, of course, still out on HyperFlex. On its face, however, Cisco have taken an interesting approach and appear to have a strong product. If the execution can match the overall design and put meat on the current bones of the roadmap, the HCI space will get very interesting over the next 12-18 months.


Cisco Live Runs on FlexPod

NetApp and Cisco have a long and well-regarded partnership, with the joint FlexPod offering being the best known and marketed. The collaboration between the companies often extends in less well-advertised but no less interesting ways. One that has been a personal highlight for me is NetApp providing the storage for the infrastructure that runs the Network Operations Center (NOC) for five of the last Cisco Live events in the US and Europe. This includes acting as a member of the NOC team both prior to the show and during the event: NetApp personnel arrive with Cisco staff the week before the show begins to setup the environment, and ensure that everything runs smoothly and non-disruptively for the attendees.

The core infrastructure – comprised of FlexPods as we leverage Cisco Nexus switches and UCS servers in conjunction with our NetApp FAS storage – has been relatively small: less than 20 servers and and less than 50TB of provisioned storage.  From a sheer numbers perspective, the majority of the equipment managed by the NOC team is at the edge: 500+ switches and 600-900 wireless access points. (Any and all numbers vary by year and by location. YMMV.) What is common to all of this infrastructure: it must be able to be stood up quickly once on site, it must perform well (as the large number of attendees do their best to test the limits of the environment – whether accidentally or deliberately), and, most importantly, it must be highly reliable and can not go down.

When we started it was with classic 7-mode systems: a mid-range FAS3200 series HA pair with several shelves of SAS drives for production on-site at the event, and a secondary FAS2200 series HA pair for DR and co-located services. Both systems worked well supporting the virtual infrastructure powering the event.



In 2014 we upgraded the production hardware to a FAS8000 series running clustered Data ONTAP along with some new disk shelves. Flash Cache was also included to assist with things like VDI – that year the NOC provided virtual desktops for many of the labs that were being performed at the show. The system continued to work well with zero downtime or performance issues, and providing significant storage efficiencies. We had so much extra space due to NetApp dedupe, thin provisioning, etc. that we even mirrored most data locally between the controllers to provide yet-another level of redundancy (belts, suspenders, and safety pins).




Now we’ve upgraded again: starting with this week’s Cisco Live Europe show in Berlin, the Cisco Live NOC runs on an AFF MetroCluster!

What’s AFF?  AFF stands for “All-Flash FAS” – this is the flash-only version of NetApp’s storage controllers that run clustered Data ONTAP: specifically optimized for low-latency flash performance. While sharing the same OS with our traditional FAS storage arrays enables customers to get all of the benefits of our rich family of integrated data management services, there are now software optimizations for flash that are only enabled in the AFF series, and those optimizations are already showing significant improvements across minor version releases (8.3.0 -> 8.3.1 -> 8.3.2).

Why AFF?  …. why not? During last year’s Cisco Live US we found that the IO load on the existing back-end disks was approaching the point at which contention and undesirable latency would start to be introduced. While the controllers themselves could produce more performance, we would have needed to add more disk shelves in order to provide any significantly increased amount of IOPS. Because we were not capacity bound, it made much more sense to instead replace the SAS drives with SSDs for the best performance possible and the most room for growth (in IO). We could have kept the existing FAS controllers to use with new SSDs – many of our FAS customers have been using hybrid or all-SSD configurations for years – but there was no good reason to not also take advantage of the performance improvements specific to the AFF line of controllers.

What’s MetroCluster? It’s an implementation of NetApp’s FAS (or AFF) storage controllers that provides high availability and disaster recovery across physical sites with zero data loss (zero RPO – recovery point objective) and minimal downtime (low to near-zero RTO – recovery time objective).  In order to achieve zero data loss, of course, you must be performing synchronous writes to two different sets of physical media, and for disaster recovery those sets must be in different physical locations. Because the speed of light is a real limit, in order to perform synchronous writes those two locations need to be relatively near each other so that the round-trip time latencies are acceptable (the controller can’t acknowledge a write operation back to the host until that write is committed at the remote site, not just the local site).  With a maximum supported distance of 200km (for now) you get a cluster that can operate across a “metropolitan” area. Customers have been using MetroCluster to protect their most mission critical data in this fashion for 10 years now.

So why MetroCluster? As I noted above, we had been replicating most of the Cisco Live data locally for an extra level of protection anyway, but, more importantly, for Cisco Live Europe a different need arose: active/active storage across two physical locations. At prior shows, the completely redundant FlexPod environments (as shown in the diagram above) had been located proximal to each other. For the 2016 show the goal was to take advantage of the building layouts at the new location (City Cube in Berlin) to provide even more redundancy by placing half of the infrastructure in each of two different buildings (one FlexPod per building). Very early in these planning stages it became obvious that using an AFF MetroCluster for Cisco Live was simply the right thing to do.


We’re now a few days into Cisco Live Europe 2016, and things are going well. On Friday we’ll be having the traditional NOC panel during the last session slot of the show where we’ll discuss the build-out, how the entire infrastructure (wired, wireless, WAN, datacenter, etc.) has performed, lessons learned, and any interesting statistics.  I’ll also post a follow-up blog about my experiences at the show.

For now, here’s a pic of one of the FlexPods (one half of the core datacenter infrastructure) as we were getting it plugged in on the first day. This was before it was powered on – hence the lack of blinkenlights.






Cisco Champions 2016: NetApp Honorees

On Friday January 29th, Cisco welcomed this year’s honorees for the Cisco Champions 2016 program. While the complete list of award winners has not yet been published, I’m proud to be able to say I’ve been chosen a Champion for the second year.  And yes, even prouder to see other NetApp/Solidfire employees and “extended family” on the list:

  • Chris Reno (@thechrisreno), National Pre-Sales Engineer at ePlus, Inc
  • Dave Cain (@thedavecain), TME for Converged Infrastructures at NetApp
  • Henry Vail, Senior Architect for Converged Infrastructures at NetApp
  • Jarett Kulm (@JK47theweapon and, Principal Technologist at HA Storage Systems and NetApp A-Team member
  • Melissa Palmer (@vmiss33 and, TME for Converged Infrastructures at NetApp
  • Pete Ybarra (@CertiPete), Field Technical Consultant at Avnet and NetApp A-Team member
  • Shawn Lieu (@ShawnLieu), Solutions Architect at Veeam and NetApp A-Team member

If there’s anyone that I’ve missed in the above list, please let me know and I’ll be happy to update & make sure that you’re included.

While a much younger program than the VMware vExpert one, the team at Cisco have done a fantastic job of ramping up quickly and truly building a thriving and interactive community. All the success of the program is due to the hard work, passion, and openness of the both program’s current leaders, Lauren Friedman (@Lauren) and Brandon Prebynski (@Prebynski), and its former stewards, Amy Lewis (@CommsNinja – now Director of Marketing for Solidfire at NetApp) and Rachel Bakker (@RBakker).