Introduction

For anyone starting a new project, the wise thing to do is to “count the cost.” This also holds true for those just starting out in their Cisco (or networking-related) career.

One of the questions people at this phase of their career ask is, “How does the CCNP certification compare to the CCNA certification, especially in terms of difficulty?” In this article, we will look at answering this question (and its many variations) and put things into perspective for potential candidates so that they can plan accordingly.

Cisco Certifications

First, let’s get acronyms out of the way. CCNA stands for Cisco Certified Network Associate, while CCNP is short for Cisco Certified Network Professional. As can be seen from these names, the company behind these certifications is Cisco Systems. Cisco holds an over 50% share of the global enterprise switching and routing market and has a market capitalization of over $200 billion.

Looking at these figures, it is clear why people want to hold their certifications. Apart from the fact that whatever organization you work for is likely to have a Cisco device, Cisco certifications are also good resume boosters to even get a job in the first place. Cisco recognizes this and has invested a lot of resources and efforts into its certification program, offering five major levels:

  • Entry: Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT)
  • Associate: CCNA Routing & Switching
  • Professional: CCNP Security
  • Expert: Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) Service Provider
  • Architect: Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr)

The general idea about these certification levels is that levels build on each other, with Entry being the lowest and Architect being the highest. However, this is not always the case. For example, you can become CCNA-certified without first being a CCENT. In the same way, while it is recommended to take the lower-level exams, you can become a CCIE without going through the Associate and Professional certification exams.

Deeper Look: CCNA and CCNP

Now that we understand how the CCNA and CCNP certifications fit into the Cisco certification program, let’s discuss what these certifications are and how they differ, especially in terms of difficulty.

What Is the Cisco Certified Network Associate Certification?

The CCNA certification is probably the most popular Cisco certification. In fact, when I got into the networking industry, I didn’t even know about the CCENT certification and went straight for the CCNA certification. While this certification is mostly focused on Cisco devices (unlike vendor-neutral certifications like CompTIA Network+), it still provides a good understanding of networking technologies and prepares candidates for job roles such as Network Administrator, Network Support Engineer and Associate Security Analyst.

In the past, there used to be just one CCNA certification (simply known as CCNA). However, Cisco has split the CCNA certification into multiple areas for each IT specialization, e.g., CCNA Routing and Switching (which is mostly the old CCNA), CCNA Security, CCNA Collaboration and so on, each having their prerequisites and required number of exams. In summary, to become CCNA-certified:

  1. Meet the prerequisites for the certification, if any. While some of the CCNA certifications do not have any prerequisite (e.g., CCNA Routing and Switching, CCNA Cloud), some of them require you to first be CCENT-, CCNA Routing and Switching- or CCIE-certified
  2. Pass the required exam(s). Most of the CCNA certifications require you to pass one exam, while some require you to write up to two exams

You can learn more about the CCNA certifications here. There is also a good series on the CCNA Routing and Switching certification here.

What Is the Cisco Certified Network Professional Certification?

Moving up one level in the Cisco certification hierarchy, we have the CCNP certification. This certification goes deeper into the technologies covered by the CCNA certification and is highly Cisco-focused. It prepares you for roles such as Network Consultant, Senior Network Engineer and Datacenter Engineer.

Like the CCNA certifications, there are also various CCNP certifications based on a specialization such as CCNP Routing and Switching, CCNP Security, CCNP Data Center and so on. To become CCNP-certified, you need to:

  • Meet the prerequisites for the certification which is the corresponding CCNA-level certification. For example, to become CCNP Routing and Switching-certified, you must first be CCNA Routing and Switching-certified
  • Pass the required exams, which vary between three and four exams depending on the specialization

CCNA vs. CCNP

As we have already seen, the CCNA and CCNP certifications are on different levels of the Cisco certification hierarchy. However, let’s highlight some other differences about these certifications in this section.

Depth or Breadth?

The CCNA certification is more wide than deep. This means that it tests candidates on surface-level concepts and fundamentals of various technologies. On the other hand, the CCNP certification goes deep into a particular technology and will test candidates on even seemingly obscure concepts.

For example, the topics on the CCNA Routing and Switching certification exam that cover OSPF are as follows:

  • 3.9 Configure, verify and troubleshoot single-area and multi-area OSPFv2 for IPv4 (excluding authentication, filtering, manual summarization, redistribution, stub, virtual-link and LSAs)
  • 3.10 Configure, verify and troubleshoot single-area and multi-area OSPFv3 for IPv6 (excluding authentication, filtering, manual summarization, redistribution, stub, virtual-link and LSAs)

On the other hand, the topics on the ROUTE exam of the CCNP Routing and Switching certification that cover OSPF are as follows:

  • 3.24 Describe OSPF packet types
  • 3.25 Configure and verify OSPF neighbor relationship and authentication
  • 3.26 Configure and verify network types, area types and router types
    • 3.26.a Point-to-point, multipoint, broadcast, non-broadcast
    • 3.26.b LSA types, area type: backbone, normal, transit, stub, NSSA, totally stub
    • 3.26.c Internal router, backbone router, ABR, ASBR
    • 3.26.d Virtual link
  • 3.27 Configure and verify OSPF path preference
  • 3.28 Configure and verify OSPF operations
  • 3.29 Configure and verify OSPF for IPv6

Difficulty Level

Following from the first point, the CCNP certification exams are generally more difficult to pass than the CCNA certification exams. This is not only because you need to cover more content, but Cisco can also sometimes set questions that are subjective, i.e., as stated in a certification guide or data page somewhere.

This variation in difficulty is reflected in the exam timing and number of questions. For example, while the CCNA Routing and Switching composite exam (currently 200-125) is a 90-minute exam with 60 to 70 questions, one exam in the CCNP Routing and Switching certification (ROUTE 300-101) is a 120-minute exam with 50-60 questions. This means Cisco gives you more time with fewer questions on the CCNP exam than the CCNA exam.

Number of Exams

While most CCNA certifications require you to pass one exam (some require two), most of the CCNP certifications require you to pass up to four exams! This is no joke, considering that each one of those CCNP-level exams is likely more difficult than the one CCNA-level exam. This also means that the time required to become CCNP certified is at least 3-4 times more than the time required to become CCNA-certified.

All these differences add up to why the national average annual salary of CCNP certification holders is over $20,000 higher, compared to that of CCNA certification holders.

Conclusion

This brings us to the end of this article, where we have looked at Cisco certifications in general and then focused on the CCNA and CCNP certifications. We then concluded by answering the question of which of the certifications is more difficult to obtain — CCNP because of its depth, number of exams and exam difficulty.

 

Sources

  1. Ethernet Switch & Router Market at an All-time High; Cisco Increases its Market Share, Synergy Research Group
  2. Cisco Systems, Inc., Yahoo Finance
  3. Cisco Certifications Are Most Popular in IT Skills and Salary Report, Global Knowledge
  4. Professional Certifications, Cisco