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Exchange certification explained

Are Exchange certifications just expensive pieces of paper or do they hold value for administrators? See why experts believe it's time to hit the books.

 The topics of education and certification often spark lively debates within the IT community. While many IT professionals see certification as a poor gauge of real-world knowledge, others rely on it to measure staff development and technical scope. As supporters and detractors debate the value of formal certification, it's clear that certifications are evolving to meet increasing capabilities and technical demands of mission-critical applications like Exchange Server 2010. Here's what you need to know when considering a formal background in Exchange.

Two levels of Exchange certification

In 2003, Exchange certification included seven separate tests for the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) certification, plus two additional Messaging tests. "That [MCSE] was the top-level Exchange certification of the day," said Mike Crowley, enterprise infrastructure architect for Planet Technologies, Inc.

Microsoft subsequently restructured its exams around products, replacing MCSE+Messaging with two distinct certification levels -- MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist) and MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional).

The first level of Exchange certification for 2007 products and beyond covers general installation and maintenance of Exchange Server, managing users mailboxes, security and related Exchange databases. Exam 70-662, or MCTS: Exchange Server 2010, Configuring, as it's called, focuses on installing different Exchange roles and what they are used for. "It hits all the new features of Exchange like RBAC, MRM 2.0, high availability with DAG groups and more," said J. Peter Bruzzese, Exchange Instructor for Train Signal

A certified administrator will have a much better grasp of new technology...


J. Peter Bruzzese
Exchange InstructorTrain Signal

The second -- or professional -- level of Exchange certification is geared toward senior administrators who are supporting an Exchange Recipient Administrator and Exchange Server Administrator. To obtain this certification, MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator 2010 (EMA 2010, admins must pass the 70-663 exam. Here the questions involve more critical thinking and abstract considerations like budget, performance needs and other less-tangible factors.

Preparing for Exchange certifications

As with any educational endeavor it's important to have a solid grasp on the fundamentals before investing in the final exam. The MCTS exam for Exchange Server 2010 is considered an entry-level exam without any formal prerequisites other than some hands-on experience.

"Persons looking to pass this exam would do well to set up Exchange in a lab so that they can play around with all sorts of configurations," Bruzzese said. A single Hyper-V deployment and several desktop systems should be more than enough to cover the major roles and features for educational purposes, noted Bruzzese, though working with multiple servers allow for more realistic environments and high-availability functions.

The MCITP exam, on the other hand, is more involved, requiring six months to two years of direct experience with Exchange Server, Windows Server 2008, Active Directory, name resolution and DNS, security certificates and PowerShell. "I would expect someone that knows Exchange to also be very strong in Active Directory," said Crowley . "If you don't have a strong understanding of how Active Directory works, you won't be successful with Exchange."

Candidates for Exchange certification can usually choose between self-study guides, online (e-learning) courses and live instructor-led classes. Experts say that there is value to all three of these options, and many people use a mix of resources. Often, which method you choose depends on your own comfort level, as well as hands-on exposure to Exchange Server 2010.

For example, an administrator with previous Exchange know-how and access to Exchange 2010 lab servers at work would probably do well with self-study or online study resources. On the other hand, a junior administrator or technician with little exposure to Exchange Server may benefit most from an intensive instructor-led course that includes hands-on lab time .

The value of Exchange 2010 certification

Is obtaining Exchange Server 2010 certification actually worth the time and trouble? There is no easy answer. It depends on your own IT needs, business priorities and staffing. Today's razor-thin IT budgets and proliferation of experienced Exchange administrators might make certification seem like an indulgence that could just as easily be avoided. Experts also concede that certification alone does not an Exchange guru make.

Exchange Server 2010 is a complex business platform with capabilities that didn't exist in previous versions. It's possible to learn many elements of Exchange through trial-and-error, but in terms of a person's time, that approach is often more costly and far less efficient than focused education.

"A certified administrator will have a much better grasp of new technology , when to use it, when it shouldn't be used, which clients are necessary to make certain features work and so forth," Bruzzese said. "An experienced [Exchange] admin [without certification] will only know what their personal experience has taught them or what they've chosen to read and retain."

There's one last wrinkle to consider when planning a certification strategy. Microsoft's shift to product-focused certification means that certifications are tied to product lifecycles. Certifications do not need to be renewed or upgraded in the traditional sense, but they will quickly lose relevance as new releases enter the product stream.

For example, Exchange Server 2007 certification does not need to be renewed. However, since Exchange Server 2010 has been released, the value of older certifications will decline over time. Some skills will transfer from older versions to the newer version, but some will not. This may make certification more valuable when a new release promises radical changes in its architecture, performance, interface and features.

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