Since earning my VCDX certification at VMworld 2013, I often find myself explaining the value of VCDX. I am also asked questions such as: What does it take to earn the VCDX? How can I become a VCDX? These conversations have inspired me to write about my path from a VMware engineer to a VMware VCDX-level architect.
My first exposure to VMware was with a large customer in 2006. After spending about four years there working as an engineer with some design exposure, I felt I needed more of a challenge. I moved to work as a consultant at a VMware partner. This gave me more experience by working with more customers and products, which was a critical component of my learning process. Progressing through each project developed my skills and helped me get closer to my goal of
Once I made the commitment to try for the VCDX certification, I spent numerous hours each week studying both information that I already knew and more that I needed to know. The application process consisted of writing about my data center virtualization design and the supporting documentation. This effort consumed a couple hundred hours spread over several months. I was fortunate in that half the time was done during my day job since I based my design on one of my customer projects. I was also able to write a fair amount of the documentation during this period.
How to think like an architect
Most virtual admins think like engineers. Don't get me wrong; this is not a bad thing. Every day engineers keep the infrastructure running at enterprises all around the world. They have their minds focused on tasks like OS patching, server builds, support tickets and other responsibilities involved with keeping the lights on. These and other jobs are all very important, and someone who wants to achieve VCDX certification cannot forget this important part of the IT world.
The focus of a virtualization architect must be on the design and operational aspects of the project. The architect must understand and gather the customers' requirements, constraints and risks. These, along with other details obtained in the planning process, will help craft the design of the project.
The process will typically produce a conceptual design, then a logical design and finally the physical design. As you develop each phase, the project will become more detailed and specific until you reach the final solution. At each stage, you work through the design process, which requires presentations and explaining the design to different levels of people within the project.
A narrow view of the tech world is too limiting when designing today's virtualization projects. A great architect must understand how various products -- and not superficially VMware offerings -- will work together with other infrastructure such as storage, networking, compute and other services. By acquiring a deep level of knowledge, the architect can design a solution that meets the customers' requirements.
You'll need more than a book
Unlike most other certifications in the IT world, where you can purchase a book to study and use your knowledge and likely pass the test, this is not possible with VCDX certification. To be considered a design expert by VMware, the company requires you to be a well-rounded technical architect. The candidate needs to understand all of the disciplines that are part of your design.
You won't obtain VCDX certification if you can defend just the VMware portion of your design. The VCDX tips from existing holders and VMware highly emphasize that you must deeply understand all parts of the project.
If you do not possess this level of knowledge in other disciplines, then you will need to attain it. This will require you to understand the engineering view of the storage world and then to acquire the storage architecture skills that would be required to defend your design. For me, building up this expertise meant that eventually I could serve as the primary -- or the sole -- architect on a project.
Resources to help prepare
To prepare for the VCDX design and defense phases, VMware has published VCDX Boot Camp: Preparing for the VCDX Panel Defense and runs boot camps to simulate the certification experience.
Several current VCDX holders wrote the boot camp book and have participated on defense panels. The book describes the in-person design defense, where to get resources to prepare for the defense and what a candidate needs to do to prepare for the process.
In both the workshops and the book, you will see examples of mock design and troubleshooting scenarios. The boot camp offers something that the book cannot: live role-playing. During the boot camp, the panelists will run through some mock scenario discussions. If there are any brave audience members, they are able to join in.
I felt that the boot camp session was very helpful for me. I attended one about 18 months before I made my first VCDX attempt. This helped me get a better idea what the day might feel like when I was invited to defend my design. I know many other candidates who attended the boot camp the week of their defense to ready themselves, so if you have the chance to attend, do so, no matter when it is.
In addition, to further prepare for VCDX certification, I attended The Open Group Architecture Framework training and took a two-part exam to obtain TOGAF certification. TOGAF is an independent architecture certification program that teaches enterprise architecture methodology, and it was a worthwhile step to supplement my overall enterprise data center familiarity.
Patience and dedication are key
What else can you do to acquire the level of VMware knowledge needed for a VCDX-level design and defense?
If you have a solid engineering background and been using vSphere for some time, you are on the road. But to have a good chance of being successful, you will need a deep understanding of vSphere, vCenter and any supporting VMware products.
You will need to understand how a specific feature works to the admin level and explain what it might be used for and, technically, how it works. This type of conversation could get into how VMware High Availability works, but it wouldn't be your normal conversation about the technology. You may need to give a detailed explanation of how it works, what triggers the process and how things are executed. You will need to think quickly to describe these types of details to the defense panel. There is not an option to look at PDFs. During some phases of the defense, you can ask the panel to perform a Google search for you, but I felt this choice was a last resort and one I did not want to count on.
It is also very important to understand the VMware options fully when developing a design. For example, when determining how to protect vCenter, there are several supported methods available. But there are other options that, while not officially supported, may be used because the customer requirements drove the design in that direction. You will need to defend all of your design decisions and be prepared to explain why you did not choose more standard options.
You can't acquire this type of design experience over a few months. All the time I spent at a VMware customer, then in a consulting role, contributed to building the skills necessary to make solid choices when designing a VMware environment.
It takes a village to get VCDX certification
While it can take a few years to prepare for VCDX certification, it's a worthwhile endeavor, and one I would encourage anyone to pursue. The time involved makes the certification difficult to obtain, but try to stay committed and keep working toward your goal.
For me, it was a long journey with several bumps along the way. It helps to keep in mind there are many good people you can meet online, or at your local VMUG or at VMworld who are on the same road. Your fellow candidates are probably looking for some help as well. One idea is to form a study group. If you work toward certification with a group, it can help keep you focused and inspired when working as a team. While you have to defend your design by yourself, that doesn't mean you have to prepare alone.
This was first published in January 2014