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Friday, August 2, 2013

Free and cheap ways to study for IT certifications

For as long as there have been technology certifications, IT pros have debated their value. Some believe they're the key to a better job or paycheck, while others contend that they're often not worth the paper they're printed on. Still others say, essentially, "it's complicated."
IT education
This aim of this story is not to add to that debate. This story is for technology professionals who have already decided to pursue a certification, and who are looking for ways to do so without breaking the bank.
Because there's no denying it: Studying for and taking certification exams can be costly. Instructor-led classes often cost in "the thousands of dollars," notes Tim Warner, a 15-year IT veteran, technology writer and trainer at CBT Nuggets, which specializes in IT certification training. Even computer-based classes, which generally don't offer direct contact with the instructor, typically cost "in the hundreds of dollars," he adds.
studyAnd once the studying is done you still have to pay for the exams. "On average, exam prices range between $150 and $350 per attempt," Warner says. "Some IT cert vendors, such as Microsoft, offer 2-for-1 promotions that effectively halve the registration cost. Either way, it's expensive."
Fortunately there are plenty of free and low-cost resources that can help you study for certification exams, and depending on your circumstances, there may be other ways you can cut expenses. You might even be able to save some dough on the exam fees themselves. Later in the story I'll discuss some inexpensive ways to gain hands-on experience in the subjects you're studying.

Resources and tips for studying

Try these methods for saving money while studying for any certification.
Check with your current employer. If you're in an IT position already, your company may pay for a training course or study materials, or offer other resources for taking certifications. And even if your employer doesn't pay for it, it might be able to get you discounted exam fees and other resources if it's a member of an organization that offers such benefits. Also look for ways at work to gain more hands-on experience with the technology you're studying for.
Check your school resources. If you're currently enrolled in an IT track at a college or university, check with your academic department for available resources, such as free access to software development tools, operating systems and office software, as well as any discounts for computers and hardware if needed.
Take advantage of student editions of software at a local or online college store. And don't forget about the school library, where you might find certification study guides or other resources to help.
Military members, consider government programs. If you're currently serving or retired, check out the resources that military and government organizations are offering. Most of the GI bills and other educational resource programs contribute to certification expenses.
Subscribe to Safari Books Online. This on-demand digital library offers a collection of more than 20,000 technology, digital media and professional development books and videos from O'Reilly Media, Addison-Wesley, Peachpit Press, Microsoft Press and more.
You can read and watch from your computer, with an iPad app or on any mobile device via the company's mobile site. After a free trial of 10 days or 1,000 page views, rates range from $20 to $43 per month or $300 to $473 per year.
Join the IEEE Computer Society. Dedicated to technical education and collaboration, this arm of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers offers numerous resources you can use when studying: 600 online books via Safari Books, 500 online books from Element K and discounts for Books 24x7 books and subscriptions. It also offers 4,300 online courses for many technical and business certifications and proficiency exams by Brainbench.
Memberships are yearly, running January through December; the dues depend on when you join. A full year's membership to the Computer Society runs $99 for professionals; a student membership costs $40 and includes membership to both the IEEE and the Computer Society. If you join mid-year, rates are exactly half price -- $49.50 for professionals or $20 for students.
Check out online discussion forums. Who better to get advice from on studying for and passing a certification exam than others who have done it already? Participants often share exactly what they found useful when studying and provide some general feedback about the exam(s).

A caveat

Before using a study resource, consider its reliability and age. Most IT certifications update their objectives and curriculum at least every few years. If it's a study guide or course for a particular certification, check to see if it's updated for the most current exam version.
But do remember that the exact questions will likely differ at every exam, since you're usually presented with only a portion of a pool of questions. And always remember, obtaining or publishing verbatim questions from exams is usually strictly prohibited by exam vendors.
Check for resources from the certification vendor. Most certification vendors provide at least some free basic resources on their website that you can use when studying. Though you likely won't find free in-depth courses, you might find articles, blogs, videos, webinars, discussion forums and other content that can help.
For instance, Cisco provides the Cisco Learning Network, Microsoft offers the TechNet andMicrosoft Developer Network sites, CompTIA offers the IT Pro Community and CWNP provides free Wi-Fi learning resources.
Look for free online university courses. A growing trend for universities, including MIT, is to offer free online classes in high-tech topics. While most of these courses are not focused specifically on technology certifications, they could help with background learning in an array of IT topics. Coursera, for instance, partners with several top universities to offer courses in computer systems, security and networking.
Check your public library. Don't forget about the good ol' local library. You might not find updated books for all IT certifications or topics, but it doesn't hurt to check. Also check the library's website for digital resources and library partnerships that might offer a larger book selection.
Assess your knowledge with practice tests. There's no point in wasting money taking an exam before you're ready. Take advantage of practice tests to assess what you know and what you need to study more. Though the questions won't be those from the actual exam, they should cover similar topics based upon the exam objectives.
If you get a question wrong, try to fully understand why your answer is wrong and the reasoning behind the correct answer. A quick Google search (try both "[certification name] practice test" as well as a more general search like "IT certifications practice tests") will reveal many sites offering these tests, and you may also find them in your study guides.

Resources and tips for getting hands-on experience

While traditional methods of study are certainly an important part of preparing for a certification exam, having hands-on experience with the technology you're studying is essential to give you a deeper understanding of it. As you're working with a technology, don't just perform the required or usual tasks; experiment a bit so you can get a full understanding.
While getting such experience might be relatively easy for those who work for an enterprise IT shop or students in a large university IT program, it can seem daunting for others. The following tips can help.
Cloud tools: To obtain hands-on experience without having to obtain and set up costly hardware, consider using cloud services. For instance, the Free Usage Tier of the Amazon EC2 Cloud gives you free remote access to Linux and Windows platforms so you can practice Linux commands or Windows Server administration. Windows Azure offers a free three-month trial that you could use for software development or databases. Microsoft also offers a free trial ofExchange Online that you could experiment with.
Virtualization, Linux live discs, partitioning: When you need to work with another OS,desktop virtualization software such as VMware PlayerWindows Virtual PC or VirtualBox lets you run another OS -- and its apps -- right inside Windows. For Linux-based OSes, you can also boot from a live CD, which doesn't require disk installation. If you prefer to do a full install of an OS, you can always partition your PC's hard disk and set up a dual-boot.
Here are some additional tips on inexpensive ways to gain some hands-on experience, categorized by IT specialty.
  • Consider setting up open-source or free routers like RouterOSZeroShell or Endian for some general networking experience.
  • If you're studying for a network certification -- from Cisco or Juniper, for instance -- use emulators for practicing commands and simulating network configurations. The open-source GNS3 Graphical Network Simulator, for example, supports Cisco IOS/IPS/PIX/ASA and Juniper JunOS.
  • To gain experience with 802.1X authentication or for other RADIUS needs, try the open-sourceFreeRADIUS or freeware TekRADIUS.
  • For network security, consider doing some penetration testing on your own network with BackTrack.
Windows administration
  • In addition to the cloud-based tools noted above, Microsoft offers free trials of Windows Server, Windows Small Business Server and many other products. (You can also register for access to Windows Server technical resources at Microsoft's TechNet site.)
Software development

  • Consider downloading the free 90-day trial version of Microsoft Visual Studio or set up a Web server like the open-source Apache for Web-based languages.
  • Students, educators and institutions, also keep in mind Microsoft's DreamSpark program, which provides many development tools free of charge. Once you've joined DreamSpark you can also receive 90 days of free access to .NET training courses from Pluralsight, which is offered as only a 10-day free trial to the general public.

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