How To Use Certifications To Become a Virtualization Expert – with Andrea Mauro

by Mirek Burnejko

Virtualization ExpertAndrea Mauro is a virtualization expert. Without any question.

He achieved the highest level in the VMware certification program (VCDX), but also decided to extend his virtualization skills with other players (Microsoft and Citrix), systems skills (Microsoft and Novell), storage and backup skills (EMC and Symantec).

A great person, a great engineer and (what is the most important) a great inspiration for everyone who wants to start with virtualization certifications and doesn’t know if theses certifications are important.

In this interview you will find:

  • What steps you must do to become VMware Certified Design Expert?
  • Why you should not concentrate only on a virtualization technology, but also on other technologies like networking, storage and even SQL?
  • Do you need to work with the biggest systems in the world to become a VCDX?
  • What other certifications are good for vEngineers?


IT Certification Master: Hello Andrea. It is a big pleasure. You are very unique with your skills – virtualization certifications from VMware, Citrix and Microsoft. Just wow. Tell us something about the beginning of your career and about your first IT certification.

Andrea Mauro: I’ve started (a lot of years ago) with a Commodore 64, but only with my first experience on a PC (with MS-DOS) I understand that this passion would also be my possible work area. During University, I also played with Linux distributions and this gave me a better understanding of Operating Systems and networking.

Things are really change. Now start in IT is simpler and cheaper (I remember how expensive my first PC was and how difficult it was to find good books or good documentation).

My first officially certification was the VCP3 obtained on 26-Apr-2007, so not really early (I’ve started my career on 1996). Why so much time before a certification? First reason was the cost of a certification (my previous employers have no interest in paying for certifications). But there was a second reason, where initially I was not convinced about the real value of a certification.
To be honest when I’ve started, certifications were not so common as know and was simple to verify the capacity and the knowledge of a person. Now the knowledge level has raised a lot and there are several interconnections between different areas and technologies.

ICM: When did you realize that this is the time for the virtualization world?

AM: As most people I’ve started of course with VMware Workstation and honestly not with the ESX 1.0 (I remember that was not possible, at least in my Country) to have an evaluation or trial version (now is possible evaluated and test quite all product, but was not so easy and common 10 years ago). My first virtualization project (for academic purposes) was building a virtual honeynet with Linux UML (it was the end of 2001). 
My first virtualization project for a production system virtualization solution was based on an environment with VMware ESX 2.5.

ICM: What was your first certification for virtualization technologies?

AM: I’ve take the VCP3 certification on 26-Apr-2007. Due to some budget constraints I’ve not tried it before, and it was a pity to “loose” the VCP2 opportunity. Then I’ve keep this certification updated also I’ve applied with success to the VCDX3.

ICM: Tell us something about your VCDX certification. Do you agree with us that is one of the hardest IT certification to get?

AM: It is the hardest in my experience, probably is not the most difficult one (I’ve add some comments to your article on my website).

What make this kind of certification hard and probably not for all, is the duration (is a long journey with usually 6 months from the first exam) and the final step that is quite structured:

  • First you have to submit an application (and this is, in my opinion the longest and critical part where you decide probably most of the 50% of you success)
  • Then you have to defend it in around 1 hour
  • Then you have to build a new project from scratch in less than 1 hour (yes… less than hour)
  • Finally you have a troubleshooting session (panel say that are from real cases)
  • And of course there are the VCAP exams before all

So you can see that there are labs (VCAP-DCA), questions (VCAP-DCD), design project, presentation, discussions, … really a lot of capacities are tested in this certification.

ICM: What would you have improved in the VMware certification system? What do you think about some kind of lab (like Red Hat) from the first level? (like VCP)

AM: I really like practical exams. They are the right and credible way to handle certifications for admins and professionals. Red Hat is famous for their labs, but also Novell and Cisco have similar approach. Microsoft also have made some test in this direction (I’m not talking about the terrible “simulators” in some exams, but the quite good 83-640 that has been retired).

And starting with the VCDX path also VMware has the VCAP-DCA exam that is totally lab and task based. Another big improvement in the VMware certifications is that they are know more clear and defined (for example to the VCAP exam you have not only the blueprint but also an example of the labs). Some could be still improved, like the beta exams (see my comments) and the upgrade paths (in my option need to be published faster that now, for example is still unknown the upgrade path to VCDX5).

ICM: What was your the biggest projects related to virtualization? Can you give us some numbers? How many percent of your knowledge from the certification’s path did you use? (I know, hard question).

AM: In Italy (where I live) most project are just small or medium, but quite a lot (also more that 100 each year). The biggest one was a multi-site deployment with 10 hosts in the main site, a VDI deployment and of course a site disaster recovery solution.

About the percent of my knowledge related to the certifications path I cannot give a simple number, just because knowledge is alimented both from study and experience and is in a retroactive system that evolve with the time: sometime you study just because you have to do (like for a certification), sometime just to verify you knowledge, sometime to have deep improvement.

ICM: Why you decided to obtain certifications from other vendors? We know that a virtualization expert is going as deep as possible into the VMware world. Why you did this step?

AM: Good question, but in my opinion, a virtualization solution could not be limited only to the virtualization level: some lower layers are involved (storage, networking, server’s hardware, …) but also some upper layers are required, both for the infrastructure itself (for example a Windows machine for the installable version of vCenter Server) and the VMs (guest OS, application services).

For big environment maybe there are several technical people with specific skills on each layer and in big company you can find also at customer level. But in SMB segment a customer need a working solution, so you must be able to make all working. Of course the customer application layer could be managed by other people, but at least who implement the virtualization solution must know how guest OS can be configured. For “Business Critical Applications” this could also need at application level (at least in the service configuration and tuning part), in fact VMware has start some months ago with a new partner competency specific of this cases (called VBCA) and specific vendor certification (like on Exchange, SQL Server) are required.

About other virtualization solution I’ve choose to gain certifications also on Hyper-V (MCITP Windows Server 2008 R2, Virtualization Administrator) and Citrix (CCA on XenServer and XenDesktop) to know better and understand the other products.

ICM: Do you think Microsoft and Citrix should create also a design expert-level certification? Or maybe their products are too young?

AM: Citrix already have a nice certification called CCIA that cover several virtualization technologies and solutions (XenApp, XenDesktop and XenServer), is not the same as a VCDX, but IMHO is a step ahead of VCAP certs.
Microsoft seems not yet interested to a MCM certs on virtualization (there is also the entire MDOP package that could be added to this path as also the System Center family), let’s see if something will change.

ICM: We want to give our readers as much value as possible. Tell us what we should do to start? What certification is the best for the start?

AM: I know that for each people at the beginning IS the question, but I cannot give a simple answer because it really depends on which path do you choose, on your skill but also on your budget of money and time.

First to all start studying and testing the technology. Now, all virtualization products can be evaluated of some time (for VMware is 60 days) and most important you can use virtual environments to test your products (Workstation 8 or ESXi 5 are great for this purpose). After some practice you can try to verify and demonstrate (and also improve) your knowledge with some certification path.

If you are working in the virtualization field than probably the VCP could be a good certification, but it require a minimum experience (also a lab experience could be fine) and also a mandatory course (good for understand the product, but really not so cheap). Most of Citrix and Microsoft certifications instead do not require any mandatory courses, so they can be a way to begin with low-budget.

Another question is if make sense reach some kind of certification before have a job. Again, each certification has a cost and several company may pay for this costs, but some company also are looking for already certified people. Again the answer is not so simple.

ICM: Should we concentrate on VCDX and go step by step to the virtualization expert level? Maybe better way is to achieve certifications from other vendors (Microsoft, Citrix, Red Hat)?

AM: One big myth is that VCDX is only about VMware products: this is not true and one candidate can bring also other solutions, but of course he has to defend his choices.
VCDX is not for all. There are around 70 people in the world (let’s see how many people are “elected” in the last defense). Why so few people? Maybe because it’s difficult, but also because most people are rejected just because they are not good candidates (maybe they can be good candidates in the future).

This kind of certification require a good experience, not necessary on big systems (I’m probably a good example of this) but with a complete coverage of multiple aspects, technologies, products. From vSphere 4 there was a good improvement in the VCDX path: the VCAP certifications that are not only a step of the path, but also a standalone certification. So you may start with the VCAP and then really think twice (or more) for the VCDX.

If you work with several heterogenous environments other vendor’s certifications could also be a way (I suggest at least the Windows OS and maybe some Linux OS related certifications). As also some strong basis of networking and storage.

ICM: What other certifications are good for vEngineers? I see that you have few storage and Windows/Linux certifications. Is this a good path to work with the biggest IT projects?

AM: Virtualization is just one layer. You may need to know other similar layers (or not). But for sure you have to interact with guest OS and hardware, network and storage. For Linux and Windows there are some well-defined paths. For networking probably the Cisco (and maybe also Juniper) certifications are the way and most of them not too much vendor oriented. For storage is a little more complicated… too much vendor specific certifications and/or  an accreditation, less that is technology oriented. For backup, data protection, disaster recovery, business continuity there isn’t too much yet (was interesting the Veeam Backup Academy initiative to make something for this area).

ICM: What are your goals for 2012/13?

AM: Apart gain the VCDX5, I’ve not decided yet… Maybe a sabbatical year

ICM: Where we can find you?

My social profiles are collected on about.me. My main blog is vinfrastructure.it.

[This is part of the Interviews with IT Pros Series]

  • Really good interview! I follow Andre on twitter and also see his comments on the VMware community forums as well (for which he has 14,000 posts!) He obviously has a true passion for virtualization which really shines through as he obviously lives and breaths VMware!

    It is also really good to see that you dont have massive enterprise experience to achieve either the VCAP or VCDX certifications.

    I have recently completed my home lab for my VCAP-DCA5 (when it is released!) and possibly Citrix CCEE studies so they are my goals for 2012 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment!
      And good luck for your studies and certifications

  • Great Interview Andre. I agree 100% with your sentiments. Deep and broad experience with all technologies and Virt/VMware is only one layer. Especially when talking Business Critical Apps. You need to have a good understanding of all the layers. I’m sure this will inspire others.

    • Thanks Michael.
      Yes, the Business Critical Apps is a great example… also if you customer has other consultants or skilled people for the application level you must know enough to interact with them in a constructive way.