31-12-16

AWS Certified DevOps Engineer Professional – Exam Experience & Tips

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I managed to find the time yesterday to sit the above exam before the end of the year to reach my goal of holding all five current AWS certifications. There isn’t a lot out there about this exam, so as usual I thought I would try to pass on the benefit of my experiences for others planning to sit this one.

The exam is 80 questions over 170 minutes. I finished with about 20 minutes to spare and passed barely with a 66%, but as we always say – a pass is a pass! Looking back over the score report, there are four domains tested in the exam:-

  • Domain 1: Continuous Delivery and Process Automation
  • Domain 2: Monitoring, Metrics, and Logging
  • Domain 3: Security, Governance, and Validation
  • Domain 4: High Availability and Elasticity

I managed to score really well on domains 1, 3 and 4 (between 75% and 85%0, but really bombed on domain 2, which really surprised me. This domain focusses mainly on CloudWatch, so it goes without saying that I didn’t know it as well as I thought I did!

Like all the other AWS exams, the questions are worded in a very specific way, and it can take time to read and re-read the questions to truly understand what is being asked. I wouldn’t worry too much about time running out, some of the questions are quite short but you need to look for key words in the questions – such as “cost-effective”, “fault tolerant” and “efficient”. This can help you rule out the obviously incorrect answers.

In terms of what you need to know, I’d say the following :-

  • Domain 1: CloudFront (templates, custom resources), OpsWorks (lifecycles), Elastic Beanstalk (platform support, scaling, Docker), SQS, SNS, Data Pipeline (I was surprised to see this feature in the exam as I figured it was being phased out in favour of Lambda), SWF, bootstrapping
  • Domain 2: CloudWatch, CloudTrail (what it can and can’t do), CloudWatch Logs (Log streams, Log filters, Log agent), EMR
  • Domain 3: IAM (Roles, users, STS, AssumeRole(s))
  • Domain 4: Load balancing, auto scaling, EC2, S3, Glacier, EBS, RDS,  DynamoDB, instance types

And for what I used for study, use your AWS account and the free tier entitlement to much around with all the services. There are loads of walkthroughs in the documentation and provided you don’t leave massive instances running 24/7 it should only cost you pennies to use.

The A Cloud Guru course is well worth the investment of time and money – Adrian and Nick do a great job of taking you through most of what you need to know for the exam. I did find that there wasn’t as much DynamoDB content on the exam as I was expecting, not that I’m complaining because a lot of how it works still really mashes my head!

There are lots of good videos on YouTube, from Re:Invent conferences from years gone by which go into a lot of depth. I can also recommend Ian Massingham’s CloudFormation Masterclass video as a good refresher/primer for CF.

Difficulty wise, it’s definitely a tough exam, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 80 questions is a lot and many of them are very verbose in both the question and the answers. I’d say it’s not as tough as the Solutions Architect Pro as it doesn’t cover as broad a range of topics, but you can’t really wing it.

I hope this article helps anyone doing this exam any time soon. I’m going to enjoy being part of the “All 5” club for as long as it lasts (the three “Specialty” exams are coming up early next year, I’ve registered to sit all the betas).

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16-12-16

Linux Foundation Certified System Administrator  – Exam Experience & Tips

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I’ve recently gone through the process of sitting the LFCSA exam and one thing I noticed as I was studying was the almost total lack of blogs and articles about this certification and the exam. There are some good courses from Pluralsight and Linux Academy, but not a great deal else. As such, I thought I would drop a few thoughts down in case it helps someone else.

Firstly, what is the LFCSA and why should I sit it? Well firstly it’s vendor agnostic (but not), you get to choose which distro you’d like to certify on – SUSE, CentOS or Ubuntu. I chose CentOS as in my experience, it’s the most common distro in use in the enterprise right now, if you leave out the paid Red Hat equivalent. If you didn’t know, CentOS is in essence the “free” version of Red Hat, so if you know one, you know the other, so to speak. This puts you in a really good place skills wise.

Secondly, now that Microsoft have hugged the penguin (and no, that’s not a euphemism!), if you pass both the 70-533 (Azure Operations) and LFCSA exam, you qualify for the MCSA : Linux on Azure certification. As far as I can tell, there don’t seem to be a whole lot of people around who have that at the moment.

On to the exam itself. It’s currently priced at $300 and you get a resit included if you fail the first time. I thought initially the exam cost was quite high for an entry level exam, but when you factor in the resit, it’s actually not bad value for money. Also, until the 22nd December, you can save 50% on exam vouchers by using the code HOLIDAY50. Vouchers last for a year, so well worth buying now, even if you don’t plan to sit the exam until next year sometime.

The exam is all on line proctored, so you don’t need to find a test centre in the back of beyond that looks like an office block in Pripyat.

article-2257256-16c0b4f4000005dc-636_964x653A typical exam centre waiting room. In Pripyat. Possibly.

You perform all the registration via the Linux Foundation website and then click through to the exam delivery company (much the same as you do from Microsoft to Pearson). There is a short wait time while you are checked in, and much like the Microsoft process, you are asked to do a 360 degree view of the room with your webcam and desk area. All the testing requirements are the same for Microsoft online proctored exams, so nothing new here. In fact, if anything, it’s far less stringent. No turning out your pockets, rolling out your sleeves or reciting the Catalina Magdalena Lupensteiner Wallabeiner song.

From here, the exam kicks off and you’re monitored via webcam, as is typical for these things. The exam itself comprises 25 questions in 2 hours, so tight for time, even if you know your stuff. If you’ve sat VCAP/VCIX exams, you should know by now how to manage your time during these exams. You can go backwards and forwards between the questions and I can’t recall there being any dependencies between the answers, so if you don’t answer question 1, it doesn’t prevent you answering question 2, for example.

My tip? Scroll through the questions and answer the “easy” ones first. Some questions have a single objective, some have three or four sub-objectives. If you’re not massively confident, go for the low hanging fruit first. Remember this is a practical exam, so even if you only part answer a question, you will still get credit for it.

The exam screen is in two halves, the left pane has the question panel and the right pane has a terminal session. And no, you don’t have GUI access, so get that command line stuff learned!

In terms of content, I went through the Linux Academy material and found it matched the exam blueprint pretty well. I also dipped in and out of the PluralSight videos to plug the gaps in my knowledge. Also, labbing stuff and trying it out has no substitute (or as I have expressed it in the past, “labbing the shit out of it”). Either use your home lab or burn some AWS Free Tier or Azure MSDN credit. CentOS boxes should be extremely cheap to run as there’s no licence cost, you’re just paying compute and storage fees.

So what should you know? Well of course I’m restricted by NDA, but as I said, look at the exam blueprint and how the domains are weighted. There is a high value placed on “Essential Commands” and “Operation of Running Systems”, so take it from the blueprint to mean :-

  • Redirection of files
  • Core commands such as ls, echo, cp, rm, find, sed, sudo, etc.
  • Know how to use vim!
  • Creating, extracting and types of archives
  • Install and remove software
  • Write a basic shell script
  • Manipulation of users
  • Storage commands including LVM and mount
  • Creation, deletion and maintenance of user and group accounts
  • Firewalls, services and startup commands
  • KVM virtualisation commands (virsh, etc.)

Years ago, I sat and passed the old SUSE CLP entry level exam and I have to say, I thought the LFCS exam was pitched at a lower level than that. It’s not massively taxing, but that being said, I’m still awaiting my score report so I could have failed it! The SLA is 72-75 hours from the end of your exam for your results. The first time around, I broke the lab VM and so had to quit and therefore fail the exam! Oddly, the questions in the resit were more or less the same as the first time around, which makes me think the question pool is not all that large.

Also, don’t think you can wing it with man pages. You simply don’t have time to wade through all of that if you don’t know the fundamentals. One useful tip is to use tab complete. Not only does this save small amounts of time, but if you’re also not quite sure about what the command is, but you know the first couple of letters of it, tab complete will give you a list of matching commands. I found that quite useful a couple of times.

Hopefully this has proved useful, as I said previously, there’s not a lot of content out there about this certification or exam apart from the aforementioned training courses. Here are some useful study resources:-

Good luck if you’re sitting this any time soon, fingers crossed I will get a positive result!

Update 18/12/16 – I just found out I passed with 85%. Well happy with that!

17-11-16

Azure VMs – New Auto-Shutdown Feature Sneaked In (almost!)

I saw the news the other day that Azure Backup has now been included on the VM management blade in the Azure Portal, which is great news as you don’t want to be jumping around in the portal to manage stuff where you don’t need to. However, one feature I notice that appears to have sneaked into the VM management blade without any fanfare at all is the ability to auto schedule the shutdown of a virtual machine.

Many customers request the function of shutting down virtual machines during off hours in order to save cost once any backups and scheduled maintenance tasks have occurred. Previously this would have to be done by using Azure Automation to execute a run book to shut down VMs. This is fine and a valid way of doing this, but on larger estates ends up being a costed feature as the time taken to run the run books exceeds the free tier allowances.

This typical requirement has obviously found it’s way back the product management team at Microsoft and in order to make it a lot easier when spinning up VMs to enable this, it’s been added to the standard VM management blade, as shown below:-

vm-shutdown

As far as I can tell, this feature is either not in use yet or is only available in a small number of regions, ahead of a broader roll out. I tried it on VMs in UK South and North Europe, only to see this message :-

auto-stop

And trying to read between the lines of the error message, will this feature allow starting the VM too? You’d have to hope so! I did ping Azure Support on Twitter to see when this feature would be fully available in the UK/EU and got a very speedy response (thanks, chaps!):-

 

 

So stay tuned for this feature being enabled at some point in the near future. I’d also assume there will be some corresponding PowerShell command to go with it, so that you can add it to scripted methods of deploying multiple virtual machines.

21-09-16

Achievement Unlocked : MCSA Office 365

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I’m pleased to say that after a couple of attempts at 70-347, I successfully passed my MCSA : Office 365 last night. For those looking at doing this certification in the near future, I just wanted to pass on the benefit of my experience. You may think, like me, that Office 365 is a pretty straight forward suite of software. In some respects, it is. It’s pretty much the same Exchange, Office, Sharepoint, etc. that you’ve always been used to, but with the additions in this exam of knowing things like subscription plan differences, AD sync and much more.

Out of the two, I found the first exam 70-346 much easier. This in some ways lures you into a false sense of security in thinking the second will be much the same. This is really where I came unstuck. I got a little bit carried away and perhaps didn’t put quite as much effort as I should have done into my study and got a bit of a kicking in the end.

Once I dusted myself down and went back over the parts I didn’t know on the exam, I felt a lot more confident last night but I still took out the insurance policy of the Microsoft Booster Pack, which is an exam voucher plus 4 resits. Yes it’s more expensive, but it takes out the risk of running up large exam bills and takes the pressure off a bit too. The promotion runs until the end of this month, so if you want to take advantage, you’d better be quick.

Anyway, each exam was around 52 questions, a couple of case studies thrown in but most were the usual drag and drop, order a list, multiple choice type formats. If you’ve sat Microsoft exams before, there shouldn’t be anything in there about the format that should surprise you.

So then, what to study?

  • PowerShell, PowerShell, PowerShell. You’ll get battered on this. Know common switches for things like user manipulation, mailbox settings, mobile devices, Lync configuration etc
  • Make sure you know all of the different Exchange migration methods and when to use them, what their advantages and disadvantages are (cutover, staged, remote move, IMAP, etc.)
  • Know the permissions model of SharePoint well – how to give anonymous access, how to remove it and how to set up site collection hierarchies
  • Install and play with AD Connect and make sure you understand how it works and how you can use it in a hybrid environment, same goes for ADFS if you don’t know that well
  • Know what integrates with Skype for Business
  • Know the plan differences well, especially Enterprise and Small Business plans. Know what is included and what isn’t
  • Did I mention PowerShell?

Resources I used :-

  • Microsoft MVA training – Managing Office 365 Identities and Services. A little dated now but still very useful
  • CBT Nuggets – very concise course giving you most of the information you need to know
  • Pluralsight – A bigger deep dive into things like SharePoint sites and administration, which was a gap for me initially

Good luck if you’re sitting this any time soon, just don’t underestimate it or it will bite you on the arse!

 

15-09-16

Office 365 Features – Quick Reference Matrix

I’ve been doing quite a bit with Office 365 lately, and I always get confused as to what services come under which plan (typical Microsoft!). You’ll also be asked about this if you’re doing the Office 365 MCSA exams (70-346 and 70-347), so well worth knowing if just for that.

The gist of it :-

  • Exchange Online, Sharepoint and Office Online (Office Web Apps) is available on every plan
  • Exchange Online, Sharepoint, Skype for Business (Lync) and OneDrive for business is available on every plan except K1 plans
  • Office ProPlus requires E3, E4 or E5 Enterprise plans
  • Yammer is included, but with caveats (see notes table)

The matrix below has been lifted from Microsoft’s site and is current as of the time of this post. Beware this can and probably will change!

o365-comparison
1
   Project Online is not included, but can be purchased as a separate add-on service or added for free to the Office 365 Education plan.
2   Yammer Enterprise is not a component of Office 365 Government, but may be acquired at no cost as a standalone offer for each user licensed for Office 365 Government Plan E1, E3, E4, and K1. This offer is currently limited to customers which purchase Office 365 Government under Enterprise Agreement and Enterprise Subscription Agreements.
3   Azure RMS is not included, but can be purchased as a separate add-on service or added for free to the Office 365 Education plan.
4    To learn more about which RMS features are included with Office 365 plans, see Comparison of Rights Management Services (RMS) Offerings .
5   Office 365 Enterprise E5 contains Cloud PBX, PSTN Conferencing, and PSTN Calling capability. To implement PSTN Calling requires an additional plan purchase (either Local or Local and International).

Hope this helps!

01-09-16

Azure VNet Peering Preview Now Available

 

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One of the networking features that I liked AWS over Azure for was the ease of peering VPCs together. As a quick primer, an AWS VPC is basically your own private cloud within AWS, with subnets and instances and all that good stuff. Azure VNets are very similar in that they are a logical grouping of subnets, instances, address spaces, etc. Previously, to link VNets together, you had to use a VPN connection. That’s all well and good, but it’s a little bit clunky and in my opinion, is not as elegant as VPC peering.

Anyway, Microsoft has recently announced that VNet peering within a region is now available as a preview feature. This means that it’s available for you to try out, but be warned it’s pre-release software (much like a beta programme) and it’s a bit warts and all. It’s not meant to be used for production purposes and it is not covered by any SLAs.

The benefits of VNet peering include:-

  • Eliminates need for VPN connections between VNets
  • Connect ASM and ARM networks together
  • High speed connectivity across the Azure backbone between VNets

Many of the same restrictions that govern the use of VPC peering in AWS apply here too to VNet peering, including:-

  • Peering must occur in the same region
  • There is no transitive peering between VNets (VNet A is peered to VNet B but not to VNet C. VNet B is peered to VNet C but VNet A has no peer to VNet C)
  • There must be no overlap in the IP address space

While VNet peering is in preview, there is no charge for this service. Take a look at the documentation and give it a spin, in the test environment, obviously 😉

 

19-08-16

AWS : Keeping up with the changes

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As we all know, working in the public cloud space means changes in the blink of an eye. Services are added, updated (and in some cases, removed) at short notice and it’s vital from not just a Solutions Architect’s perspective but from an end user or operational standpoint that we keep up to date with these announcements, as and when they happen.

In days of old, we’d keep an eye on a vendor’s annual conference when they’d reveal something cool in their keynote, with a release on that day or to follow shortly after. In the public cloud, innovation happens much quicker and it’s no longer a case of waiting for “Geek’s Christmas”.

To that end, today I was pointed towards the AWS “What’s New” blog, which in essence is a change log for AWS services. Yesterday alone lists 8 announcements or service updates.

It’s a site well worth bookmarking and reviewing on a regular basis, I’d suggest weekly if you have time. If you’re designing AWS infrastructures or running your business on AWS, you need to know what’s on the roadmap so you can plan accordingly.

You can visit the What’s New blog site here.