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AWS Certification - what is it and tips on how to get certified

AWS have been able to learn from the mistakes of others and build a program that can actually mean something and give value to employers.

Rob A 29 July 2014

Amazon Web Services' certification program, when compared to other enterprise certification programs, is relatively young. This is not a negative, though. In taking their time to produce a quality certification process, AWS have been able to learn from the mistakes of others and build a program that can actually mean something and give value to employers.

Experience Trumps Books

Unlike many enterprise certifications, the AWS certifications are a reflection of your experience and ability, rather than your ability to study a textbook. It is very difficult to read reference material and documentation or participate in classroom training courses and then easily pass the AWS exams. The point here is that it is your experience that is key. Without hands on experience you will most likely not have the skills to pass the exam.

Streams

There are three certification streams available: Solutions Architect, Developer and SysOps Administrator. The stream(s) you choose usually reflect both your experience, and your ambition. A background in a chosen stream is almost essential, as you really do need to understand the concepts underpinning each discipline; you're tested on your general ability and how you can apply that to AWS, not just how well you can memorise products and services. All exams have a focus on security, particularly the delineation of responsibility between AWS and you, the customer, and how to use available security practices with AWS products.

AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate

  • 55 questions
  • 80 minutes
  • Multiple choice answers
  • US$150 per attempt

The Solutions Architect - Associate certification tests your overall knowledge of the AWS products and services, as well as your ability to design solutions using AWS products that incorporate best practices and are highly available, durable and cost effective. You need broad, in-depth knowledge of each of the core AWS Services. This includes the features, benefits and drawbacks for each service, and how best to apply them to a given scenario. Many questions will require that you correctly identify the appropriate services for a given scenario, and how to troubleshoot basic design and networking problems. Pay attention to the differences between EC2 Classic and EC2 VPC, as well as soft and hard account limits. Questions cover a broad list of services, including (but not limited to): EC2, VPC, S3, CloudFront, IAM, SNS, SQS, SWF. The Architecting on AWS course is available for training.

AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional

  • 80 questions
  • 2 hours, 40 minutes
  • Multiple choice answers
  • US$300 per attempt
  • Must complete Solutions Architect - Associate first

The Solutions Architect - Professional certification tests your ability as an architect to design AWS-based solutions that are highly available, secure, durable and cost effective. The exam for this is at least a dozen times more difficult than the Associate exam (in the opinion of this author). Almost all questions are scenario based; given a specific set of conditions and priorities you are asked to choose the most appropriate solution. This might include, for example, a focus on the most cost effective solution, or the most durable. Questions typically involve multiple AWS products and regularly ask you to choose between services in the design of a solution. Questions are up to date with AWS announcements and cover most available services, but there was a particular focus on: EC2, VPC, Direct Connect, VPNs, Networking, DynamoDB, RDS, Redshift, Elastic Map Reduce, IAM, Storage Gateway, Kinesis, SES, SNS, SQS, SWF, Data Pipeline. But study up on all services. The Architecting on AWS - Advanced Concepts course is available for training.

AWS Certified Developer - Associate

  • 55 questions
  • 80 minutes
  • Multiple choice answers
  • US$150 per attempt

The Developer - Associate certification tests your ability to utilise AWS products and services to their utmost. A basic understanding of all services is required, as well as best practices for designing and deployment for the core products. The exam assumes familiarity with at least one of the AWS SDKs, especially one of the SDKs targeted at server-side languages, such as Java, .NET, Ruby, Python or PHP, etc. The mobile and JavaScript SDKs don't necessarily implement APIs for all services or do so in a consistent manner, so these should be avoided as reference. Use Elastic Beanstalk and OpsWorks for your deployments, and understand the differences for each. Focus also on DynamoDB, S3, CloudFront, EC2, Elastic Load Balancing and the application services such as SQS and SNS. The Developing on AWS course is available for training.

AWS Certified SysOps Admin - Associate

  • 55 questions
  • 80 minutes
  • Multiple choice answers
  • US$150 per attempt

The SysOps Admin - Associate certification tests your ability to deploy, troubleshoot and manage AWS services. Questions are grounded in best practice and security should be kept front of mind. You are particularly tested on the networking aspects of AWS, as well as creating, deploying and managing EC2 instances. Other services include CloudWatch, EBS and S3. Experience with the AWS CLI is also required. The System Operations on AWS course is available for training.

Tips

Here are some tips to help you get the best out of your exam attempt:

  • Experience is vital, get your hands dirty.
  • They're not for people still learning. They reflect experience and ability.
  • The sample questions on the AWS Certification siteappear in the exams.
  • Read the security White Papers.
  • Use your account's free tier to try things. Break them. Troubleshoot. Fix them again.
  • A background in the field is strongly recommended.
  • Be diligent with terms: picking between two very close exam choices may come down to spotting the services or features that sound realistic but are fake.

Conclusion

Having sat most of the exams (3/4), they are definitely worth doing. Harder than your typical IT certification exam, they won't be simple or easy for many people to pass without experience. In that respect, they're much more likely to be valued by future employers, or by your current employer.

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