AWS Certification – Solutions Architect Training Insights

Amazon Web Services offers certification testing for IT professionals interested in advancing their careers in the Amazon realm.

In September 2015, I completed the certification exam for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate. It is by far one of the most difficult certification exams I have ever taken. The exam is designed to measure your “technical expertise in desinging and deploying scalable, highly available, and fault tolerant systems on AWS.” 

If you are currently involved with, or expect to be deeply involved with, designing distributed applications and systems on the AWS platform then you will probably be interested in pursuing this line of certifications offered by Amazon.

The Solutions Architect Associate certification, in my opinion, is the best place to start. Finding resources and clarification was a harrowing experience. There is a lot of information out there that seems clear, but can be very misleading. The certification series includes Solutions Architect, Developer, and SysOps Administrator. My first inclination was to go for the SysOps Administrator certification thinking that it would best fit my career path. Once I began digging into the available documentation, I discovered that the SysOps Administrator certification was well beyond my immediate skills, needs, and ambitions.

Training Resources

Amazon offers various training videos and free labs that can be used to get familiar with the Web Services they offer. This is a great place to start.

Amazon also offers training labs at quikLABS that are great and many of them are free. After exhausting the free labs and still feeling very inadequate, I chose to take the fee-based training labs. Qwiklabs offers “quests” that take you through a particular focus. The only “Quest” offered at the time was the Solutions Architect Quest, so I started looking for other resources.

In my search for resources, I read many articles and found some great resources, but the training course that I found at Udemy turned me in the right direction. When I found the Udemy training, I started with the SysOps course and in one of the first few sessions, I learned the certifications should be taken in this order:

  1. AWS Certified Solutions Architect
  2. AWS Certified Developer
  3. AWS Certified SysOps Administrator

I learned that each certification in the series was built on the previous one and a large percentage of the next exam was basically a repeat of the previous material. In fact, it was so significant that the course insisted that the first 2 exams should be completed before attempting the SysOps course. That being said, the Solutions Architect exam was still one of the most difficult exams that I have ever taken. Once I complete the Associate series, there is the Professional series to go through. The cool part is that I learned more studying for the exam than I did managing an AWS network for two years!

I also found that having a free AWS account to practice with was invaluable. The best preparation that I received for the exam was deploying my own EC2 VPC and supporting infrastructure, load balancers, internet gateways, IAM roles (Identity Access Management), NAT server, routing tables, ACLs, security groups and auto-scaling groups with my free account.

Why Bother?

I have been researching and learning more about AWS (and other technologies) for the previous two years in an effort to improve my job performance administrating an AWS environment, including learning S3 Storage Concepts for Windows Admins. Once I grasped the potential of Infrastructure as Code, I was stunned. Shortly thereafter I gained an opportunity to attend the 2015 summer AWS Government, Education and Nonprofits Symposium in Washington, DC last summer and really got a glimpse into DevOps! It was a bit like trying to sip from a fire hydrant!

AWS government, education and nonprofit Symposium 2015 in Washington DC by Buddy Brooks at Easy DynamicsThere were two things that really got my attention:

  1. All of the amazing things that were being done with DevOps not to mention the very concept (for another blog).
  2. Number of high level government officials presenting and attending and the many different departments whose projects were being showcased!

It was painfully obvious that the future of cloud computing was bright and that Amazon was definitely on the front line. Not long after the symposium, I learned that a huge opportunity was coming our way. I began coding in earnest to develop an AWS/CLI scripting solution that would launch and configure a range of servers and supporting files that would provide various configuration options. {{cta(‘209aad85-272d-4e83-8cdc-4f30262bc921′,’justifyright’)}}My first project was setting up Sharepoint federated search solutions. Unfortunately, the clock ran out before I completed the entire scripted solution.

I did however reach about an 80% completed solution that enabled the completion of my next project. The Sharepoint servers had to be completed manually, which is a path that many companies take. The second project was to setup a security hardened server using only the Windows Command Line Interface and was very successful.

Exam Insights

As mentioned previously, the Solutions Architect exam was very difficult. There were many questions that were extremely detailed and there is no way that I could have answered themwithout hands-on experience. Many of the questions dealt with quirks in the services and service integration. At first, I was surprised at the pricing questions until I realized that a poorly designed auto scaling solution could balloon out of control rapidly resulting in exponentially expanding fees.

In addition, solutions that did not anticipate and plan for potential risks like denial of service attacks could also see a rapidly scaling environment with associated inflated costs. The depth of material covered by the exam is truly justifiable. Nevertheless, the difficulty level is intense. Another significant issue is emerging technology. Some of the questions were on services that were in Beta when the course was created and the technology is changing rapidly, with Amazon constantly improving and expanding their offerings.

AWS Leading in Cloud Computing

The number of small-medium sized business in the cloud computing arena is limited but growing quickly. One recent article referred to these certifications as “The 4 Big Money Certifications No One Is Talking About.”

While these certifications are somewhat new to the cloud training arena, their demand has been on the rise, outshining many other common certifications such as CISSP, PMP, and CISA.

AWS was named as a leader in the 2015 Public Cloud Storage Services Magic Quadrant report:

“In the 2015 Magic Quadrant, which reviews the storage capabilities of the major ‘infrastructure-as-a-service’ providers, Gartner has placed Amazon Web Services as having both the furthest completeness of vision and the highest ability to execute. The report considered the full range of Amazon’s storage services, including options for object storage, SSD-backed storage, low cost archival, NFS-based file system, and options for hybrid cloud.”

With results like this, it is easy to see that gaining the Amazon certifications can be key to having a competitive advantage. Certifications pave the way to Amazon partnerships which open a world of possibilities.

The Wrap-Up

In my opinion, the value and opportunity to explore the potential of Infrastructure as Code is well worth the effort. I am over halfway through the Developer’s course and looking forward to my next certification. {{cta(‘8a9fb233-94e7-4220-901a-dc7f556ed529′,’justifyright’)}}My only complaint is that since my projects are primarily Windows and Sharepoint oriented, working with Amazon automation can be challenging. Partially because Amazon is very much Linux oriented and partly because I have found Microsoft to be automation resistant. Linux scripting for server configuration is far easier than scripting for a windows configuration. Nevertheless, progress is being made!

What training resources have you found that were useful to preparing for the AWS certification courses? Share your wisdom with us in a comment below!  

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