F5 Certifications Mega Meta Series: You need to study? Stop reading and start building

In this series of articles, I will go into the details of how the exams are developed (...as far as I know at least), and how I think you can improve your chances of passing them. One of the biggest killers in F5 exams is the time pressure. Most of the ones that I’ve done, I’ve ran out of time, and no, not just the 400 levels. I believe that I had the same problem when recertifying my 202 recently. Why is that? Well, apart from me maybe just not being as good at this stuff as some of you, I do believe it has something to do with what the exam is testing; can you figure out real life stuff, rather than regurgitating facts.

Guest Author: Alex Tijhuis

An evangelist for anything software designed and security, and a self-described massive network geek, Alex is an F5 trainer and consultant at ABCT.net. While certified and highly skilled and interested in all things F5, he's just as happy pulling cables in a data center and designing scalable systems as he is messing around with the latest cool kids toys our fine industry has to offer.

As mentioned in my previous article; the exams are scenario-based rather than knowledge-based. With knowledge-based questions, it’s easy; you know it or you don’t. No matter how much time you are given, it won’t influence your answer. With scenario-based questions, it’s quite the opposite; if I give you enough time, you should be able to figure most of the stuff out. The difference between a good engineer and a bad one, is not that the good engineer knows more. For me, a good engineer can quickly spot where a problem MAY lie in a complex environment, and how to start testing for things to get to the bottom of problems quickly. Nobody walks in to a problem and just “knows” what the answer is. Okay, unless they are the ones that have caused the problem to begin with, but maybe we’ll leave that one for another day. So, in order to really understand the stuff you are dealing with on the exams, you NEED a lab. The 101 maybe not yet, and you could wing it through the 200 level exam(s) without it, but the 300-level and upwards, you don’t really have a choice. Having hands-on experience immediately helps you recognise scenarios, certain features and their behaviour as well as general experience of how things work in real life.

What to put in a lab?

An F5… or 2. I’ve got about 40 F5’s, together with a bunch of BigIQ’s, but I wouldn’t recommend that to the average user. A physical F5 is not needed and is very noisy, so no point in going for those (…unless your lovely boss gives you access to them of course!) If you have the capacity to run a few systems on your laptop, great, but keep in mind that you will need at least a few servers running at a time, which often overwhelms all but the best of laptops. Instead, have a look around eBay and the likes for some cheap second-hand servers. There are often all kinds of devices lying around with a wide range of specs and at various prices. If you are in the UK/EU, I love these guys: https://www.bargainhardware.co.uk/* If you are lucky, you can find some high-spec silent servers if peace and quiet is a must for you, but even some basic servers are often good enough. I am running all my kit on a bunch of second-hand cloud servers that I bought for about 500 dollars each – and that included 128GB ram and 16 CPU cores! Finally, grab a bunch of el-cheapo hard drives from eBay* and you are all sorted! I’m not saying it’s cheap, but having a decent lab environment doesn’t have to cost the earth. As a hypervisor, you can basically take whatever you prefer, but I’m a big fan of Proxmox*, a free hypervisor that is very easy to set up and highly scalable Of course, if you like their work, buying a support license would always be nice!

Once that’s up-and-running, it’s time to start building VM’s! For anyone with a partner F5 account, there is the vLab section on the F5 Downloads page. For anyone who works at an F5 partner, but doesn’t see the vLab section at the bottom of the page, have a chat with your account manager of presales contact. This page contains the images of some backend servers, as well as a big package of demos and exercise guides – gold dust really! For anyone else, I’d recommend just building a server yourself using an Ubuntu image, or if you have gone for Proxmox, you can download preconfigured webserver containers in a few minutes.

The only thing you then need, are a few F5 boxes. You can get lab licenses for about 100-200 dollars (a great investment), or you can request trial licenses via https://www.f5.com/trials - so no reason to not have them. With these licenses, you can download the F5 images from the Downloads page and you should be ready to go! Here is a trick by the way for getting a few lab licenses paid for by your boss; “Everybody has a lab, some people are lucky enough to have a lab that’s separate from their live environment.” – I can’t remember where I heard this quote first, but it sure will make your boss shiver and pay up quickly!

Even the process of building the lab is already a good exercise for the exam to be honest. It will bring back your networking skills, your troubleshooting skills when things eventually go wrong and your cloud skills of course! When you have a good setup, I can also recommend taking a few snapshots of your systems, so you can always rollback to a working state of your systems – it’s pretty painful if you have been playing with the kit, have got it all stuck and have no clue on how to recover from it (yet). Being able to roll back to a working state will save you lots of time and frustration.

What to do now?

…whatever you want, really. The blueprint (see a previous article) should give you some indications on what you still need to learn about certain topics. Also see if you can indeed find that package of lab guides under the vLab section of the Downloads page. If you still have any old manuals from training courses, that’s also perfect. Or last but not least, have a look here: https://clouddocs.f5.com/training/community/ There is a treasure trove of good lab exercises available. Software upgrades are also a good one to practise in the lab, and how to do this in clustered setups, with different modules and different upgrade paths. Okay, not necessarily all required for the exams, but still something that may come in very handy next time you need to do an upgrade in your live environment. Talking about software versions; every exam is linked to a specific version of software (the blueprint will tell you what version it is based on), but to be honest, don’t worry too much about it. The vast majority of questions are version-agnostic, so there shouldn’t be any questions that ask you about a specific command structure that only is available in very specific versions of software. But since they HAVE TO decide on a software version that is valid for all questions, they normally pick the one that is leading at that moment.

As a last closing thought, you may now wonder that, if it is so important to have a lab for the exams, then why are all exams multiple-choice and is there no lab-based exam? I was curious about that myself at first, until it became clear to me that these multiple-choice questions ARE testing your lab skills because of their scenario-based questions. On top of that, it was explained to me that if F5 were to have lab-based exams, there would only be a few locations worldwide where this would be possible, and likely at an increased cost. This negates one of the principles behind the F5 exam program; anyone worldwide with the right skills, should be able to sit and pass an exam irrespective of your background or financial means. Something I fully agree with – F5 to all!

Dr. Ken Says...

This article approaches one of the topics near and dear to my academic research. It is all about the difference between knowing “what” (facts and bits of knowledge), and knowing “how” (how all those pieces fit together into a whole). As the author has stated numerous times, you can get “what” from Google, but that doesn’t mean you know “how” to use that knowledge. While each person requires a different amount of experience to develop expert know-how, very few will ever get this simply from reading a book; you have to practice implementing that knowledge before your brain transforms it into a highly efficient “mental model” of how it all fits together. Once that is done, you have become an expert and will approach problem solving in an entirely new way.

To wit, the author mentions the dissonance between having lab skills but using multiple-choice questions to test that knowledge/skill. There is no disconnect here. Our questions are designed to evaluate a candidate’s mental model, not whether they can type fast or manipulate a GUI. It is just as simple, and more cost effective, to ask questions that determine if a candidate has done the work, than design an environment to test them doing it. One issue I have with practical exams is they not only test what you “know”, but they expect you to implement that knowledge the way we would, rather than being open to novel or innovative solutions. As such, they inadvertently limit what might be “correct”, simply because it is based on our perspective rather than being open to equally correct solutions that are accomplished in new and interesting ways. The goal should always be to determine whether the individual has the knowledge and the ability to implement that knowledge, not whether they implement it solely the way we would. It’s nuanced, but it is important.

*Disclaimer; I have no affiliation with any of the sites/products I mention in this post. I’m happy with them at the time of writing, but things can change of course. If you like them, great! If you don’t, great!

Published Jul 01, 2021
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  • I can't recommend having a personal lab enough, and bargainhardware for the servers. There is no substitute for hands on experience and getting a couple of F5 lab licences to build / create / destroy to your hearts content with no risk. Fire up docker, run a bunch of containers, learn load balancing, security, authentication end everything in between in a controlled and

    replicable manner.