CCIE Lab is one of the toughest IT exam out there and I believe CCIE Voice is “the” toughest (I am not making this up, this has been acknowledged by Quad/Triple CCIEs) as it involves so many applications which can break and go wrong so easily if you are not good in configuring them. Making everything work in a matter of 8 hours and that too as per Lab directions really need a sound preparation, experience and Strategy.
To be very honest, I just had one year experience in Voice before I started preparing for the exam. I had quite a few books with me which I use to study whenever I got time. I think reading the books filled my experience gap as I build all my concepts from there. Some of the books which are “must have” for a person going for CCIE or want to become a good Voice Engineer are as follows:
- Troubleshooting Cisco IP Telephony By Paul Giralt (ISBN-10: 1587050757)
- Cisco Voice Gateways and Gatekeepers By David Mallory (ISBN-10: 158705258X)
- Configuring Call manager and Unity By David Bateman (ISBN-10: 1587051966)
- Cisco Call manager Best Practices By Salvatore Collora (ISBN-10: 1587051397)
These are just few books out of many. The more you will read, the more your concepts will get clear which is the key to pass CCIE Lab. I also went through CUCM SRND, CME SRND. I didn’t read word by word of these SRNDs but read enough to get the concept.
Before the Lab Day:
- Practice as much as possible. Either rent a rack or build your own lab where you can practice. Now where building your own lab is nice but that would cost you a lot of money. Try getting your employer behind you in these kind of expenses. If you don’t have your own lab, don’t worry, this is not end of the world. I think its always helpful if you have a small lab to practice little things and getting use to the kit avoiding waste of time on live rack where every minutes counts. I had a small lab consisting of a Server with VM images of CUCM 7.0, CUC 7.0, UCCX and CUPS. My server had 2GB of memory so I had to load balance my Images across my Server and Laptop (3GB RAM). I had a 3500XL Switch, 1x 2611XM router, 2×7960 and 2×7912 IP phones. Later on one of my friend lend me his 4×7961 IP phones and a 2801 router which I used to connect through VPN to a CCIE Voice rack.
- The Cisco Lab Blue print is the place to begin with. Start working through the blue print topic by topic. Read books on that topic and forums/google till you understand the concept. I still remember how much I had to read to make my dial-peer/translation rules concepts clear.
- MGCP, H323 protocols are very important – You must know inside out of how they work, what can go wrong and how you will fix it
- Call Routing is “the” important section of the Lab. You make mistake here and I assure you another nice lunch with proctor. For Call routing you must understand how a Call routes? How you can change Call routing? where you can make those changes and how it will affect your calling and called party number (I will discuss all this in separate section).
- CUC and CUE are easiest if they work and are the most difficult if they start playing with you. Get as much practice as possible on these two especially CUE. You must practice to configure CUE using both GUI and CLI.
- If you are traveling to the lab then at least get there a day before. If this is your first time then do visit the lab and get a feeling of where you have to reach next day. I still remember my first time when I reached Brussels and it took me more than 2 hours to find lab as I started walking in complete opposite direction. That walk saved me for next day as I reached there before time.
- Don’t do too much a day before lab. You have already done a lot, few hours are not going to make any difference. Spend the day in making strategy as how you will approach the lab, what first and what second etc..sleep well before your usual time. A good sleep will make you fresh and fast next day.
- Listen to the proctor what he is saying carefully. When you start the lab, read the instructions right at the beginning very carefully.I wasted my 10-15 minutes on my first attempt only because I was searching for something which was very clearly written on the instructions page. You will always like to start the lab as soon as you can, DON’T, spend sometime reading the lab instructions and the lab questions.
- Do not spend time on sections which you will do at last. During my first attempt I was caught up by time. I spent too much time at places where I should have not and then I got into some ugly replication issues for which I was not prepared. I could do the whole lab if I had one more hour available to myself but that was not the case. Time allowed is 8 hours and no matter what goes wrong in your lab, you still have to complete the lab within 8 hours. I left some 15 points on the table which I didn’t even attempt and 15 points are enough for you to Fail.
- Make a note of time when you start something and keep in mind of how much time you are going to spend on it. This is what I didn’t do in my first attempt and I was adamant to make everything work before I move on and that made me pay just for CCIE lunch. During my 2nd attempt there were at least 2 occasions where I found myself standing on thin ice. I spent sometime resolving those two issues but couldn’t resolve it. After spending like 15-20 minutes I said to myself, this is it, move on. I moved on and completed other sections and when I came back I knew exactly what went wrong which I didn’t catch before. This is why I am emphasizing that if you think you have spent too much time on something and you are not getting desired results then move on, you can always come back and check. But if you start spending all your time on every other issue then you will not be left with anymore time to finish the lab I am afraid.
- When you are reading the lab, make a note of section# and a little name of it on the paper like Section#1.1 VLAN 1.2 DHCP 1.3 NTP and so on. As you complete a section, mark it with one colored pen that its been completed (not verified). You can either finish the whole lab and then check each and everything from scratch or you do this in parallel. I followed the later in my 2nd attempt. I was configuring and then making all possible checks for that particular configuartion and then moving to next section. I then did a grand check in last 1 hour after finishing everything. That final check should be like you are checking someone’s else lab and not your own. Try to find all possible faults in the configuration and believe me you will find something which was not configured properly. I made two changes on my final check, If I had not corrected those two mistakes, I would have failed.
- For CUCM I followed left to right, Top down approach. I started with Service parameters and Enterprise parameters. Instead of coming to service parameters every time you need to change a parameter, make a list in your head already of what needs to be changed after going through the lab. Change them all in one go and then save it. Make Device pool, CSS, Partitions, Media Resource Group, Voicemail, Users, Phones etc.
- I Configured gateways one by one and complete. DHCP, VLAN, NTP etc are basic gateway configuration which can be done at start. Then go through the lab and see what is required at what gateway. Which one is MGCP? Which one is H323 or SIP? If it’s an MGCP gateway I will make sure that I have already added it at CUCM to make use of trombone feature. Though you can configure MGCP gateway manually as well but I found trombone feature more helpful. Also make a note if there is any SRST requirement on the gateways. SRST configuration though similar but behave differently between an MGCP and H323 gateway. Need to be careful!
- Pay special attention to details in lab questions. Every word is there for a reason and if you miss one word that can cost you points.
- I configured Call Routing and QOS at the end. In my first attempt, even though I think I am quite good in call routing, I made some silly mistakes. On my 2nd attempt, I read the questions and started making a rough call flow on a paper with all ANI and DNIS settings, transformations etc. After quickly making notes of the whole Call routing section, I started to make Route patterns, Route Lists etc and I was quick as I knew exactly what I am doing. I didn’t check any of those till I completed the whole section and then I started checking one by one. Everything worked! Note: This approach is only recommended if you are good in Call routing otherwise I would advise configure/check approach – configure a Route pattern, make all checks and then proceed to next one.
- CUE if its in the lab should be done in parallel with other CUCM configuration. As most of the time CUE work on its own and require several restarts so don’t waste time waiting for CUE to complete.
- CUPS – Start from Call manager and then jump to Presence Server. Configure the SIP Trunk, Personal Communicator, Service Parameters etc. At Presence, don’t forget to change the name of CUPS Server to IP address as UPC will access it with IP. Check all services are up. I will explain the CUPS setup on another entry at this blog.
- It would be good if you do CUPS and UCCX one after other. Both of them take less time and you almost know if its working or not. In UCCX make sure all CTI ports etc are up and registered. Don’t make a new script unless specified. Edit the same script which is already there. I would recommend you try to complete these two before lunch. I couldn’t do it as I got stuck in a MWI issue but my target was to complete these two before lunch. If you can do Basic CUCM, complete Gateways, Codecs, CUE, CUC, CUPS and UCCX before lunch then you almost nailed the lab. You will be left with CUCM features, Call Routing, some percent of Media Resources, QoS and SRST.
- Q0S is something you need to be very careful as if you make any mistake in there, it can cock up your other configuration. I attempted QoS at the end. Before starting QoS I saved config ‘wr mem’ of all routers and switch (in case I have to reload the router if anything goes wrong). You must check Call routing, CUC/CUE, UCCX etc after configuring QoS to make sure there is no bottleneck by QoS configuration. One good command to check your link bandwidth is ‘show frame-relay pvc xxx’.
- Make sure you check the gateways are registered and ISDN links are all up before leaving the lab – If for any reason your isdn link was down or your gateway got unregistered, you will get no points for it.
Lastly, I would say that CCIE lab is all about determination. Many of you will not pass it in first attempt or may be 2nd attempt as well but if you lose hope and don’t make another attempt then let me assure you that you can never do CCIE. If you fail lab, book your next lab as soon as possible within a span of a month or month and a half. Always make first attempt when you are very well prepared so that you don’t have to spend more time in making 2nd, 3rd attempts if it is required as you will already be prepared and it would be just a matter of brushing up those areas where you lack.
I hope these notes be helpful for those who will be going for CCIE lab.