My VCAP5.5-DCD Exam experience

Introduction

After a series of reschedules I decided to finally sit a VCAP5.5-DCD exam this week and I passed it. I needed this exam passed to be eligible for VCDX path since I am already a VCAP-DCA since 2014. It was my second attempt after I failed VCAP5.1-DCD back in December 2014 and in this review I will feel tempted to make comparisons between the previous version of this exam and the current one. More on this below.

Exam information

The exam format was exactly as described in the blueprint : overall there were 22 questions from which 7 designs, one master design and remaining 14 being (multiple) drag and drop questions. I was already familiarized with the new format because in March 2016 I sat a beta VCAP6-CMA Design exam which provided an experience that was quasi-identical in form to the one I had this week. The amount of time assigned to me was fair enough to be able to concentrate on each question and make sketches on an exam sheet provided by the test center. It is important to highlight that I am a native English speaker and therefore, I was given an overall amount of 215 minutes.

The format changed radically in comparison to what I experienced back in 2014 and the change is definitely for better. The proportion of design questions against other types of questions is larger than in 5.1 exam format and multiple choice questions disappeared completely. The time management is still an issue but the current exam format is much more manageable than its predecessor.

My approach to pre-exam organisation

VCAP exams are known to be extremely exhaustive to both mind and body. A candidate must take into account the following recommendations if he/she wants to stand a chance and not waste invested money:

  1. Take a long, relaxing sleep the night before you make an attempt. It is really important because an organism deprived of sleep is very likely to turn off attention for long minutes during the exam which is fatal for the final result. It also increases a possibility of keeping nerves intact which is important during the analysis of exam questions.
  2. In the morning on the day of exam take a full meal and drink a considerable amount of liquids. The exam center is likely not to allow you to take a bottle of water with you and during long hours of exam dehydration is very likely to have similar effect to sleep deprivation.
  3. During the exam spent at least 50% of your time on reading questions. Note down first ideas, make sketches if necessary. Do not jump immediately into an answer. Make sure that you clicked on additional notes/details pane in drag and drop questions because these contain information needed to select right choices.
  4. Use next/previous button to jump between questions if you think you do not know how to answer the question immediately. Flag it for future review and continue. Exam takers for 5.1 version did not have such a possibility and they will know what I mean!

My approach to time organisation

Since I knew more less what to expect I decided to take the following time-management strategy during this exam:

  1. Respond to each question in a linear manner with an exception of a master design that I left for the very end.
  2. Spend 45 minutes on the master design question and 10 minutes on each design question, leaving the rest of time on drag and drop questions.
  3. Consider a single visit to the loo. Before the exam starts make sure that you agree with your exam center supervisor about the way to show that you might have to leave the room.

I did not succeed completely with the abovementioned approach because after responding all questions I was only left with 30-ish minutes for the master design question. Therefore, I had to act very fast until the very last second after which I was simply logged off from exam interface. The lesson from this experience is clear: time management is still essential for an exam taker.

My exam experience

Overall, I can say that the new exam format is satisfactory and much better organised than in the 5.1 DCD. It is now definitely putting much more emphasis on design aspects of VMware vSphere infrastructure layer and it does so through a series of very practical excercises. It also presents a complete departure from the style used in previous version where a tremendous pressure was put on an exam taker with around 96 questions to be answered and without a possibility to return after clicking on next question.

The content of certain questions are still completely disconnected from typical project realities but altogether it is now clear that exam creators want to test analytical and abstract thinking instead of checking against simple memorized content. This is why I value VCAP exams so much. I also have to admit that I did not encounter any questions where I had to struggle between my own experience and what someone would call “VMware version of a right answer”. Questions were technologically independent and unbiased wherever it was possible.

The technical content was consistent with the blueprint. Therefore, apart from standard vSphere lab with Enteprise Plus functionalities, deploying resource pools, vApps as a logical container for tiered applications, HA/DRS and vDS is a must. Like many of my predecessors writing similar exam experience posts I definitely recommend to deploy following products which do not enter into a core vSphere suite to gain a practical understanding of their use:

  • Site Recovery Manager for array-replicated DR scenarios
  • Replication Manager for asynchronous replicated DR scenarios
  • Data Protection for backups
  • Enterprise storage appliances to simulate VAAI, VASA and storage policies (I deployed HP VSA and Netapp Ontap Simulator to test these)

I also recommend that in your lab you perform an upgrade of vCenter 5.0/5.1 to 5.5 to have a practical insight into component dependencies and upgrade order. Setting up Auto Deploy and VMware Update Manager for standardised deployments or upgrades of ESXi hypervisor is also a good idea.

I do not agree with those exam takers who expressed their criticism with regards to lack of clarity in certain questions. I definitely did not have that feeling – quite to the contrary, questions were written in plain English and were formed of short sentences which is good. The appearance of terms “like”, “should”, “must” as well as an information about budgetary constraints clearly indicate which are the elements that an exam taker has to concentrate on in the first place. During the entire exam I only identified a single typo which is not a lot in an exam where long texts are dominant.

With regards to technical quality of an exam I can also say that it improved much – visio-style designs seem to work faster and do not freeze the entire exam system after multiple elements are dragged to the design space. This was a particular PITA in previous versions of DCD exam and from what I remember it was also a considerable problem in the beginning of DCD 5.5 exam back in early 2015.

My recommendations for study materials

I know that very few people are likely to attend this exam before its EOL (VMware recently announced EOL for VCAP5-DCV exams) but it looks like the new version is not going to change much with regards to the form. Therefore, traditional study sets mentioned in an excellent Google VCAP-DCD Study Group which are fair enough to prepare of 5.5 version should still be applicable in the future. However, in my review I decided to take a more critical approach to the choice of content used for preparation. I can fully agree with exam participants saying that the amount of documentation and material to learn from is overwhelming. I personally felt that I am going unprepared for this exam because I did not read everything that was recommended by others in a vast VMware community. Therefore, below you will find my subjective opinion about the some of popular study sources :

Best:

  • Practice, practice, practice: This is definitely the best recommendation I can give. Obviously, the more you practice through your work, the better. If you have an ongoing VMware project do your best to get involved. Practice designs and know your designs. Take a look at other design proposals in the VCAP-DCD Study Group. Understand component relationship and dependencies and distinguish logical from physical characteristics. Make sure that you understand key service qualities. This is the bare minimum necessary to attend the exam without miserably failing it.
  • Virtualtiers.net : a great site with practical questions and design simulator developed by Jason Grierson. A must-do for anyone who did not attempt this exam in the past and does not know how design or multiple drag and drop questions look like.
  • Pluralsight course developed by Scott Lowe : Designing VMware Infrastructure

Useless:

  • VCAP5-DCD Official Cert Guide. This book is definitely overhyped and in my opinion it is definitely not worth a price tag it is sold for. There are definitely much better books than this one.
  • VMware vSphere Design – 2nd Edition. In my opinion this book is outdated even for 5.5 DCD exam. Examples and technology decisions given there are not relevant anymore and sometimes introduce a great deal of confusion to a reader familiarised with the current state of VMware technology in 2016.
  • VMware Brownbags: These are great when you are collecting information for your future design in a real world but are not concise enough to provide any extra value during preparation process for this exam. Apart from the fact that the amount of materials shown there is overwhelming and already obsolete (videos date back to 2011), the length of videos was far too great to be able to note down all details. Last but not least: the voice recording quality is very poor and really annoying for more senstive ears.

Somewhat irrelevant:

  • Mastering VMware vSphere 5.5 : This book intends to satisfy all kinds of needs from the most basic information for an administrator starting his/her career in VMware technology to an IT Architect working on infrastructure migrations. Its structure does not respond to the exam blueprint and does not go through principles tested on an exam, such as service qualites or design characteristics (requirements, constraints, risks etc.). It is a great reference for best practices and validated configurations but these can be read for free in an official VMware documentation.

Conclusion

This exam definitely helped me to keep a focus on collecting information, best practices and recommendations for a real-life design I am currently working on. Vice versa, my practice at work allowed me to prepare better for this exam as well. I think the good side of VCAP-DCD experience is a complete familiarity with a basic IT architecture design of VMware products in the field of Infrastructure-as-a-Service. Combined together with other industry standards such as Open Group or internal design methodologies it serves well to create comprehensive design documentation for the real project but also help in creation of re-usable artifacts intelligible to other owners of VCAP-DCD certificate.

With two VCAP exams in my pocket I have doors opened for VCDX. Before considering this opportunity I will probably prepare for VCAP6-DCD immediately after it becomes GA.

Post scriptum

VMware finally managed to somehow convince PearsonVue to allow attending this exam in more test centers. This is definitely a good step forward. Back in 2014 I booked my VCAP exam in the only test center in my country knowing that it will be closing doors to VCAP exams from 2015 onwards.

In my opinion the price tag for this exam is set very high. VMware should consider providing candidates with discount vouchers, release them more often than once a year during VMworld event and set a more considerable discount level.