It's a familiar problem. You're the hottest network storage engineer in town, but how can you prove it to your current employer (or to potential future employers)?

Or maybe you're an employer with a complex SAN system that your entire business depends on - how can you tell if your engineers are up to the task of maintaining it? If an engineer claims you need some terrifyingly expensive piece of hardware, how much faith can you have in his judgement? Or when hiring new staff, they interview well but can you be sure they're really all they seem?

The key to all these questions is, of course, professional qualifications. Recognised, industry-wide qualifications are increasingly seen as the only way for non-technical managers to be confident they have the right people.

Consequently, the networked storage world's trade body, the Storage Network Industry Association, has introduced a professional accreditation program. However the tests are exceptionally difficult and taking one isn't cheap - half a day off work and a fee of almost $200, a depressingly large investment if you need a few tries before you pass. Which is where Solution Technology's STATS - Solution Technology Advanced Testing Service - comes in.

STATS is a series of on-line tests that accurately mimic the SNIA tests in content and style. At present the company offers pre-tests for the SAN Level 2 Practitioner Exam and the Fibre Channel Intermediate certificate; other tests (TCP/IP fundamentals; Ethernet and Gigabit; SCSI) are planned.

The tests are taken on-line, through the company's web site. They're priced both for a single access, in which the user takes the test just once, and for time-limited access allowing the user to try a test several times. Questions are selected at random from a bank of several hundred so it's a different test every time.

There's a short, free, demo test offering a flavour of how it all works.

Of the full tests, the SAN Level 2 Practitioner Exam comprises 155 questions, takes 2 1/2 hours and is priced at £19.95 for a single access and £59.95 for 24 hours access. The Fibre Channel Intermediate test comprising 60 questions and taking an hour is £14.95 for a single access and £49.95 for 24 hours. Per-day rates are lower for longer access periods.

And, as a special introductory offer, until the end of the SNW trade show in Phoenix (5th - 8th of April) Solution Technology is offering the SAN Level 2 test at half-price, £10 for a single access, £25 for 24 hours access.

Tests can be paid for on-line, using a credit card, and taken immediately. Results are displayed on-screen once the test is complete and e-mailed to a nominated e-mail address.

All of this is excellent in principle. For a modest cost an employer can test existing or prospective staff or a candidate for an SNIA qualification can check they're ready before committing to the real thing. But how does it work in practice?

In order to test it properly I took the longer SAN Level 2 test.

Logging on to the web site was easy and quick. The actual test is downloaded as a Java applet so response times are consistent and it doesn't, as so many things do, leave you staring at an egg-timer icon every so often while the server does something inscrutable (you do need the Java Run-time loaded but then, if you don't have JRE the Web is pretty much invisible anyway). Depending on Web connection, memory and processor performance, loading the test may take up to half a minute. Once the test starts questions are clear and well laid out. The language is highly technical, as it must be, and common abbreviations - "FC" for Fibre Channel, "AL" for Arbitrated Loop - are used extensively, though not exclusively, which is right.

The number of questions answered so far and the total number to be attempted are displayed. A timer ticks off the seconds remaining.

Navigation through the test is by "Next" and "Back" buttons. It's possible to return to previously answered questions and change the answers. In particular, this means that once finished there's an opportunity to return to any questions you were unsure of.

Presentation of the results is neat and readable. Usefully, the results are broken down into categories so a user can see immediately where he/she did well and where he/she needs to brush up. All in all, then, good, efficient and eminently usable. My only complaints would be:

(a) Navigating through the entire test, all 155 questions, with the "Next" and "Back" buttons is tedious. I'd like to see "Next Section" and "Previous Section" buttons as well.
(b) The test mimics the actual SNIA exam and as such is silent about how you're doing. It would be helpful for learning how to take the test if there was an option to display the current score alongside the number of questions answered.

Minor niggles, you'll agree. Overall the test does exactly what it says on the can - it's a simple, efficient way to see whether you're ready for the official SNIA SAN Level 2 exam.

And how did I do? Well, let's just say I don't think I'll be bothering the SNIA examiners anytime soon...

OUR VERDICT

These are serious tests which properly examine your SAN knowledge and can give you a realistic assessment of your ability to qualify for SNIA accreditation.