Milton Keynes on a wet weekend is not everyone’s idea of fun. And yet I was joining eight other individuals at the Networks Incorporated, Cisco CCNA boot camp; 20 hours of intense router configuring, broken up by a little bit of subnetting when we wanted some light relief.

We came from a variety of backgrounds, although mainly from IT support. In my case, I'd got some of the way through a Cisco Network Academy course before I had to give it up. The boot camp seemed to offer the ideal way to catch up with what I’d missed and revise what I was already supposed to have learned.

A course is generally only as good as the presenter, but the students struck lucky. The course organiser and tutor, Paul Browning is an engaging character with a dry sense of humour. Reassuringly, he told us early on that he had failed the CCNA first time around; that gave us the sense that we were dealing with a human being and not with some freak of nature who was half-man and half-router.

On such courses, an adequate supply of equipment is vital - any course where students share PCs is really a waste of money. The Networks Incorporated course offers every student a PC and a couple of routers. There’s no real network to connect to, but we configure the routers by creating loop backs and by the end of the weekend we had certainly entered router commands enough times to have forced the commands into the dullest of brains. If repetition brings results, then we’d have cracked it.

We don’t go near the router simulation tools that are used for the genuine CCNA exam. However, the use of real routers gives us an added touch of verisimilitude and the the sense that we’re working in the real world.

Towards the second afternoon, we carried out some more advanced lab workshops: VLAN switching, setting up ISDN and Frame Relay and troubleshooting networks. This time we did have to share resources, working in pairs and waiting for the previous pair to finish. For the first time, the equipment let us down. After spending 45 minutes trying to set up a switch, we had to throw in the towel when it was apparent that the PC that we had been working with had given up the ghost. Perhaps it might have been better if we’d spent more time doing these exercises as they gave us the closest approximation to what we might find in the real world.

In the middle of the second day, we were given a little test to check what we’d learned so far. This is a useful exercise as it gives us an indication of where the major holes in our knowledge are.

The boot camp is heavy on the practical side. Browning is fully aware that the exam can’t be passed by a few hours’ study and tells us at length - at great length - that we should expect to spend at least an hour a day working on our own, thoroughly revising the theory and practising the labs at home.

He does supply a copious number of notes, some of which look like they have been written in a hurry. In rather too many cases, reference is made to a router or a network that is non-existent in the example in question. The notes could certainly do with some rigorous proof-reading.

The real test will be when we, er, take the real test. Browning does tell us to book it early so that we cannot put it off indefinitely. I’ve followed his advice having felt compelled to keep the momentum going.

Obviously, one can’t possibly get to grips with the whole CCNA syllabus over a single weekend, but the boot camp does give more than a taster. The company offers week-long courses too, which would be much more practical for most students. But it was clear from the responses of the participants that the fact that the course was held at the weekend was a key factor in its favour. Perhaps the company could look at offering courses over successive weekends to fulfil a real need.

If I’d have any tip it is to make sure that you stay overnight. Owing to a previous family commitment I could not stay overnight: that was a big mistake. Milton Keynes is not blessed with good transport links and a couple of three hour journeys didn’t put me in the best of moods for the sessions.

OUR VERDICT

An excellent way to revise your existing knowledge and to improve your practical experience. Recommended for anyone who is happy to give up a weekend in order to do something worthwhile.