VCP5 to VMware VCDX #125 in 180 Days Pt. 1

This is Part 1 of my tale of the last 180 days of my life, my adventure from VCP5 to becoming …drum roll… VMware VCDX5-DCVVCDX #125. Yes, I successfully defended my design at VMware PEX 2014 in San Francisco this past week, which was for VCDX5-Datacenter Virtualization (DCV)! It was a fun, educational, and a surprisingly pleasant experience. I’m blogging about this experience because I know if I can become a VCDX, then anyone can do it with enough experience and dedication. Do keep in mind that prior to starting my 180 day adventure, I had approximately 4 years of VMware architecture experience for Government and commercial enterprise systems. Years of architecture-level experience is key, however VMware does not require a specific number of years or job title to apply for the VCDX certification.

This was my first attempt at the VCDX certification, and was a great learning process. Nearly all candidates and those who have passed either work for VMware or a VMware partner. At PEX 2014 Josh Coen (VCDX #129) and I were the only customers that I know of defending out of the ~14 candidates. According to the latest unofficial stats Josh and I doubled the customer VCDX count from two to four out of the 132 VCDXs.

VCAP5-DCD Journey

vcap5-dcdBack in the spring of 2013 I was talking to my boss about goals for my next six month review period. He mentioned something about a big VMware certification and I said “VCDX”. He was like ya…”Why don’t you go for that?” I looked at him like a third eye appeared on his forehead and thought no way in hell can I do that. I mean, those people are book authors, world renowned bloggers, and levitate at will, right? But after a little thought I settled on trying the VCAP5-DCD (VMware Certified Advanced Professional – Datacenter Design) exam…that seemed reasonable. I love architecture/design, and was fairly proficient with VMware virtualization.

Time passed on, and VMworld 2013 SF was just a couple of weeks away. The review period was nearly over, so I had to take the test, pass or fail. Due to lack of time, I didn’t even look at the blueprint and pretty much went in cold (NOT recommended, BTW). I did a little Googling just to see what others experienced, and learned time, or lack thereof, was a big factor. I put down the $400 exam fee, and sat the exam. By some miracle I passed, on August 23rd, the day before I left for VMworld 2013. Review goal accomplished.

The Turning Point

Happy that I passed the VCAP5-DCD, I eagerly packed my bags for SF for a week of learning and adventure. While I had been a beta tester for vSphere 5.5 thanks to my vExpert status, I was eager to get the scoop on the GA features. I was able to get into VMworld TAM Day (Technical Account Manager) on Sunday, which is basically a preview for specific customers of what VMware would unveil the coming week.

As a quick aside, the prior year VMware had released vSphere 5.1, which we all know had a few rough edges around the SSO service and trusted SSL certificates. I lead the way in trying to figure out how to make that work, and my 15-part vSphere 5.1 install series skyrocketed my daily webpage views. But those were just numbers.

Back to TAM day, I was sitting in the front row of a panel session getting ready to blog about the content. One of the panelists, which was also a top rated blogger, came over to me. He had some very nice comments about my blog, and I was floored that someone like him would be a regular reader. I hardly knew what to say. I also attended a few VMworld parties, where strangers recognized me and came up to introduce themselves. This was a completely foreign experience to me, but felt great that my content was helping people. By the end of the conference several people were calling me “The SSL Guy” due to my vSphere 5.1 SSL work. My blog page view count was now growing real faces.

One of the very last sessions at VMworld that I attended was Software Defined Storage the VCDX Way by Wade Holmes and Rawlinson Rivera. It was a kickass session, and by the end I was thinking…you know I should shoot for VCDX. I can do it! I checked the VCDX defense schedule, and figured I would shoot for Partner Exchange 2014, which was in February. I thought submissions would be due early January 2014, based on last year’s schedule. I would later find out that was a bad assumption, and presented a risk to my success.

VCAP5-DCA Journey

VCAP 5 DCA LogoNext up on the VCDX trip was taking and passing the VCAP5-DCA (Datacenter Administration exam). I wrote a blog article about there here. To summarize, I knew I’d have my bacon cooked if I didn’t study. I was not as adept at vSphere command line or PowerCLI as I wanted to be, and knew that time was also a huge factor. So for the first three weeks in September I spent several hours with Jason Nash’s (VCDX #49) excellent TrainSignal (now Pluralsight) DCA prep series. Due to my vExpert status, TrainSignal gave us one year free of unlimited training. I also read every page of Josh Coen (VCDX #129) 250 page unofficial DCA study guide. I went through numerous exercises in my home lab using my Haswell ESXi hosts. I took the exam on September 20th, and got my results back a couple of business days later. I passed! Huge relief. Little did I know that I’d cross paths with Josh a few weeks later.

Time To Blog

By this time it was September 22, and vSphere 5.5 went GA. Clustering the vCenter SQL server was now officially supported, so of course I wanted to blog about how to setup a SQL 2012 failover cluster on vSphere 5.5. The last week of September I published a 12-part SQL clustering guide that of course used SSL and new vSphere 5.5 Microsoft clustering features. Ok, now we were ready for a vSphere 5.5 install guide. Since my vSphere 5.1 install series was popular, I wanted to outdo myself and really ramp it up for vSphere 5.5. Long story short I knocked out Parts 1 – 15 of the series in October, and wrote the first versions of the my vSphere 5.5 Toolkit script. Somewhere around this time the official VCDX defense schedule was published, and the submission deadline was moved up to just before Christmas. I had a mini heart attack, since I knew this would be a lot of work and would likely need the time over Christmas.

The VCDX Design

Picking your design for a VCDX defense is critical. Too complex, and you open up your attack surface area and may have a higher chance of failure (or need more prep time). Too simple, and you risk rejection. Plus VMware stipulates you must have played the role of an architect in the design (although need not be the sole architect.) Thankfully the new VDI refresh project I was the architect for fit the bill, was complex enough to make it interesting, yet not so complex that I couldn’t fully understand all the areas called out in the VCDX-DCV blueprint. Literally the only documentation that existed for the project was a warmed over vCenter install guide. No architecture guide, operations guide, or test plans existed. I had A LOT of work ahead of me. VCDX submission packages typically run into the hundreds of pages, although size is not what counts and less can actually be better.

Time to Write

2-14-2014 5-11-12 PMHaving settled on my design, I started writing day and night and weekends. Since I was documenting a production system, and making tweaks based on additional research, I was able to put time into the project during work hours. During this time I also found out that Josh Coen (@JoshCoen), of DCA Guide fame, and Bobby Stampfle (@BobbyFantast1c) were also working on their VCDX submissions. So we formed a study group (extremely important), and reviewed each others documents. It’s very enlightening to see other approaches, and we each ended up melding in changes and suggestions from each other. Working on this in a vacuum is a recipe for a headache and an uphill battle.

All told, the architecture guide topped nearly 200 pages, 60,000 words, 42 Visio figures, and 137 tables. Yes, it was comprehensive. All twelve major sections in my architecture guide followed a strict taxonomy of conceptual design, logical design, physical design, and design justifications. Customer requirements, constraints, assumptions, and risks guided the whole flow of the document. I based some of the flow and content on Duncan Epping’s (VCDX #007) excellent VMware Cloud Infrastructure Architecture Case Study. The installation guide, operations guide and test plans were all much shorter, but still important.

Time to Review

An extremely important facet of a VCDX design is peer review from your study group and ‘real life’ VCDXs. You should aim to finish your complete architecture guide at least 3-4 week prior to the submission deadline. I’m now a Twitter addict, so I was able to find VCDXs that graciously gave up some of their spare time to provide feedback on my design. The level of detail and different viewpoints is very interesting, and provided a good 360 degree view. Chris Wahl (#104), Romain Decker (#120), Jon Kohler (#113) and Chris McCain (#79) possibly others I’m not recalling, all gave great feedback and I really appreciate their time. I made several changes based on input. Josh and Bobby were also great supporters. We also did webex design reviews, each going over our docs and making suggestions for changes or areas to clarify.

As a side note, by this time I had also published four more vSphere 5.5 installation guide posts (now up to 19) and made major updates to the Toolkit script to support more SSL scenarios and added VCSA/ESXi support as well. Talk about busy…I had no life. I heard one VCDX say that “Behind every VCDX is a spouse that hates VMware.” And I can believe it. All told I probably spent 400 hours on the documentation package, since I had to build nearly all of it from scratch and I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I also like pretty diagrams, which are a big time suck.

VCDX Submission Time

December 20th rolls around, the submission deadline for PEX 2014 in February. All the reviews are done, and I finish up a couple of days early. I did one final proof reading, let it simmer over night, zipped up the contents, and sent it off to VMware for review. A nice little payment of $300 was included for them to review my design. We are now 120 days after from passing the VCAP5-DCD exam, 32+ blog posts and one script later. Whew! Talk about my brain being fried. It was burnt to a crisp. Also during this time I rescheduled a New Zealand trip from early January to late April, in the hopes I would get accepted and need the prep time in January.

Next up in Part 2, will be the final installment where I’ll cover how I prepared for the actual defense, my defense experience, and tips for those wanting to pursue your VCDX. Plus…my new and exciting job.

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