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The Windows Server 2003 Certification Upgrade Path

Microsoft takes a new approach

Whenever Microsoft releases a new OS, several ancillary products emerge, including everything from the introduction of new editions of popular products to the release of a new set of certifications. With the introduction of Windows Server 2003, Microsoft has updated the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) certifications with a dedicated Windows 2003 track. The new track updates some of the industry's most recognized IT certifications for those who specialize in Microsoft's newest technology.

New candidates without a Windows 2000 Server certification must take four exams to achieve the Windows 2003 MCSA certification or seven exams to achieve the Windows 2003 MCSE certification. Candidates who already have a Win2K MCSA or MCSE certification can take fewer upgrade exams to achieve the new Windows 2003 certifications. Candidates who already have a Win2K MCSA certification can upgrade to a Windows 2003 MCSA certification by passing one exam—Exam 70-292: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSA Certified on Windows 2000. Candidates who already hold a Win2K MCSE can upgrade by taking Exam 70-292 and Exam 70-296: Planning, Implementing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSE Certified on Windows 2000. Those who hold an MCSA but not an MCSE in Win2K and want to upgrade to an MCSE in Windows 2003 can use the first upgrade exam to bypass two exams, but they must finish the rest of the Windows 2003 MCSE track.

Certification Growing Pains
The Windows 2003 upgrade path is a radical departure from the path that Windows NT 4.0–certified MCSEs had to take to become Win2K certified. When Microsoft first announced the Win2K track, the company pushed individuals to obtain the new certification quickly. The company did so by announcing that the NT 4.0 MCSE would expire at the end of 2001. This push brought a large group of professionals up to speed on the benefits of the new technology and weeded out many NT 4.0–certified MCSEs who had achieved the certification but had little experience working with the technology. The Win2K track was to be the new broom that swept away those MCSEs who weren't serious about keeping their qualifications up-to-date.

Those NT 4.0 MCSEs who upgraded to a Win2K MCSE certification had to pass an upgrade exam that took the place of the four core Win2K MCSE exams. These candidates could take the upgrade exam only once, and the exam often took 4 hours to finish. However, unlike other certification exams, candidates could take this exam free of charge. After passing the exam, NT 4.0 MCSEs had to take between one and three extra design and elective exams, depending on which electives they had taken for their NT 4.0 MCSE certification. If candidates failed the 4-hour upgrade exam, they had to qualify for the Win2K MCSE credential just as any non–NT 4.0 candidates would.

The Win2K MCSE upgrade exam had a reputation for being notoriously difficult. The exam consisted of four sections: Win2K Server, Win2K Professional, Network Infrastructure, and Active Directory (AD). A candidate had to pass all sections to pass the exam: fail one section, even if you score perfectly on the others, and you fail the entire exam. Microsoft offered the upgrade exam only for a limited time. The company originally announced that it planned to decertify NT 4.0 MCSEs who hadn't upgraded their certification to Win2K by the end of 2001. However, a few months before the deadline expired, Microsoft changed its mind and decided that NT 4.0 MCSEs who hadn't upgraded their certification would retain their MCSE status for the foreseeable future. The original decision and the company's later reversal remain highly controversial within the certification community. Microsoft has sidestepped this controversy with its plans for the Win2K–to–Windows 2003 MCSE transition.

A New Upgrade Path
The Win2K–to–Windows 2003 MCSE transition stands in stark contrast to the NT 4.0–to–Win2K MCSE transition. Instead of one upgrade exam, one design exam, and two possible electives, candidates must pass two standard exams to qualify for the new certification. Unlike the one-shot free Win2K MCSE upgrade exam, Windows 2003 MCSE candidates can take the new certification exams as many times as is necessary, although they must pay the same fee as for any other MCP exam. Because the design skills required for Windows 2003 are similar to those required for Win2K, individuals upgrading their MCSEs to Windows 2003 won't need to take a Windows 2003–level design exam to achieve the new certification.

Microsoft hasn't announced any expiration date for the upgrade exams, and the exams will most likely remain available until the company announces the certification program for the Windows 2003 successor. As with NT 4.0 MCSEs who remain certified, those individuals certified on Win2K will retain their MCSE designation for the foreseeable future.

Although NT 4.0 MCSEs who didn't undertake any Win2K exams retain their MCSE designation, they aren't eligible to take any of the Windows 2003 upgrade exams. These candidates must start the certification process from scratch and take seven exams to become certified on the new technology. This requirement shouldn't come as a surprise—only a small amount of the knowledge tested in the NT 4.0 exams is relevant to the Windows 2003 exams. Many in the certification community strongly believe that many of the NT 4.0 MCSEs who didn't upgrade their certification to Win2K will feel pressured to pursue the new Windows 2003 certification, lest their qualifications appear out of date.

Candidates who achieved the Win2K MCSE certification but not the Win2K MCSA certification will be glad to know that if they pass the 70-292 upgrade exam, they'll automatically achieve their Windows 2003 MCSA certification. Because Microsoft only recently introduced the MCSA credential, the number of MCSAs certified is roughly one-third the number of MCSEs. The policy of automatically certifying a Win2K MCSE who passes the first upgrade exam as a Windows 2003 MCSA will dramatically increase the number of MCSAs in the coming years.

Preparing to Upgrade
If you're considering upgrading to either of the Windows 2003 certifications, you'll want to take the 70-292 upgrade exam first. This step will gain you the MCSA certification. If you're qualified as an MCSE, you can then take the 70-296 upgrade exam. Although the content of each upgrade exam is different, the 70-296 content builds on the foundation made in Exam 70-294: Planning, Implementing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Active Directory Infrastructure. Each exam is built from the content of two of the core Windows 2003 exams. As a result, candidates will most likely need to double their usual exam preparation time to come to terms with each upgrade exam's material. Candidates should approach each upgrade exam as two exams condensed into the length of one rather than as one typical MCP exam.

The first upgrade exam, 70-292, focuses on the administration of Windows 2003 and its underlying network infrastructure. The material for this exam is drawn equally from the objectives for Exam 70-290: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment and Exam 70-291: Implementing, Managing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure. An equivalent version on the Win2K track would be if Microsoft merged the content of Exam 70-215: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows 2000 Server with half the content of Exam 70-216: Implementing and Administering a Microsoft Windows 2000 Network Infrastructure. To pass the 70-292 upgrade exam, candidates must successfully demonstrate that they have the knowledge to manage group and user accounts, troubleshoot authentication, troubleshoot Win2K Server Terminal Services, and manage Software Update Services (SUS). They will also need to show that they understand the processes necessary to manage Microsoft IIS, perform system recovery, configure and manage DNS, and implement and manage network security. A detailed set of the objectives for exam 70-292 is available on Microsoft's Web site at

The second upgrade exam, 70-296, focuses on additional networking knowledge and knowledge of the Windows 2003 AD infrastructure. An equivalent version on the Win2K track would be if Microsoft combined the rest of the content from the networking infrastructure exam (70-216) with Exam 70-217: Implementing and Administering a Microsoft Windows 2000 Directory Services Infrastructure. To successfully pass the 70-296 upgrade exam, candidates must demonstrate an understanding of the process involved in planning and maintaining network infrastructure, ensuring server availability, using server roles, and applying appropriate security. Candidates must also show that they know how to maintain network security, implement security and AD infrastructures, and maintain and troubleshoot Group Policy. A detailed set of objectives for exam 70-296 is available at

Waiting on Longhorn
Some Win2K–certified candidates might decide to wait until Microsoft announces the Longhorn MCSE before they again journey to the testing center. We can assume that Microsoft will provide an upgrade track from the Windows 2003 MCSA and MCSE to the Longhorn MCSA and MCSE. If the upgrade track for the future certification is similar to the current upgrade path, candidates would need to take an additional two exams. Under the same scenario, candidates without a Windows 2003 MCSE certification would need to take seven exams to achieve Longhorn MCSE certification. Assuming that Microsoft takes this approach with the next upgrade path, upgrading to Windows 2003 now might save candidates from taking three extra exams in several years' time. With the ability to retake each upgrade exam that you fail, candidates who are certified on Win2K and want to update their credentials have little reason not to take this approach. Although some candidates will decide to take each of the core exams individually, remember that sitting two exams is easier and cheaper than sitting four exams.

As of November 2003, Microsoft had certified more than 700 Windows Server 2003 Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSEs), more than 228,000 Windows 2000 MCSEs, and more than 394,000 Windows NT MCSEs.
Source: Microsoft

According to a recent Instant Poll on the Web site, more than half of the survey respondents schedule their certification exams less than 1 month but more than 1 week in advance of taking the exam.
Source: Instant Poll

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