Where the associate tier helps build your knowledge of the AWS platform, the AWS professional level certifications are not only good for your career, they are an essential step in taking your knowledge and confidence in building things on AWS to the next level.
A few months ago, Cloud Academy instructor Andrew Larkin shared his strategy to get ready for the AWS Solutions Architect Professional certification exam in a new webinar. Today, we’ll be sharing some of Andrew’s secrets in this excerpt from “How to study for the AWS Solutions Architect Professional Certification.” We’ll talk about some of the myths and misconceptions that you may have heard, and we’ll cover some of the main areas that you’ll want to focus on when preparing for this exam.
Debunking the myths
You’ve probably heard some of the myths about taking the leap from AWS Certified Solutions Architect associate to professional, so let’s start by addressing a few of these.
It’s too difficult to pass. This is a really tough exam, there’s no hiding that. It is designed to test your ability to design and deploy AWS solutions, so you really need to be confident in this area. In addition to your hands-on experience, if you prepare properly and take the time to actually learn the foundational information, you will find the questions less challenging.
The exam scenarios are really tricky. Yeah, they are. The scenarios are very elaborate. They are designed to test your ability to identify requirements, evaluate potential services, and then to choose the service that is the best match for the requirements in the context of the question.
In the exam, you’ve got around 80 questions and you’re working in a three-hour timeframe. You will want to leave some time at the end to check your answers, etc., which really leaves you with around two minutes per question. This is where preparation is really important. Having a solid baseline of subject matter expertise will help you process the information and start to evaluate the options. Someone who walks in unprepared will find these scenarios incredibly difficult over someone who is prepared and who is ready to start to think through the best AWS way of doing this.
It’s nothing like the associate exam. This exam is longer, more difficult, and it requires a lot more preparation. At the time, I’m sure you found the associate level exam quite challenging. If you’re here, you obviously passed it, so there is no reason you can’t pass this one too! You just need to give yourself time to really take in the information and to practice. It’s not something that you can just walk into and expect to pass. At the end of the day, if you know the material, you will pass the exam.
The exam asks questions about irrelevant details, so why bother. One of the things that I enjoyed most about my journey through the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional certification was that it really helped you learn more of the edge cases. While we’re all good at responding to the 80% of scenarios that feel very common (the lifted shifts, the simple startup type environment, etc.), there’s nothing better than having exposure to some of the more edgy use cases. It’s important that you really start to delve into how customers in the real world have dealt with the challenges that you will get as the industry and the ecosystem matures. In reality, these are all things that you will come across in the real world. By all means, see it as a challenge, but don’t see it as a threat. Being an expert in these services and how to use them is a good thing.
If you use the console every day you should be fine. For those of us who use a console every day, it does help. But that’s not enough. You will want to make time for a lot of background reading. While you won’t get questions about the very latest features and formats, there will be more generic questions about how to use AWS rather than about specific services. Don’t get me wrong: using the latest and greatest services is always a good thing. But in the exam, you’re going to have more high-level scenarios that are about choosing the right technology. It may come down to specific details in some cases, but it’s also just as likely that the question will be more about the actual theory behind why you did it.
Get ready for the AWS Solutions Architect Professional Certification: Exam focus areas
To get ready for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional certification exam, Andrew helped create the Cloud Academy Solutions Architect – Professional Certification for AWS learning path that is built around the AWS exam guide, as well as on our instructors’ real-world experiences in taking this exam. The learning path includes video courses, quizzes, and hands-on labs that give you real experience working in an AWS environment. This is especially helpful if you don’t have much exposure to AWS in your day job.
For this exam, the domains are very important and obviously this is a lot of content to cover, especially compared to the associate level exam. So, here’s how to get started: Refresh yourself on the 8 domains.
The eight domains are: Scalability & Elasticity, High Availability & Business Continuity, Costing, Security, Data Storage, Network Design, Deployment Management, Cloud Migration & Hybrid Architecture. In the Cloud Academy Learning Path, we even created a course primer for this—that’s how important it is. Given the amount of material that is covered and the fact that you will have about two minutes to answer each question, you want to be as prepared as possible. The idea here is to get yourself in AWS exam mode. Here, you want to quickly rephrase the terminology and refresh yourself on some of the core issues and the services that you haven’t used for a while. You will want to do all of this in the context of each of the eight domains.
Go deep. At the associate level, we need to understand the core concepts. Instead, for the professional certification, we need to be able to go deep into the topics and generally understand how to build these things for high availability and business continuity. Take the time to go deep into scenarios like backup and recovery (a key component of RPO and RTO is what your backup and restore strategy is) to be able to show that you know how do it. Make sure you understand how to design decoupled and loosely coupled apps, how to think through a business feasibility cost-benefit analysis, then implementation, and how to actually stand up a scenario or solution to meet your RPO and RTO requirements.
While you will want to go deep into each of the eight domains, here are a few of the areas that we’ve excerpted from our Solutions Architect – Professional Certification for AWS learning path.
Scalability & Elasticity. I would estimate that around 30% of the content focuses on these two topics alone. It’s well worth having a solid understanding of these. I think that it would be well worth your time to go back into the AWS world of exam preparation as you did with the associate. You’re going to need to immerse yourself in the pure thinking of “how do I build scalable elastic highly available apps that are going to remain or continue through any kind of outage or key issue?”
Costing. Although costing has a much smaller focus on the exam, it’s a very important part. Because cost and cost optimization are such key components of good design, you really need to have a good understanding of these areas. In the learning path, we focus on understanding how to optimize instances and what that means at the instance level. For example, if we are running at 100% CPU utilization, what options could we consider to reduce our costs or get a bit of compute result? Just working through the calculator and actually trying to get a little below the surface so that you have a really good understanding of how you go about this in in day-to-day scenarios is a great way to approach this.
Consolidated billing and creating cross account roles is another area that is important in terms of what you can do and how to determine what is part of consolidated billing and what isn’t. A key aspect of being a good AWS solution architect is being able to design for the best result for your end customer. A lot of that comes down to “how can I get the best value out of these services to net the best result for my end customer?” You will want to be able to delve into what a real scenario looks like if you’re doing upfront purchasing. It’s not like you have to memorize the simple monthly calculator or anything like that, but you will want to be able to determine the best or most cost efficient way to deliver services.
Design security. Security is a key aspect of AWS design, and you’ll want to make sure that you go in detail on IIM management and understand data risk and controls. There is the designing ISMS systems view, where we need to be clear on how we would do that, all of the OSI considerations we might have. Then there is a bottom-up view of what would we do to implement secure environments. What do we need to do to protect our data at rest? What do we do to protect data in flight?
The questions in this domain are tricky. They’re going to make you think about a number of options for how you could reduce your exposure or reduce the surface area. I think one of the key challenges with the professional exam format is that there are a number of options that could be right. It’s not just that there’s one and all the others aren’t. You really do get left with two or three that could be right and may fit.
You really have to think it through and come up with a choice which you believe is the best one for the scenario that you’ve been given. That just comes with practice.
Data storage. I’m sure you’re all competent in explaining the differences between EBS, S3, and RDS. However, what we want for the professional tier is to really think about the trade-off decisions. There’s a lot of granularity in this. You will need to think about when to use ABS optimized instances, what type of throughput we can expect from our EBS volumes, and how that can impact our design decisions.
Rather than just, “should it be S3 or EBS?”, you should think about it in terms of “EBS or what storage and at what size and at what throughput?” Having a good understanding of how IOPS work, what kind of throughput you can expect, and the optimization options is crucial to be able to make those decisions quickly. Again, you’re not expected to know the actual intricate details of each current EBS offering. You are expected to understand what the value of benefits of each type are and to know when to choose one over the other.
Network design. Network design is another key component and we need to be fully compliant with the VPC. If you haven’t worked in the VPC recently, in other words, building things from end to end, you will want to refresh yourself on all of the aspects of this. This includes all the disseminating, understanding all of the constraints you have around what you can and can’t do in your subnet, what you can and can’t do in your VPC. Things like how many IP addresses are reserved by AWS, these four. Also, you’ll want to know how a VPC peering scenario might play out, what you can and can’t do, how you actually set up. Things like CloudHub, which you may not be familiar with. You need to know those.
Planning & deployment. As architects, we’re expected to understand as much as we can about deployment management, especially in planning. Choosing the right technology, making sure that you matched the use case with the technology, and not doing too much or too little. Insuring they stay coupled and walking through some of the deployment services that we have available to us in AWS.
Now, the other key thing about deployment is really understanding things what is immutable infrastructure, what are rolling a canary deployments, what’s the blueprint deployment? These are things that you might not have had the opportunity to read up about yet and you’ll find them really interesting.
AWS Solutions Architect Professional Certification: Next steps
The areas and suggestions here are just the tip of the iceberg for getting prepared for this certification. For the full study guide, you’ll want to check out our free webinar, How to study for the AWS Solutions Architect Professional Certification. It includes areas of focus for each of the eight domains, tips for how to study (and how long it will take you to prepare), and tips for the day of the exam. If you’re preparing for AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional certification, you won’t want to miss these. Good luck!