Your guide to the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam
I first heard about this nifty thing called “Amazon Web Services” last spring.
My friend had passed a certification exam recently, and got a shiny new job with amazing salary and benefits. “Oh, Amazon. I know Amazon. I just canceled my Prime subscription,” I said. “But what does that have to do with a job?”
Turns out, “Amazon Web Services” doesn’t have much to do with buying kitchenware and clothes…unless you’re running an eCommerce site on one of their servers.
Amazon Web Services, more commonly referred to as “AWS,” is Amazon’s cloud computing platform—and it’s taking the world by storm! AWS is the most popular cloud service provider today, sitting way ahead of Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, its two closest competitors, in terms of market share.
Benefitting from a decade-long head start in the cloud computing space, AWS currently fuels almost half of the world’s cloud resources. While the other platforms are slowly inching up in capacity, it’ll take a long time before either of the biggest competitors catch up to AWS.
A few months after learning about Amazon Web Services, I took and passed my very first AWS certification: the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam.
Not only am I “AWS Certified,” but I also have the opportunity to attend events and access venues within certain events like AWS Summit restricted to those with AWS certifications.
Becoming AWS Certified doesn’t have to mean that you are limited to working with Amazon Web Services, for AWS, or with companies that utilize AWS. Because AWS is so dominant in the cloud industry, the certifications it offers to establish your “cloud computing expertise” carry a lot of weight.
You may find yourself working for one of the AWS competitors, or companies utilizing many of the different cloud computing platforms. As they say: the sky—or the cloud, rather—is the limit!
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As of the writing of this article (Fall 2019), there are 11 AWS certifications available across four different “levels.” AWS certifications validate a candidate’s expertise of the AWS Cloud. The company’s role-based certifications also help to highlight specific in-demand skills in this rapidly growing industry.
AWS offers an entry-level class of certifications, known as Foundational Certifications. At the moment, this category includes just one certification; the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner certification. AWS recommends six months of fundamental AWS Cloud and industry knowledge before taking this exam.
The next step up is the Associate Certification level, and there are three certifications available at this level for three different types of roles:
- AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate
- AWS Certified Developer – Associate
- AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate
AWS recommends at least one year of experience problem solving and implementing solutions using the AWS Cloud before taking this exam. The three exams are distinguished by the role the candidate is looking to pursue, or currently works in: Solutions Architect, Operations, or Developer.
One level above Associate Certifications are the Professional Certifications, and there are two of them:
- AWS Solutions Architect – Professional
- AWS DevOps Engineer – Professional
AWS recommends at least two years of comprehensive experience “designing, operating, and troubleshooting solutions” using AWS Cloud before sitting in on these exams.
Finally, you can prove specialized technical expertise utilizing the AWS Cloud with Specialty Certifications. These certifications are for individuals who have extensive experience with complex Specialty-related tasks and operations. There are five Specialty certifications:
- AWS Certified Advanced Networking – Specialty
- AWS Certified Big Data – Specialty
- AWS Certified Security – Specialty
- AWS Certified Machine Learning – Specialty
- AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder – Specialty
The Specialty certifications, like the Foundational badge, are brand new.
This stable of certifications caters to a wide range of specialties and highly technical job roles, but they’re all built on the foundation of one exam—an exam that’s catered to AWS and cloud computing newbies, with no actual engineering experience or prerequisites needed.
As you might have already guessed, it’s the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam, which tests for fundamental knowledge of the AWS Cloud.
The AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam is hugely useful for anyone considering a career in the cloud space, even if you haven’t quite decided on the route you want to take yet. Given the ever-increasing prevalence of cloud computing (and Amazon’s continued dominance of the cloud market), being able to show off your knowledge of the cloud could come in handy even if you don’t work in a traditionally techy role.
Passing the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner Exam (Exam Code: CLF-C01) validates an individual’s overall fundamental understanding of the AWS Cloud. In layman’s terms, this means that it signals to a potential (or current) employer that you understand the fundamental “gist” of what Amazon Web Services is, and does.
- Recommended stepping stone for those looking to take Associate or Specialty-level certification exams, but not a prerequisite
- Lasts 90 minutes
- Can be taken online or at a testing center
- Costs $100 USD per attempt
- Available in English, Japanese, Korean, and Simplified Chinese
- Multiple choice pass/fail exam with a 70% pass rate
While AWS recommends candidates to have at least six months of experience “with the AWS Cloud in any role, including technical, managerial, sales, purchasing, or financial,” many people have found that as long as you hit all of the study points and have enough understanding of the exam content, you do not need to have six months of experience.
There are many resources and websites out there that help you prepare for the exam, but on AWS’s part, they have published downloadable exam guides, sample questions, and white papers. AWS also provides free digital training courses.
There are many training resources available in multiple languages on the training platform, ranging from a short intro to Amazon Neptune in Japanese to hours-long certification training for the AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional exam.
This certification lets the world know that you can define what the AWS Cloud is, and explain the basic global infrastructure of AWS. It also proves that you can describe the AWS Cloud architectural principles, value proposition, and security and compliance aspects.
You’ll be expected to know the common use cases of core AWS services, and be able to define the billing, account management, and pricing models. You’ll also need to be able to demonstrate that you’re aware of various resources and sources of documentation and technical assistance, like AWS’s white papers for technical documentation and how to submit support tickets.
There are four domains to the exam. They are:
- Cloud Concepts
- Security and Compliance
- Billing and Pricing
Let’s take a look at each domain area!
- Define the AWS Cloud and its value proposition
- Identify aspects of AWS Cloud economics
- List the different cloud architecture design principles
The first Domain of the exam is called “Cloud Concepts,” and it begins with “What is cloud computing ?”
AWS wants you to know the differences between “legacy on-premises” IT infrastructure and AWS Cloud.
One very important thing to know about cloud computing is that it utilizes “on-demand” pricing. This means that AWS has a “pay as you go” pricing model, and you only pay for the resources you use, when you use them.
This differs from the legacy IT infrastructure, where you would have had to pay upfront for all of the servers and network gear that powers your IT infrastructure, not to mention the maintenance costs.
You’ll also want to read up on the five pillars of a “Well-Architected Framework,” which helps Cloud Architects build the most secure, fault-resilient, efficient, and high-performing IT infrastructure available. This is the best practice standard framework for cloud IT infrastructure.
The pillars of a Well-Architected Framework:
- Cost Optimization
- Operational Excellence
- Performance Efficiency
The three types of cloud computing:
- Software as a Service (SaaS)
- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
- Platform as a Service (PaaS)
It’s important to draw a distinction between the three, as questions related to the types of cloud computing can be easy points.
There are also three types of cloud computing deployments. These are types of cloud infrastructure deployments, meaning how the infrastructure is “hosted.”
The three types of cloud deployments:
- Public Cloud
- Hybrid Cloud
- Private/On-Premises Cloud
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to know the six core advantages of cloud computing. This is a big-ticket item in the exam, and there are a few questions asking about the advantages.
The six advantages of cloud computing:
- Trade capital expense for variable expense
- Benefit from massive economics of scale
- Stop guessing about capacity
- Increase speed and agility
- Stop spending money running and maintaining data centers
- Go global in minutes
There are many pages on the web dedicated to explaining the six advantages of cloud computing over legacy on-premises IT infrastructure, and a good understanding of them will go a long way in helping you pass the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam.
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- Define the AWS Shared Responsibility model
- Define AWS Cloud security and compliance concepts
- Identify AWS access management capabilities
- Identify resources for security support
“Securing the Cloud” is a very important part of running your infrastructure on the AWS Cloud. AWS has half a dozen security-related services available, such as AWS Web Application Firewall (WAF), AWS Shield, and AWS Inspector.
It’s well worth your time to become comfortable with identifying what each security-related service does, and how they differ from each other.
These services do everything from help you secure and optimize your AWS infrastructure to protecting your web applications from DDoS attacks.
You can find resources about security concepts and services online, and you should be able to identify how you can get support to secure your AWS Cloud infrastructure.
One of the most important services that you ‘ll be utilizing no matter what you are doing in the AWS Cloud is the Identity and Access Management, or IAM.
It enables you to provide extremely granular access permissions to resources within your AWS infrastructure. AWS recommends that you should provide access to your resources utilizing the Principle of Least Privilege.
As the name suggests, the Principle of Least Privilege means that you should provide access permissions for your users to do the bare necessities required for their work, and nothing more. You should also utilize “Roles” to provide permissions.
AWS’s Shared Responsibility Model is the concept that AWS and the user share responsibilities for the security and compliance of your AWS Cloud infrastructure. One way to remember who is responsible for what is to memorize this sentence:
For example, AWS is responsible for securing the physical servers in their data centers, whereas you would be responsible for making sure that your EC2 servers are patched and updated, as well as keeping your passwords secure.
Inside the five pillars of the aforementioned Well-Architected Framework, there are five sub-pillars that make up the Security pillar. The Security Pillar is defined as the “ability to protect information, systems, and assets while delivering business value through risk assessments and mitigation strategies.”
The five pillars are:
- Detective Controls
- Infrastructure Protection
- Data Protection
- Incident Response
Finally, there are many security and compliance concepts, such as certifications and attestations, laws, regulations, and privacy, and alignments and frameworks.
There are regulations and compliance issues to consider when you contemplate uploading data onto the cloud, and as such, AWS has many resources available to help you determine whether utilizing specific services complies with any regulations your organization must adhere to.
A common example would be the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliance for the medical field in the United States.
If you have access to patient medical data, you would need to make sure that the resources and services you are utilizing are HIPAA compliant before using them.
It’s important to get a general understanding of how compliance concepts and security work together to make AWS Cloud secure and keep data safe.
- Define methods of deploying and operating in the AWS Cloud
- Define the AWS global infrastructure
- Identify the core AWS services
- Identify resources for technology support
And here we are, at the biggest portion of the certification exam: Technology.
With over one-third of the questions coming from this domain area, it’s a crucial component to you passing the exam.
This domain encompasses everything from how you would deploy resources in the AWS Cloud to many of the core AWS services.
As with the other sections, you should be aware of how you can receive technical support.
You should be familiar with the AWS global infrastructure, and common concepts like Availability Zones and Regions.
Here’s the gist: you can think of Availability Zones (AZs) as data centers, and there are at least two Availability Zones in each physical Region of the world.
You should also be familiar with the concepts of “high availability” and redundancy, defining ways AWS Cloud helps your resources stay up and available by utilizing Availability Zones and Regions.
As of Fall, 2019, there are 69 Availability Zones in 22 geographic Regions around the world, with many more in the pipelines.
While there are many more obscure AWS services like “AWS RoboMaker” to make robots, and “AWS Ground Station,” basically a “Satellite as a Service,” there are a few core AWS services that you need to learn about and identify for this exam.
These are the more commonly used services, mainly in the Compute, Database, Storage, Network & Content Delivery, Analytics, Management and Governance, and Security categories.
You should read up on every service that AWS provides. The more prevalent a service usage is in the AWS Cloud, the more in-depth the questions would be. For example, Amazon EC2 and Amazon S3, two of the most popular AWS services, would have much more granular questions than AWS OpsWorks.
If you’re on a time crunch and want to know what the absolute minimal services you should learn about are, here’s a good start:
- Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2)
- Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3)
- Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS)
- Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS)
- Amazon Aurora
- Amazon DynamoDB
- Amazon Redshift
- AWS Lambda
- AWS Route 53
- AWS CloudFront
- Elastic Load Balancing (ELB)
Other services will definitely come up, so you should have a high-level understanding of them, especially in the categories of Compute, Storage, Security, Networking & Content Delivery, and Databases.
- Compare and contrast the various pricing models for AWS
- Recognize the various account structures in relation to AWS billing and pricing
- Identify resources available for billing support
Even though the “Billing and Pricing” domain is only 12% of the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam, the questions presented for this domain are fairly nitty-gritty in terms of the information they are asking you to recall.
As with some of the other domains, you should be aware of where you should go to find resources and support for billing related questions and issues.
There are three common types of charges that occur when utilizing the AWS Cloud. These charges are Compute, Storage, and Data Out. Generally, inbound data transfer and data transfer between AWS services within the same region do not incur fees (but of course, you should confirm before doing it).
The more data you transfer, the less you pay per gigabyte of data transferred. For compute charges, you generally pay hourly from the time you launch a resource until the time you terminate it. For data storage and transfer, you generally pay per gigabyte of data.
One way AWS helps keep your costs lower when building an IT infrastructure for a larger organization is to allow you to use Consolidated Billing.
Consolidated Billing allows one paying account to receive bills from multiple linked accounts as one single monthly bill, and may make an organization’s overall resources eligible for volume pricing discounts.
This means that some customers may be able to purchase resources at a discount by consolidating all of their organization’s accounts, and pay less per unit because they’re purchasing a larger quantity of resources.
Resources like the AWS Cost Explorer, AWS Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) Calculator, and AWS Simple Monthly Calculator help potential and current customers estimate the costs associated with moving their IT infrastructure to the AWS Cloud.
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One thing you should know inside out is the four tiers of AWS Support Plans.
The questions related to the support plans are fairly specific, so it’s worth the extra time to make sure you know the difference between the four.
AWS Support Plan tiers:
As you’d expect, they all come with different perks and price points, ranging from free to “starting at” $15,000 a month.
It’s important to note that these prices are purely for support—AWS resource usage is billed separately, on top of support plan costs.
The Basic Support Plan is free, but the only support covered is customer service for account and billing questions. For technical questions, Basic Support Plan users would have to access the AWS Community Forums to ask other AWS users, as they won’t receive any technical support from AWS directly.
While you should read the AWS Support Plans page to get all of the details comparing the four support plans, here’s a simplified table to help you get started:
|Cost||Free||$29/mo or 3% of monthly usage||$100/mo or 10% monthly usage for first $10k (rate goes down after that)||$15,000/mo or 10% of monthly usage for first $150k (rate goes down after that)|
|AWS Trusted Advisor Best Practice Checks||7 Core checks||7 Core checks||Full set of checks||Full set of checks|
|Use Case||Testing||Experimenting||Production||Mission-Critical Use|
|Tech Support||No||Business hour via email||24×7 via email, chat, phone||24×7 via email, chat, phone|
|Service Level Agreement (SLA)||12~24 hours at local business hours||1 hour response to urgent cases||15 min response to critical support cases w/ priority|
|Technical Account Manager (TAM) & Support Concierge||No||No||No||Yes|
|Support Cases||None||1 Contact, Unlimited Cases||Unlimited Contacts/Cases||Unlimited Contacts/Cases|
So this blog post was a fairly long one, with a lot of information. You might be feeling a little overwhelmed right now.
But if you break the exam down into the domains areas, and then again down to the various content areas, concepts, and services, you’ll be able to create a study plan for yourself to begin preparing for the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam.
Take it one step at a time, and I’m confident you’ll be able to make your way through the exam material! Every domain is important, despite the different percentages, and there’s definitely a lot of information to be consumed.
However, earning this certification has changed my life drastically, so I hope it’ll be a great asset to help start your AWS Cloud journey as well!