Preparing for the Azure Solution Architect Expert Certification
I'd like to share with you my experience with the Microsoft Certified Azure Solution Architect Expert Certification. Hereafter referred to as Azure Architect, it's currently Microsoft's premier Azure certification. In fact, it's been one of the top Microsoft certifications since its introduction at the Ignite 2018 conference.
The certification covers a wide range of topics and is intended for IT professionals with Azure experience who design cloud-based solutions using the Microsoft Azure platform. In order to earn the Azure Architect certification, you must pass two exams. The AZ-300 is an operational exam and AZ-301 is more of a design exam.
How the Exam is Structured
I speak from experience when I say these exams are fair. Yes, there were questions on both exams that left me feeling less confident about the answers. However, I never faced a question that was ridiculous or poorly worded. This can't be said of many certification exams.
There is also a considerable amount of knowledge domain overlap between the exams. In other words, the exams share many topics. When I teach a bootcamp or create an on-demand Learning Path, I usually spend more time on AZ-300 topics than on AZ-301 topics. That's not because one is more difficult than the other. Rather, if you prepare for one, you've already made significant progress preparing for the other. The exams themselves do take different approaches to the content. But if you know the services well, you're ready for both exams.
The exams have between 40-60 questions and take around 120-150 minutes to complete. I realize those numbers are a bit vague, but Microsoft tends to tweak these parameters over time. To be honest, I don't remember the exact number of questions I answered or how long I had to answer them. I do know that I finished each exam in under an hour and never felt like I needed to rush.
What Was the Question?
Here are some standard question formats you are likely to see:
- Multiple Choice - These are the most common. You know how these work. You have more than one answer to choose from and must select the option that best solves the problem.
- Fill-in-the-blank - You can either choose your answer from a drop down list embedded in the question, or drag and drop your choice from a list of options. These are typically used with PowerShell, CLI, and JSON (such as ARM templates).
- Process - These questions require you to choose a set of steps for a process and put them in the right order.
- Scenario - These are a series of questions with the same problem or requirement. Each question will have a solution. You must decide if the solution meets the requirements of the scenario. Be careful with these - once you answer a question, you can't return to it if you change your mind.
- Case Study - This exam element tends to give candidates nightmares. You are presented with a business case study that comes with multiple requirements. Then, you're asked several questions (usually multiple choice) related to the case study. These aren't necessarily difficult, but you do need to manage your time. You will see case studies in the AZ-301 exam.
- Hands-on - This is the coolest, newest question type. You have a requirement within an actual Azure environment. You're then asked to provision and/or configure Azure resources. It doesn't matter how you get there. You only need to complete the requirement. You will see hands-on questions in the AZ-300 exam.
Exam Objectives That Deserve Your Attention
As with any certification exam, both AZ-300 and AZ-301 have pools of questions much larger than the sets you'll actually be given. As a result, my experience relative to the focus of the exam may not match yours. However, there are several areas that are important for Azure solutions and are, therefore, prominent exam objectives.
What's On the Exam
Nice try. I can't legally tell you that. At least not in any detail. I can tell you that the exams are consistent with the objectives published by Microsoft.
You Get What You Pay For
Pay attention to tiers. It's a good idea to understand different pricing tiers for services when they differentiate capability. For example, you should know the difference between a Basic tier and a Premium PI tier. One is the lowest tier application service plan that supports multiple instances, and the other is the Azure AD license tier required to perform access reviews. You should also know the differences between series and be able to recognize that, for instance, the Nx series supports GPU-based applications.
Despite how fast the cloud is growing, on-premises computing is not going away. If you are architecting solutions in Azure, they likely have some element of hybrid design. As such, hybrid operations show up in a range of technologies that you need to know for the exams. Key areas, such as hybrid identity (Azure AD Connect), hybrid data solutions, and hybrid networking architectures, merit study. Migration of workloads from an on-premises environment to Azure is also prominent. This includes migrating virtual machines, data, and applications to Azure.
Identify With Azure
Microsoft considers security and identity important concepts for an Azure Architect to understand. So, it should be no surprise that Azure AD and security are crucial elements to study when preparing for your exam. You need to understand Azure AD. For the exam, you must know :
- What Azure AD is
- What role it plays in Azure
- How identities are provided to cloud applications
- How Azure AD integrates with on-premises Active Directory
- How to manage and monitor Azure AD
You also need to know basic security concepts such as Role-Based Access Control (RBAC). This is one of the topics I spent most of my preparation time on.
Build a Solid Foundation
One thing that surprised me about the published exam objectives, and the exam itself, was the weight given to infrastructure topics relative to platform topics. This does make some sense, as most organizations will implement Azure infrastructure solutions as their first foray into the cloud. However, so much of the cloud's value is in the platform services. So, I expected the platform services to be a bigger component of the exams.
This is a good thing for you. Infrastructure services are finite and easier to master than platform services. There is plenty of material to study on infrastructure, but it all comes down to virtual machines, networking, and storage. Make sure you have a thorough understanding of these resources. There is no excuse to miss questions on basic infrastructure. And keep an eye on the exam objectives. I expect platform services to eventually become more prominent.
Exam Preparation Guidelines
When preparing for any Microsoft exam, the starting point is the official exam information page. I always use the exam objectives as the foundation of my preparation. I keep track of what I'm studying using a spreadsheet with each objective detailed on a separate line. The goal is to check off each detail before I take the exam. This may seem like a simple thing, but it's the most effective strategy I use.
I have three recommendations regarding study materials. First, use your INE All Access Pass subscription to venture through the Azure Architecture Learning Path. We have created this program to help you gain the expertise necessary for the Azure Architect certification.
Second, use docs.microsoft.com. Simple, right? I don't use any other source for technical study material. This is the official Microsoft documentation. It's also the source of many exam questions.
The last source I would recommend is the Azure services pricing page. You won't get pricing specific questions, but the pricing pages tend to document different feature tiers very well.
Practice Makes Perfect
Another key part of your study process is hands-on practice. If you don't get any hands-on experience with Azure, you're unlikely to pass these exams. There are two sources ideal for hands-on practice: INE tasks and Microsoft tutorials. Both provide hands-on experiences designed to focus on the technologies' fundamentals.
The Microsoft tutorials will walk you step-by-step through a specific process (such as setting up hybrid identity). The INE tasks cover similar topics but are designed to make you do more of the work. You're give requirements and some guidance on meeting them. Many of the INE tasks have solution videos in case you get stuck. Using both sources will give you the effective hands-on experience you need.
Good luck with the exams!
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