The world of network engineering certifications is, like so many elements of the networking world, a relatively young entity. Today the most highly sought-after designations are often an integral element of the careers of network managers, architects and builders: a universally recognized piece of proof that a person is capable of handing the most demanding situations that a networked environment can throw at them.

A mere 10 years ago, however, these designations did not even exist. Perhaps the growth in their importance is a reflection of the overall growth of the enterprise network, but nevertheless, one has to marvel at how quickly companies such as Cisco and Nortel have hitched their designations to the networking star.

During its brief history, the designation arena has come to be dominated by Cisco, which offers various certifications with different levels of difficulty. The company’s highest award, the Cisco Certified Internetworking Engineer, or CCIE, designation, has established itself as the pre-eminent goal of network engineers.

A gruelling test that requires applicants to first pass a written examination (designed essentially to separate the wheat from the chaff) and to then travel to one of only 12 examination centres worldwide to pass an even more challenging hands-on exam, the CCIE has become recognized as the truest test of a networker’s mettle. A 65 per cent failure rate for first-time test takers attests to that.

One of the most interesting trends in this area, however, is that Cisco and its vaunted CCIE designation is starting to receive some serious challenge from another company for the title of most sought-after designation. What’s even more intriguing is that this upstart challenger hasn’t even carved much of its vast fortune from the realm of networking. Instead, it’s established itself by making sure that its operating systems are running on a vast majority of systems that networks connect.

Yes, you guessed it – it’s none other than Microsoft. Most people who have worked in just about any sector of the IT industry over the past few years have realized what the main secret is to Microsoft’s success: by installing its software on millions of computers before those computers are even sold, Microsoft ensured that its software would be used, supported and eventually replaced with newer versions. Get them hooked on Windows and the rest of the puzzle will fall into place, read the formula.

Obviously, the formula has worked. It’s worked so well that today you can’t go into too many enterprises without running across Microsoft’s software. With so much of it out there, it’s no wonder the demand for people who know how to configure, install and manage it has gone through the roof.

While the Windows platform was busy taking over the enterprise, Microsoft was steadily building up its various network certification offerings. Although the general insider consensus is that the CCIE test is still a more demanding and more meaningful test of a network engineer’s aptitude, primarily because the CCIE involves a hands-on exam in which an applicant has to do more than scribble checkmarks in boxes, the need for proficiency in Microsoft environments is not shrinking. Rather, it becomes more important every day. Rising right along with it is the desire on the part of engineers to get one of the Microsoft designations.

The result is that a Microsoft offering, regarded by many as inferior to that of its competitors, has assumed a viable place in its market, and is threatening to usurp that competition altogether. Sound familiar? Like the oft-heard complaints about the company’s “buggy” software, which is nevertheless installed ubiquitously?

It seems that Microsoft can be accused of a great many things, but not for inconsistency.