AWS Associate Level Certification Guide

I’m happy to report that I now hold all three AWS associate level certifications and have written up my experiences to help you on your AWS certification journey. This guide covers the exam topics, resources used to prepare and my experience on exam day. 

I began my certification journey taking an instructor led and remotely delivered (Webex) version of the official Architecting on AWS course, which is designed to prepare students for the AWS Solution Architect – Associate certification exam. The course was ran by QA and served as a great introduction to AWS certification. On reflection, the course contained all of the content and labs required to pass the exam however, wanting to be extra prepared for the first exam, I purchased  acloud.guru’s all five certification bundle.

The three associate certifications provide a solid base and I found preparing for exams was manageable. I allowed up to two weeks to prepare for each and used a combination of acloud.guru, hands on practice with AWS using a free tier account and time spent reading the AWS documentation – particularly for topics that require more depth understanding.

AWS Solutions Architect – Associate 

The instructor led training gave me a good foundation, which gave me the confidence to book the exam immediately after taking the course – giving myself another week to review the acloud.guru content. I spent a lot of the time time running through the basics hands on – creating VPC’s, EC2 instances, Security Groups, NAT gateways, ACLs etc. using both the GUI and CLI.

I feel that the Solution Architect certification has the most wide ranging content, which made it the most daunting to prepare for (not helped by it being my first experience of AWS certification!) 

My thoughts and guidance after taking the exam:

  • Pay particular attention to VPC, IAM, Route 53 and S3
  • By all means, don’t miss any topics on the exam guide but I got the highest number of questions on the areas mentioned. Particularly:
    • Route 53 record types and appropriate usage (set these up, play, create health checks, understand the different record types etc.)
    • Process to create a VPC, difference between a NAT instance and a NAT gateway etc. (again, the best way to know this is to do it a few times)
    • When to use IAM roles, users, groups etc (tip always use Roles where possible, particularly for EC2 instances)
      • AWS recently enabled roles to be added to EC2 instances that are already online, this isn’t reflected in the exam yet
    • S3 storage types and appropriate use cases, difference between durability and availability (pay particular attention to the wording as the stats are different for each)
  • Learn how to calculate DynamoDB provisioned throughput
    • Tip: For reads the formula is (ITEM SIZE (rounded up to the next 4KB multiplier / 4KB) * # of items
    • Tip: For writes the formula is (ITEM SIZE (rounded up to the next 1KB multiplier / 1KB) * # of items
    • I personally got 1 or 2 of these in the SA exam but more in the Developer exam (more on that later)
  • If you only read one piece of documentation, make it the ‘AWS Well-Architected Framework’ whitepaper (link below). This document introduces the five pillars of the well-architected framework and will help develop your approach to architecting solutions and will greatly help (exam strategy here) with eliminating the obviously incorrect questions on the certification exams

AWS Developer – Associate

Many exam takers, blogs and even training providers indicate that the developer associate certification is the easiest of the associate level certifications however, I was quite the opposite and found the developer exam the hardest of the first three. For those of you that have already taken this exam or do in the future – I am interested to hear your experiences.

To prepare for the exam I gave myself two weeks and used acloud.guru as my primary training source along with hands on practice using my free tier account and a more than usual amount of time reading through the AWS documentation, which I found most important for the developer preparation. I’d recommend spinning up an Amazon Linux EC2 instance, getting the AWS CLI setup and interacting with things like S3 using roles / credentials / keys and understanding the differences.

My thoughts and guidance after taking the exam:

  • Know how to interact with the AWS CLI and API particularly common commands for interacting with S3
  • Learn about Simple Notification Service (SNS) particularly the different name/value pairs available in the message body and different notification options
  • How do you approach security in AWS (dev focus)? Important to know IAM roles, access keys, policies etc, S3 encryption, Security Token Service (at a high-level, this is covered in more detail at the professional level), VPC security (security groups (stateful), ACLs (stateless) etc.)
  • I personally had at least 4 DynamoDB provisioned throughput related questions – some easy marks to be gained here (see above)
  • What are S3’s different use cases? Particularly the different URL types for websites vs other objects as well as bucket versioning
  • What are the different deployment types? When and how to use CloudFormation, Elastic Beanstalk etc. and what can and can’t these services do? The focus was more on EB and CF in the developer exam for me (less on OpsWorks, where I saw more questions in the sysops and professional certification exams although this may not be the case for all)

AWS SysOps Administrator – Associate

Last but by no means least, the sysops admin certification. Out of the three so far, I was most nervous about the sysops exam as it is commonly believed to be the most difficult of the associate level certification exams but this didn’t turn out to be the case for me. I actually found that there was a lot of overlapping content (and concepts) from the Solution Architect and Developer certifications allowing me to score highest out of the first three.

Once again, I gave myself two weeks to prepare for the exam and used acloud.guru as the primary training material along with my free tier account and reading through the AWS documentation. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the sysops exam is CloudWatch, know how to use it, how to setup metrics and custom metrics and how different AWS services interact with CloudWatch. 

My thoughts and guidance after taking the exam:

  • Understand monitoring and healthchecks, monitoring EBS, RDS, ELB, EC2 etc.
  • What is consolidated billing is and how do you set it up? (I got a couple of questions here, easy marks)
  • How do you make a solution elastic and scalable? RDS read replicas, auto scalaing, HA for single hosts (auto scaling with min 1, max 1) etc.
  • Backup options within AWS? Snapshots, storing log files etc.
  • How do you build IAM policies and use MFA and what are the compliance options?
  • How are networks scalable? Particularly focus on Route53 (weighted, latency based, geolocation etc.), creating and scaling NAT instances, how to enable VPC flow logs etc.

Conclusion

Studying for the associate level exams was enjoyable and gave me a great insight in to the AWS world as well as preparing me with the necessary knowledge and skills not only to pass the certification exams but to be effective with AWS. At the associate level, I personally found that there was enough time in the exam to work through the questions without having to rush and that there was enough time remaining at the end to review any marked questions.

General thoughts on taking the exams:

  • Always read the exam blueprint (linked from the official AWS certification pages) as this document gives you complete list of items to study and helps identify areas of personal strength and weakness
  • At the associate level, acloud.guru is a great resource however, only toward the end did I discover the Linux Academy video series, which are excellent. Where I found that aclud.guru was great at preparing students with the knowledge required to pass the exam, I personally found that Linux Academy is much better at preparing students with the skills and knowledge not only to pass the exam but to really understand the topics and learn the necessary skills to be effective beyond the exam. I found Linux Academy essential at the professional level (more on that later)
  • Read the sample questions (also from the official AWS pages) – I personally found that in at least two of my exams, one of these questions popped up (word for word)
  • TIP: Go to the AWS Japanese site for the Solution Architect sample questions and the PDF has the sample question answers in the bottom right of each question http://media.amazonwebservices.com/jp/certification/AWS_certified_solutions_architect_professional_examsample0701_08_final.pdf
  • I personally opted not to do the official practice exams at associate level so I can’t comment on those
  • Read blogs (linked below and others) – I personally found that reading about the experiences of others helped with my preparation

Finally, if there is anything that I can do to help, any insights, examples, areas you would like to discuss then please do get in touch. Good Luck!

 

Resources

Video Training:

http://acloud.guru

https://linuxacademy.com/

Blogs:

http://cantrill.io/certification/aws/2016/03/27/how-to-pass-AWS-certifications.html

http://blog.rowanudell.com/how-to-get-your-aws-sysops-associate-certification/

https://devopsfolks.com/journey-get-aws-solution-architect-certification/

https://acloud.guru/forums/aws-certified-developer-associate/discussion/-KBkBPMHpN2ITSH1oDTO/passed_with_90%25_-_my_exam_tips

http://cloudacademy.com/blog/amazon-aws-certified-solutions-architect-what-to-study-tip

Official Certification Pages:

https://aws.amazon.com/it/certification/certified-solutions-architect-associate/

https://aws.amazon.com/it/certification/certified-developer-associate/

https://aws.amazon.com/certification/certified-sysops-admin-associate/

Most important AWS Documentation (from my experience):

http://d0.awsstatic.com/whitepapers/architecture/AWS_Well-Architected_Framework.pdf

https://d0.awsstatic.com/whitepapers/aws-security-best-practices.pdf

https://d0.awsstatic.com/whitepapers/Storage/AWS%20Storage%20Services%20Whitepaper-v9.pdf

https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/aws/new-whitepaper-use-aws-for-disaster-recovery/

http://docs.aws.amazon.com/amazondynamodb/latest/developerguide/HowItWorks.ProvisionedThroughput.html

http://docs.aws.amazon.com/amazondynamodb/latest/developerguide/dynamodb-dg.pdf

http://docs.aws.amazon.com/AWSCloudFormation/latest/UserGuide/template-anatomy.html