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Get wired–or wireless

Getting certified in home networking could help you save money—and make some, too.

Most certification tracks are structured the way they are to facilitate a change in career, or to at least beef up an existing career. But some training tracks have the potential to be valuable to shade-tree mechanics who only want to be able to do their own computer work around the house.

Such a field is home networking. A recent survey by In-Stat/MDR found that 95 percent of people who had already installed a home network installed it primarily by themselves. In these instances, the majority of learning comes by way of Internet research, instruction manuals, and books.

Does that sound like you, or somebody you’d like to be? You’re not alone. Many (if not most) owners of more than one computer have at least contemplated hooking them together, if only to coordinate their broadband, printing, file-sharing applications, and games.

That’s good news for do-it-yourselfers, but bad news for anyone looking to make a career out of home networking. The steady work in this field (and therefore the money) is in the business sector. And even those who have done some home networking and want to branch out are realizing that books and Web site tips only go so far. As wireless networking becomes more and more prevalent, expert training in this brave new world will become more and more valuable.

Starting from home base

The idea of installing any kind of network for yourself–let alone for others–might be imposing, but it’s less so if you break it down to its essence: connecting two electronic devices. You’ve hooked up a stereo, haven’t you? Maybe years ago you bought a splitter so you could run a single dial-up Internet connection from two separate PCs. Guess what? You built a home network, albeit a simple one.

But that’s only the beginning. With the evolution of IP-based home automation technology, all of the electronic services in your home can fall under the control of your home network. The home networking career of the future will have as much to do with connecting gadgets of all sorts as it does with hooking together PCs.

CompTIA and Internet Home Alliance (IHA) recently launched the vendor-neutral HTI+ certification for home networking technicians in response to the growing need for technicians to install and maintain networked home entertainment, and security systems. Best Buy, Cisco Systems, CompUSA, Fluke Networks, Gateway Computer, HomeDirector, Honeywell International, Panasonic, Sears Roebuck & Co., and Whirlpool Corp. helped develop HTI+, which should tell you that people with clout want this cert to mean something. Additional training sponsors include Bradford Learning, Heathkit Educational Systems, and Marcraft International.

In general, to earn an HTI+ certification, you must pass two computer-based exams: HTI+ Residential Systems and HTI+ Systems Infrastructure and Integration.

The certification will tell prospective clients that you can install and troubleshoot integrated residential subsystems. These systems will include home security, audio/video, computer networks, HVAC (heating/air conditioning systems), cable/satellite, broadband, telecommunications, commercial wiring, and electrical wiring.

The HTI+ exam process, which should set you back about $1,000, typically will feature a pair of exams. One should cover residential systems (those listed above, along with lighting, water, electronic doors and gates, and miscellaneous items such as fireplace ignitors. The other should focus on structured wiring systems and systems integration (user interfaces and control processors).

The future is full of intrusion alarms, furnaces and air conditioners, TVs, stereos, and various smart appliances that will all want to be able to talk to each other. You might be the one to teach them a common language.

The incredible disappearing wires

The fact is, training resources for traditional wired LAN setup are scarce. The past year has been tremendous for wireless LAN growth, thanks mostly to the availability of increasingly cheap and reliable 802.11b technology. Again according to InStat/MDR, home shipments of Wi-Fi hardware are expected to increase by 160 percent, to 6.8 million units, in 2003.

The most recognized certification in this field is Certified Wireless Network Professional (CWNP). The CWNP program offers instruction in all aspects of wireless networking in a series of certification training courses.

Step one: CWNA

Step one in the CWNP process is becoming a Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA). CWNA is aimed at IT professionals who are new to wireless networking, but it can also help those already familiar with wireless LANs, and fill in any gaps in their knowledge.

The CWNA class and exam cover radio frequency (RF) technologies, wireless LAN technologies, implementation and management, security, and the latest developments in the industry and its standards. The CWNA course and exam are available from a number of providers; consult a listing of your local tech trainers for a provider near you.

Step two: CWSP

The next level, Certified Wireless Security Professional (CWSP) measures the IT professional’s knowledge of how to defend a wireless LAN from intruders. This certification will help you prove you’re capable of not only implementing a wireless network within an enterprise, but also that you have the necessary tools and processes available for securing wireless networks. The main topics of this certification are hardware, software, protocols, procedures, and design techniques used in reducing wireless LAN security risks. Training classes have been available for several months, and the CWSP exam made its debut in April.

Step three: CWNI

The Certified Wireless Network Integrator (CWNI) certification covers advanced RF technologies and the skills necessary to combine existing wired networks to newer wireless networks. You’ll learn how to design wireless networks, connect disparate wired and wireless networks through wireless bridging, and integrate wireless clients into traditional wired networks.

The CWNI, which won’t be available until next year, will cover such areas as switching, routing, wireless LAN and network design, packet analysis (sniffing), and wireless LAN deployment. One of the main focuses of the CWNI is for the test candidate to be skilled in wired/wireless network integration. A solid understanding of both wireless and wired networks is essential to successfully passing the CWNI exam.

Step four: CWNE

Certified Wireless Networking Expert (CWNE) is the highest level of certification in the CWNP program. This certification should show that you can administer, install, configure, troubleshoot, and design a wireless network system. Routing, switching, packet analysis, and advanced design are some of the areas of expertise for a CWNE, and an in-depth understanding of both wireless and wired network will be needed to pass the CWNE, which also will be available next year.

Not so fast

The fact that two of the certifications in the CSNP process are not yet available should tell you something: Wireless is still a work in progress. Already, companies are being warned to steer clear of 802.11-based wireless products that don’t yet have the Wi-Fi Alliance seal of approval The trick will be knowing when to jump in. With networking, now might be a good time to tread lightly with a CWNA, and then wait and see from there. In the meantime, buy a good how-to book and set up a network at home for practice. You might even want to rip out a few walls for old times’ sake.

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