The Microsoft Certified Master for Exchange Server 2010 explained

The Microsoft Certified Master: Exchange 2010 title is reserved for the most skilled Exchange admins. Take a look at what the certification entails to see if you’ll make the grade.

Effective IT administrators understand the proper installation and management of their critical applications, but

sophisticated applications like Exchange Server 2010 are difficult to learn and understand through hands-on exposure alone.

Senior administrators seeking the highest levels of Exchange expertise should consider the Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) for Exchange Server 2010 program.

But the cost of preparation and testing give IT departments on tight budgets a moment of pause before committing to Exchange Server 2010 certification. Here are some of the requirements, tips on preparing and whether the certification is even necessary.

The demands of MCM: Exchange Server 2010
MCM certification for Exchange Server 2010 involves advanced data center knowledge and only senior Exchange administrators with more than five years of practical background in Exchange (2010 or 2007) installation, configuration and complex troubleshooting should pursue it. Administrators should also know how to design and deploy secure and scalable high-performance infrastructures and possess a detailed understanding of related technologies such as Active Directory, domain name system (DNS), local and wide area networks, server hardware, archiving and compliance, data protection and so on.

The MCM emphasizes security, so be ready to prove that you’re proficient with Exchange Server security features, role based access control, auditing and that you’re able to find and resolve security vulnerabilities. Certification also involves serious storage and virtualization knowledge; so you must know how to design and test both. You’ll also need to know how to resolve performance problems and determine how storage and virtualization platforms will be affected by Exchange Server configurations.

Administrators should also have command of all Exchange Server 2010 server roles, such as the client access server (CAS), hub and edge transport servers, mailbox server and unified messaging server roles. This includes aspects of design, deployment, configuration and troubleshooting, along with tasks that are unique to each role.

For example, administrators should know how to load balance the CAS, configure the transport role for high availability, use database availability groups (DAG) and failover with the mailbox server role and integrate unified messaging with Microsoft Lync Server 2010.

There are also prerequisite certifications. To qualify for the MCM program, you’ll also need current Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) certifications in Enterprise Messaging Administrator and Enterprise Administrator.

Do you really need MCM: Exchange Server 2010?
Clearly, the MCM: Exchange Server 2010 certification is a complex endeavor. It demands a high level of dedication and competency from administrators who pursue it. So the need for this expertise should be considered carefully against the requirements of the organization.

For example, large companies with sophisticated mission-critical Exchange Server deployments might easily justify the investment in one or more MCM-certified Exchange Server administrators. Mid-sized and smaller organizations may not find the case for MCM certification as compelling.

Michael Sadowski, an IT manager with Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois, said that the MCM: Exchange Server 2010 is not a certification that he is actively pursuing now, but is on the docket for the future. “At the moment, we have an outsourced IT company that handles a lot of the super high-end sysadmin IT functions at the church,” he said. Sadowski also noted that he has been very hands-on daily with Exchange Server 2010 since deploying it in late 2010, but problems and troubleshooting instances have been rare. “It’s on-the-job training; I learn as I go.”

The fact is that mastering the highest levels of Exchange Server 2010 is not always essential and practical experience over time can provide answers to many routine issues.

“I have a basic knowledge of [Exchange 2010]; if anything goes down, I can usually figure out how to bring things back up before calling after-hours support and having to pay for that,” Sadowski said. “So it’s not a huge priority because it’s something that I can observe and pick up on my own. And “Since I’m not looking for employment elsewhere, [the MCM] is not something that I feel I really need to add to my resume just yet.”

Still, mastering Exchange Server 2010 can benefit organizations. For example, companies that may have previously relied on outside firms for Exchange design, deployment, optimization, management and troubleshooting support can bring those functions in-house, reducing or eliminating those outsourcing costs and potentially saving considerable outsourcing fees over time.

Preparing for and passing MCM: Exchange Server 2010
Even after you’ve developed the practical experience in Exchange Server and acquired the prerequisite certifications, the MCM: Exchange Server 2010 certification still presents significant hurdles. Candidates face two challenging exams. The first is Exam 88-974, which is a computer-based, multiple choice examination administered by Prometric, which should be familiar to anyone who has taken A+, Server+ or other industry exams proctored by the company. You must pass this exam before moving on to the Microsoft-proctored practical lab exam, Exam 88-975.

The exams are also costly. Exam 88-974 lists for $500 and the practical Exam 88-975 lists for $2,000. These figures are per-attempt so costs can add up if retests are needed. Also, remember that prior MCM certifications in Exchange Server 2003 and Exchange 2007 don’t count; you’ll still need to pass both new exams to achieve MCM: Exchange Server 2010 recognition.

With such costs to contend with, it pays to invest additional time and resources into exam preparation. There are numerous books, white papers and online references that can help any Exchange admin prepare for the knowledge exam. In addition, you may want to consider intensive instructor-led courses -- available from Microsoft Learning -- that cover many of the topical areas in both exams.

This was first published in August 2011

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