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As the Cisco Systems and HP partner conferences are about to butt heads, both scheduled for the same week of April 26, it’s almost as if the two companies are forcing channel partners to choose one or the other.

Case in point, HP has fired its latest shot against long-term rival and once-partner, Cisco, announcing a “Cisco-free” data center product. And as the battle over the data center looms, channel resellers may be trying to decide whose side they should be on – the established player or the value-based vendor.

Which partner program should channel partners focus on? Which vendor-sponsored certifications should channel partners and individual IT workers pursue?
Cisco is still clearly the number one networking vendor, but HP’s acquisition of 3Com gives the Palo Alto, Calif.-based technology giant a boost up, securing its spot as the number two player (a position it has fought over with competitor Juniper Networks over the last few years). Cisco has been considered a pioneer in channel programs and certifications, while HP is no slouch in the partner space either, and tends to offer products at a more affordable price point.

One thing is clear, though: networking is probably the most important space for IT pros and channel partners to hold certifications. As a company that has been in the IT recruiting space since 1996, SmartSource has found that the acquisition of certifications by networking professionals makes those individuals more attractive to prospective employers and can net them higher salaries. However, the right certifications need to be chosen.

“One thing we’ve found is that it’s really the client that’s driving that because when they’re recruiting people, they come to recruiting agencies or their HR departments looking for a main requirement like they must have a CCIE or they must have a CCNP,” said Joe Iovinelli, CEO of SmartSource, a technology temporary and permanent job and recruitment agency.

Between Cisco and HP, Iovinelli said SmartSource’s clients are mostly looking for Cisco certifications.

In fact, the most sought after certification in networking is the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification, which has branches in routing and switching, storage networking, service provider, service provider operations, voice and wireless.

More cost-sensitive clients look for potential staff members with the next step down, the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) certification.

For network professionals that want to increase their chances of getting a job with a good salary, the CCIE and CCNP certifications are the way to go. For the CCIE, in particular, it’s the voice path that has been getting a lot of attention over the past 18 months, Iovinelli said.

“We still even see on occasion sign-on bonuses for guys with CCIEs. That’s kind of the hot skill
set right now. A lot of it is evolving around voice over IP,” Iovinelli said.

While the HP ProCurve networking certifications are of value to businesses that deal in HP’s networking products, SmartSource has found that most client requests related to HP are more on the printer side of the company’s business.

However, for partners opting to choose the HP route to data center and networking products, there may be room to take an upstart value advantage to win deals against the more established and more expensive player that is Cisco. If you are looking to sell HP networking products, a number of certifications are available, and HP will soon look to incorporate certifications in 3Com’s enterprise switch products as well.

And HP is making it easy to get on board – not only with networking product value pricing, but also with network certification value pricing.

A comparison of the exam costs between Cisco and HP show that the HP ProCurve route is much more affordable. Keeping in mind that training and reference material costs are not factored into exams, HP is more easily affordable by individuals, with typical exam costs being about $80 versus Cisco’s $250.

No matter which company a networking professional chooses to focus on, earning certifications definitely makes the individual more valuable to an employer, Iovinelli said. Although the salary increases may be small at the low end of the certifications, the higher ends will almost certainly bring in much higher salary jumps for those willing to put in the time and effort to attain the appropriate pieces of paper.