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Juniper Networks is extending its Fast Track certification program through 2008 in the hope that training and education can help it compete against arch rival Cisco.

The Fast Track program offers experienced networking professionals free Web-based self-assessment exams and courseware including technical manuals, diagrams and lab materials necessary to become certified on Juniper’s JUNOS network operating system.  Though the program was supposed to end in 2007, Juniper officials said the program was so successful it has extended it through 2008, and it will add new certification tracks and open the program beyond its original target demographics.

Launched in May 2007, the Fast Track certification program was geared specifically to certified Cisco networking professionals with the aim of building on their existing knowledge base and hopefully converting them to Juniper’s technology.

"We have an opportunity to drive JUNOS adoption through the channel—and that’s what the Fast Track is meant to promote," said Steve Pataky, vice president of worldwide channel development and programs at Juniper.  But driving adoption doesn’t mean partners or customers have to start from scratch, Pataky said.

"There are thousands of networking pros in our channel who have spent countless hours and dollars getting certified on other products," Pataky said.  He added that the Fast Track program "gives them credit for their incumbent knowledge" by assuming that participants already have experience with the basics and foundation of networking, and in some cases, already hold networking certifications from other vendors such as Cisco.

The program offers free self-assessments for participants to gauge their level of networking knowledge so they can complete coursework that’s appropriate to their skill level before they sit for the exam, he said. "There are plenty of other places to go to get basic networking foundations knowledge.  The Fast Track program is for experienced network engineers who want to expand their skills to the Juniper platform," Pataky said.

In 2008, the program will be open to any networking pro, not only those who have attained Cisco certifications, said Pataky, including “self-taught” networking professionals who don’t hold certifications but have accumulated experience in the field.  VARs must be a Juniper channel partner in order to qualify for the free training and certification. Pataky said Juniper would also offer certification on the vendor’s new line of EX switching products.

Scott Edwards, Juniper’s director of education services, said certification also saves VARs thousands of dollars.  In 2008, Juniper will offer vouchers for 50 percent off the $125 cost of taking the exam at a Prometric testing center, said Edwards.

Bill Annino, Jr., director of the converged network group at Carousel Technologies, said, "It’s a boon to our bottom line because it removes the expenditure of getting all the guys trained, buy[ing] the course materials and pass[ing] the test.”  Annino added that his company sent 15 engineers through the program and that certifications were crucial for his company, since it assured customers "that we’re technically competent to support and maintain the technology we’re implementing." He added that he planned to send his engineers back through the program to get certified on the EX switching products line, as well.

"Any promotion I’m offered, like this certification from Juniper, is going to be well-received," said Annino.  "We’re expanding our company and this helps expand not only the product lines we sell, but the support we’re able to give," he said.

Chris Becerra, co-founder of Terrapin systems, said that for his 2-year-old company, "any help we can get, financially or otherwise, is definitely welcome."

Becerra said sending three engineers through the Fast Track program helped boost his sales because his engineers were better able to sell and support the Juniper technology.  Certifying engineers helped Terrapin sell more Juniper products and meet sales volume targets they needed to achieve elite partner status within the Juniper channel program.  Gaining the status made them eligible to take advantage of higher product discounts offered to elite partners.