Is the CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) certification your next best move to enhance your career, or should you focus on CompTIA Security+?
At first glance, a CCNA vs Security+ comparator might seem a slightly odd one. CCNA is all about demonstrating your knowledge of Cisco enterprise network architecture, whereas Security+ is firmly focused on cyber security, so we’re talking about two very different areas of emphasis.
That said, these certifications are similar in that they each appear regularly on entry and junior-level tech industry job listings. Where the role involves elements of both network maintenance and cyber security, you might see both qualifications listed as desirable or required.
With this in mind, here’s our Security+ vs CCNA comparator. Read on to gain a better understanding of what each certification covers, prerequisites for study, real-life applicability, and how each one can shape your career options.
What Are CCNA and Security+ Certifications?
CCNA and CompTIA Security+ are both widely-recognized and sought-after certifications, suitable for entry and junior-level students. However, they cover very different areas of tech industry knowledge.
CCNA validates candidates’ proficiency surrounding Cisco enterprise network architecture. By contrast, and as its name suggests, Security+ is an information security certification. It focuses on areas such as threat analysis, security monitoring, governance and incident response.
The following diagram illustrates where both certifications sit on a typical skills development roadmap.
If you are starting from scratch in terms of knowledge, it's a good idea to start with some IT essentials training. You would then aim for a networking certification such as CCNA. A cyber security foundational course - Security+ being a great example - forms the third leg in this model training journey.
Here’s an overview of both certificates, their objectives and target audiences.
CCNA is a vendor-specific network accreditation provided by Cisco Systems, Inc.
By way of background, Cisco is a global technology leader and manufacturer of networking and communications equipment, and a provider of cloud, security, and collaboration solutions. According to Statista, the company has a 41% share of the enterprise network infrastructure market. Its nearest rival, Huawei, occupies just 10% of that market.
So in all likelihood, a very high proportion of the potential employers you approach will have Cisco architecture in place. They’ll want you to have a solid foundational knowledge of a Cisco networking and switching environment. CCNA provides validation of this knowledge - which is why it’s sought after.
The CCNA certification is designed for entry-level and junior-level network professionals. It validates candidates’ knowledge on topics such as network access, IP connectivity, routing and switching, automation, and security: i.e. precisely the areas you’ll need to understand for maintaining and administering a Cisco environment.
CCNA also serves as the foundation for more advanced accreditations, such as the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP).
Security+ is an entry-level cyber security certification from CompTIA (The Computer Technology Industry Association). This is a globally-recognized IT trade body that offers a wide range of industry-standard certifications.
The CompTIA website describes Security+ as “the first security certification a candidate should earn. It establishes the core knowledge required of any cyber security role and provides a springboard to intermediate-level cyber security jobs.”
In contrast to CCNA, Security+ is vendor-neutral. Rather than honing in on a specific type of architecture, it aims to help you build and verify your knowledge relating to the type of security issues you’ll encounter across a wide range of network environments.
In terms of focus, acquiring the Security+ certification enables you to demonstrate skills and knowledge relating to the following broad concepts:
- Assessing the security posture of an enterprise environment and the knowledge necessary to recommend and implement appropriate security measures.
- Monitoring and securing hybrid environments, including cloud, mobile, and IoT.
- Operating with an awareness of applicable laws and policies, including principles of governance, risk, and compliance.
- Identifying, analyzing, and responding to security events and incidents.
Both Security+ and CCNA offer a great deal of study flexibility, allowing you to learn at your own pace. However, the content of each exam is very different to reflect the distinct objectives of each accreditation. More details are below.
To earn your CCNA certification, you need to pass the 200-301 CCNA exam. This is a 120-minute test comprising about 100 multiple-choice questions and simulation tests. It’s scored out of 1,000, and the pass mark is 825.
You can take the exam in person or through an online proctored exam administered by Pearson VUE. If you’re taking it online, you’ll need to make sure your setup is configured to meet Cisco’s online testing requirements.
The exam covers the following six domains:
- Network fundamentals. How various network components work, types of network topology architectures, wireless principles, virtualization fundamentals, and switching concepts.
- Network access. Configuring VLANs across switches, understanding and comparing various Cisco Wireless Architectures and AP modes.
- IP connectivity. Interpreting and applying routing table components.
- IP services. Demonstrating your knowledge of a range of critical network services that enable you to deploy, manage and control an IP network consisting of Cisco architecture.
- Security fundamentals. Understanding key security concepts and risk mitigation processes.
- Automation and programmability. Understanding the role of automation in streamlining network management, including the use of vendor-specific management tools such as Cisco DNA Center.
In terms of subject emphasis, the exam is weighted as follows:
You can get more detailed information on the test sections from Cisco’s official exam description.
To earn your CompTIA Security+ accreditation, you’ll need to pass a 90-minute exam. The current exam version is SY0-601. According to CompTIA, you can expect the test to consist of “no more than 90 questions”. It is marked out of 900, and 750 is the passing score.
As with CCNA, you can take the Security+ exam either in person at a test center or online via the Pearson proctoring platform. Take a look at CompTIA’s testing options page for important information about online and in-person tests.
The exam content comprises five subject domains:
- Attacks, threats and vulnerabilities: An understanding of penetration testing, vulnerability scanning, and compromise detection.
- Architecture and design: How to deploy network components while implementing measures to support organizational security.
- Implementation: How to implement secure network architecture concepts.
- Operations and incident response: Understanding the concepts involved in identifying and addressing threats, vulnerabilities, and attacks.
- Governance, risk and compliance: Best practice in areas such as risk management and gauging business impacts.
These subject domains are weighted in the exam as follows:
You can expect the exam to comprise mostly multiple-choice questions, along with some practical problem-solving challenges, which CompTIA refers to as Performance Based Questions (PBQs).
The Security+ multi-choice questions will very often present you with a scenario and ask you to select the best course of action. Likewise, you may be asked questions to test your understanding of related concepts (different types of penetration testing techniques, for instance).
PBQs involve carrying out basic actions in a simulated environment. For example, you might be asked to drag and drop security hardware components into their correct positions within a network map.
Winner: A Draw
We’re talking here about whether one exam is fundamentally “better” than another. We’ll come onto questions such as difficulty levels, costs, and job opportunities a little later in this guide.
Each of these exams has very well-defined objectives. They are each concerned with foundational concepts, albeit linked to very different subject areas. Because they are so different, there is no ‘either/or’ dilemma and no danger of accidentally taking one when you should have taken the other. In fact, for an entry-level student who is keen to establish their credentials in networks and cyber security, BOTH exams may be worth considering.
While these are both junior certifications, their recommended experience, and credentials differ.
There are no formal eligibility requirements for the CCNA certificate; i.e. you don’t have to have any other type of certification already to take the exam. However, Cisco does recommend at least one year of experience in deploying and managing Cisco solutions.
If you lack this specific experience, then don’t be discouraged. Online courses are a highly effective way of gaining the background knowledge you need in preparation for the test.
There are no formal eligibility requirements to sit the Security+ exam. However, as a non-essential recommendation, CompTIA suggests you have at least two years of experience in IT administration with a security focus.
As a soft requirement, CompTIA recommends a foundational networking certification. Of course, they recommend their own Network+, but the CCNA is another valid option to satisfy this recommendation. Again, it is not required, but highly suggested.
This all comes down to those ‘soft’ recommendations. CompTIA’s suggestions for recommended work experience are more substantial than Cisco’s. Fortunately, however, you can compensate for any absence of in-the-field experience for both exams with the right preparation courses.
Both of these are entry-level exams, although neither could be described as quick and easy to prepare for. There’s a lot of information to cover in each certification.
CCNA requires you to have a good knowledge of fundamental networking topics such as the role of different network components, access, connectivity and security.
It’s also important to note that this is a vendor-specific certification; i.e. it’s testing your familiarity with a particular type of environment. So in addition to broad concepts, there is also a considerable amount of Cisco-specific information for you to process and learn.
You will, for instance, need to demonstrate your ability to use Cisco IOS commands for configuring this vendor’s components in a simulated environment. Likewise, for questions linked to the configuration of Cisco’s own management automation tools and software modules, you’ll need to have an understanding of basic scripting languages.
The Security+ exam is designed to test your foundational knowledge across a broad range of cyber security topics. The scope is wide but be reassured that this is an entry-level exam. So long as you are willing to put in the hours of study, you should be well-equipped for success.
Those hands-on Security+ PBQs we mentioned earlier require plenty of practice. Remember that CompTIA doesn’t just want you to learn about cyber security concepts; it wants you to get used to applying them in real life. See the example below.
Past candidates may warn you about CompTIA’s unfortunate habit of phrasing questions in a confusing way. The tip here is always to read the questions carefully to make sure you’re certain about what they’re asking.
If you would like further information on what to expect, check out our recently updated Security+ Cheat Sheet, and our article, 10 Tips to Pass the CompTIA Security+ Exam on Your First Attempt.
This is another tough one to call because once again, the focus on each exam is so different.
In terms of subject matter, CompTIA requires you to ‘go big’; i.e. to study a wide range of topics surrounding the whole area of cyber security. With CCNA, your focus is much narrower; however, you're drilling deeper into the subject and will be expected to know more detailed information relating to the Cisco ecosystem.
Perceptions of difficulty differ from student to student. On the whole, though, we think that more people will find CCNA tougher than Security+.
To try and produce a useful like-for-like comparison, we’ve carried out an up-to-date search of jobs via Indeed in the United States where each certification was mentioned in the job spec. We also searched for jobs where both certifications were mentioned. Here’s what we found:
There are currently just under 11,000 opportunities listed.
The majority are for network engineer, technician and IT support roles. Most tend to be for fairly junior positions. This is to be expected, as the further up the chain you go, the more likely the CCNA requirement is to be superseded by the need for more advanced accreditation.
A fairly typical posting is for an Entry-Level IT Support Associate. The job involves handling technical requests from other employees via a ticketing system. The salary is $32,000 - $37,000 a year.
Some of the employers posting appear heavily invested in Cisco architecture. For these, CCNA is predictably listed as an absolute requirement. One example of this is a position for a Junior Cisco Network Engineer, with a salary of $55,000 - $80,000.
However, many other postings specify their preference for a foundational networking certificate, and list CCNA as one of several options (often alongside the vendor-neutral CompTIA A+).
This goes to show that the CCNA certification isn’t just valued by companies with Cisco architecture. For entry-level roles, employers often want to know that you understand the basic principles linked to network engineering. Regardless of the exact type of components you’ll be working with, CCNA is a good way of demonstrating this.
Tip: for a side-by-side view of networking accreditations, check out our Network+ vs CCNA 2023 guide.
There are currently just over 8,000 opportunities listed.
As with CCNA, there are many roles along the lines of junior network engineer, technician and IT support. There are also a high proportion of junior roles where the tasks involved are more security-focused, such as assistant security analysts and information security administrators.
One typical example for a junior role is of a junior security administration analyst for a bank. The job involves ensuring the bank’s information security program meets regulatory standards and establishing compliant systems access rights for staff. The salary is $46,000 per year.
Combined CCNA and Security+
There are currently 1,269 jobs listed where employers list both CCNA and Security+ as required or desirable
These tend to be quite wide-ranging support roles that involve elements of network performance management, alongside security monitoring.
A fairly typical example is a network service technologist. The employers want someone to maintain the network, including routers, bridges and network connections. The applicant will also be responsible for threat monitoring, and helping develop safe usage and incident response policies. The rate is $71,000.
CCNA just beats Security+ due to the greater volume of job adverts that specify it.
However, if you are interested in roles that combine elements of network maintenance and security monitoring, BOTH certifications deserve consideration.
Cost and Recertification
Each exam has its own initial cost and specific requirements to maintain. Let's see how these compare.
The CCNA certification exam costs $300 per attempt.
The certification is valid for three years. After that, you have the option of recertifying, either through a single activity, or multiple ‘Continuing Education’ steps.
For the single activity, you can
- Retake the CCNA exam, or
- Obtain a higher level Cisco exam.
The multi-step recertification process requires you to earn credits via Cisco’s Continuing Education Portal. For this, you will be presented with a list of eligible activities through the Cisco Continuing Education platform, e.g. Cisco live technical sessions, bootcamps, seminars, and certain industry events. CCNA recertification requires you to accumulate 30 CE points.
The Security+ certification costs $392 per attempt.
The certification is valid for three years. After that, you must renew either by retaking the exam or earning educational credits, referred to by CompTIA as continuing education units (CEUs).
In broad terms, CEUs can include taking other security-related courses, earning certifications, and attending conferences and other industry events. You need to earn 50 CEUs to recertify via this route.
It is also possible to renew your Security+ accreditation by earning a more advanced CompTIA certificate, such as Pentest+ or CySA+.
If you renew Security+ by earning a more advanced certificate, there is no additional recertification fee. If you renew using non-CompTIA certifications, renewal requires a $150 fee.
This comes down to numbers. The validity periods and recertification processes are similar for both certifications. However, CCNA is a less expensive exam to take.
CCNA vs Security+ - The Final Verdict
As we’ve seen, Security+ vs CCNA is a very tough comparison to make.
With other side-by-side evaluations - CCNA vs Network+ or SSCP vs Security+, for instance - we are talking about certifications that cover broadly similar subject areas. Making the right choice involves understanding the objectives and level of complexity for each one, and comparing them to your actual career goals.
With CCNA vs Security+, we’re looking at two very different types of certification.
So here’s our verdict. If you are interested in an IT-related career, foundational knowledge of networking AND cyber security should be a top priority. These are both equally valuable certifications to have.
But let’s say you are just starting with training for junior or entry-level IT jobs. What should be your next move? CCNA or Security+?
Whatever specific field you’re interested in, a good foundational knowledge of networking is a really useful building block. It gives you context. So even if you are really interested in things like penetration testing and cyber attack responses, it’s always a good idea to nail down your knowledge of network architecture first.
Employers recognize this too. That’s why, even for junior roles with a heavy emphasis on cyber security, you’ll very often see a requirement for certification in networking, with CCNA being one of the most sought-after ones.
So, we recommend that if you are interested in CCNA and Security+, do CCNA first.
Both CompTIA and Cisco allow you total freedom in how you prepare for your exams. At StationX, we provide courses and preparation materials designed to ensure you are fully prepared for the Security+ and CCNA exams.
To get your prep off to the right start, check out our CompTIA courses and preparation bundles and our CCNA preparation resources, all of which are available in our Member Section.