I wrote a column for Securityfocus some time ago that aired my concerns over GIAC dropping the practical portion of their certification process. That column resulted in a lot of feedback, with most agreeing about how GIAC bungled what was up till then, the best certification around.
GIAC was until then known for a stringent practical paper that had to be written prior to being authorized to write two online exams to complete the certification process. Well since the great hubbub that GIAC caused over dropping the practical, it has since been reinstated by Stephen Northcutt.
That said, you now have the option of doing it after you have written the online exams to achieve what is now called the Gold standard. Writing only the online exams will give you the Silver standard. It still does not have the same impact as requiring the practical be done first. It was via the practical that you showed prospective employers you could actually perform the actions. The vast amount of people will only write the exams in order to get the GIAC cert. What was accomplished by having the practical section placed after the exams was to lower the bar for people desiring a GIAC certificate. Not many people realize the difference between Silver and Gold. So with that in mind, why bother going for the Gold via a practical paper? Many managers and HR people do not know the difference.
Why is having a practical portion to a network security certification so important? Some excellent examples are seen in the archives for the pen-test list that Securityfocus hosts. There are posts there from people asking for tips on how to pen-test some pretty basic systems for one of their client engagements. I cringe to think of the poor customer who contracted out a pen-test of their network to a person who needs to ask for advice on how to do it, via a public mailing list. It really does boggle the mind. Had these people actually written a rigorous certification exam they might not be on the mailing list asking for help in pen-testing a client network.
So far I have only detailed what I perceive as the problem with network security certifications, and not yet given what I believe is the solution to it. The solution that I will detail shortly was borne out of several conversations I had with a friend who is also in the business of network security as a consultant and trainer, Mike Sues. We both came to the conclusion that it really isnt good enough to simply churn out endless certifications based on multiple choice questions. This proves little beyond your memorization skills. Classic examples of this were the horror stories of some years ago about the MCSE boot camps. Here you would have people certified as MCSEs after a week, with little prior experience, yet they couldnt install a printer driver. This is a perfect example of good memory skills in place of understanding the underlying theory.
This lack of understanding when it comes to network security theory, in its many forms, is crucial to why we have so many network security practitioners out there today who really should be unemployed. Network security theory comes in many forms as mentioned. It will range from understanding TCP/IP, to programming and scripting concepts, to network architecture and beyond. Like many other fields of study such as engineering, network security is composed of a huge body of knowledge. There are very few, if any, experts who know it all. Therefore, it only makes sense to understand the theory behind these various areas. It is only by understanding the theory that you truly understand something. An example of this is why it is good to deny inbound TCP Port 53 on your firewall. Regurgitating something that you heard on a course or in an IRC chat room isnt good enough. You would only know why the above example is a good firewall policy by having a passing knowledge of the DNS protocol.