How to hack the SAA-CO2: Solution architect associate exam in 2 months?

How to hack the SAA-CO2: Solution architect associate exam in 2 months?

Table of Contents: - Overview - COVID-19 Online Exam Experience - High level Tips - Low level Tips - Conclusion

Overview

Hi, my name is Kenny and I work for the fantastic ReeceConnect team. A bit of background of myself, I was a technical consultant (it’s like a really boring version of the solution architect role) in my previous job dealing with proprietary tech and I was itching to get back to software development again as that was my forte. That journey of wanting to go back to software development led me to reecetech.

Two months ago I was given the opportunity to prepare and get certified as an AWS solution architect (Associate) and I grabbed the opportunity. I have always been a sucker for technology and AWS is no exception, cloud technology will continue to play a pervasive and dominant role in our life whether we like it or not… so why not join them?

Learning the AWS solution architect course will not only give you a big picture view of AWS Cloud services but it will also help you to gain the skills necessary to design system architectures that maximise business values, taking into account the five pillars of the AWS well architected framework; operational excellence, security, reliability, performance and cost optimisation.

With that out of the way, let me share the tips I used to pass the exam on the first attempt with only 2 months of preparation (average 4-5 hours per week).

COVID-19 Online Exam Experience

Due to COVID-19, I had to take the test online. I signed up for the exam on AWS by choosing VUE online exam on May 1st, 2020. I initially had concerns because my internet connection is flaky sometimes but thankfully everything was fine on exam day.

The day before the exam, I did a dry run by running a system check (instructions are provided via email and through the Amazon certification website). The program did a check and went green, then it sent me a link for me to take photos of me, my ID and my room (front, back, left, right) on my mobile. Once that was done, I had to answer few questions and the program confirmed the readiness check as a success.

On exam day, thirty minutes before the exam, I followed instructions to sign in to the exam. VUE sent me a code on email and upon clicking a link, it activated the Vue checking process.

I had to take a picture of myself, my ID, my rooms. Once that was done, I waited for the proctor to contact me via chat on the app. I also took the time to kill all the apps (because the test will not run if any other app is running, to prevent fraud)

The proctor asked me to move my computer so that he can have a clearer view of my room and desk. Once he was happy, he initiated the test remotely on the Vue app.

I went through the questions methodically and completed all the answers in an hour and a half, I took fifteen minutes to review my answers and submitted the test.

The loading screen came up… and then few seconds later… the app confirmed that I have passed my test. I was thankful that my internet did not crash on me. What a relief that was. The experience was a bit nerve-wrecking, but thankfully everything went to plan in the end.

High level tips

A word of caveat before I share the tips, preparing for AWS solution architect exam is hard work (the tests can be brutal initially, but you get better) and there is no short-cut. The tips will help you to focus on the stuff that really matters but you still need to put in time.

  1. Learn from A Cloud Guru but don’t forget to read the white papers (the 5 pillars from the well architected framework), FAQs from AWS. Personally, I watched the videos for the harder concepts (Route53, VPC, Failover and scalability) at least twice. I took time to go to the AWS FAQs and digest some of the important facts. I summarised the important points by making notes (I learn better when I write down stuff). Test yourself by asking yourself questions.

  2. Practice the important concepts on AWS account (its free as long as you know what you are doing). For example, I hosted my own domain using Route53 and deployed some personal apps in EC2 instance to increase my understanding by actual immersion. Watching the videos and memorising will not really be that effective.

  3. Fail fast (in mock exams) so that you don’t fail the real thing. For this example, I signed up for Tutorials Dojo (https://tutorialsdojo.com/) to access 6 mock exams so that I can practice doing the exams. Make sure you are able to hit above 75% baseline (the passing mark is 73%).

Below is graph of how I fared across the mock exams that I took: statistics Note that the tests for tutorials dojo get progressively harder from 1 to 4.

If you don’t pass, rejoice! Learn from mistakes. Review the failed questions and try to learn from it. Each failure will lead to success..

  1. The SAA-CO2 exams have been updated to include AWS services that were introduced in the last 2 years. The good news is that most of this have been covered in the A Cloud Guru course. So make sure to prepare for those questions.

  2. Most of the questions in the exams are scenario-based with two or more answers. Make sure you read the questions carefully and scan for keywords such as “cost-effective”, “reproducible data”, etcetera etcetera. Eliminate the obvious wrong answers first and then focus on the possible answers. Sometimes an answer sounds almost right but if you look at it word for word, you will spot a word that invalidates the answer.

Low level Tips

  1. Know VPC like the back of your hand. Please make sure you try to create VPC from scratch in your test account or A Cloud Guru sandbox AWS environment. Make sure you know NACL, route tables, Internet gateway, public/private subnets and NAT gateway. Oh.. don’t forget https://cidr.xyz to learn how many IP addresses can go into a CIDR range e.g. 10.0.2.0/24 = 256 address, 192.3.4.132 = Fixed IP address, etc..

  2. Know the difference between S3 storage class. Very important!

  3. Know the difference between EBS types. eg. standard, IOP, throughput optimised, cold. Make sure you get a handle on IO vs Throughput. IO is important for intense transactional workload such as database where as Throughput is important for Data warehouse. Keywords to watch out for is “random read/write , large sequential read/write, frequent access, infrequent access” etc..

  4. Know the difference between storage types, S3, EBS, EFS, FSx for Lustre and Microsoft.

  5. Make sure you know auto scaling EC2 instance by heart.. launch group and auto scaling group. How to increase/decrease EC2 instances based on step scaling, simple scaling, scheduled scaling, predictive scaling, etc.. There were at least 2-3 questions on this from the top of my head.

  6. Very important to know on-demand, reserved, spot instances. Spot instances is good for workload that can be interrupted and is non-critical. Reserved is good for workload that is predictable and can not be interrupted. The questions are usually cost-driven and may contain keywords such “jobs can be transferred to another instance if the instance is terminated”.

  7. Load balancing concept is very important. Route 53, ELB such as application load balancer, network load balancer and to lesser extent Classic Load balancer. Specifically Route 53 routing type (simple, failover, latency, geolocation, geoproximity, multi/value, etc..), how health check works in load balancer, characteristics of each LB (ALB for http, Network for extreme performance over TCP/UDP, classic if you use classic EC2 instances, etc.)

  8. Database types (RDS, Aurora, DynamoDB and Redshift). Make sure you understand how to improve database performance through using read replicas, etc.. for Dynamo it is DAX. Make sure you know how multi-AZ failover works at fine-grained level. Remember if its RDS, always choose Aurora (and Aurora serverless if you don’t have data around the workload metrics), DynamoDB if you want to use no-SQL solution and Redshift for data warehousing

  9. It goes without saying that security is very important. Please make sure you understand IAM (like the back of your hands). Also, do study lots on how data can be secured using encryption. (in-transit, at-rest), whether keys are managed by AWS or customer.

  10. Cloud Watch, Cloud Watch Logs, Cloud Trail, X-ray. Please study these like a hawk. No exception!

  11. Lambda function. If there is a question about choosing the most cost-effective architecture that contains possible answers such as “use lambda function”, “use custom solutions in ec2”, “use ECS”. The answer is almost always serverless/lambda function hands down.

  12. Understand the difference between SQS, SNS, SWF, Lambda Step functions. I can guarantee you there is at least 2-3 questions on SQS. Please understand the characteristics of each one of these service. for e.g. SQS standard mode vs SQS FIFO mode. Why is there duplicate message in SQS? etc.

  13. Understand how to make solutions highly available by distributing the instances to multiple AZs and using load balancer to distribute workload to the instances. There are a few questions on this in my exam.

  14. Understand cluster, spread and partition placement groups to the point of knowing it by heart. Use cluster when nodes need to communicate to each other efficiently, e.g. HPC, use spread when a small number of critical applications cannot fail, use partition when you need to do large distributed and replicated workloads such as Hadoop, Cassandra, etc.

Conclusion

So what did I really learn from this solution architect course aside from the COVID-19 feel good factor?

Three takeaways: - Effective cloud (and non-cloud) design principles in creating architecture with respect to operational excellence, availability, reliability, security and cost optimisation. - I can deploy entire infrastructure, virtual data centers, serverless solution with just code. This was a dream ten years ago. - I understood what the cloud native technology is all about. It’s NOT just marketing hype.

With this knowledge, I am looking forward to going a little deeper with AWS certified developer course sometime later this year.

Thank you for reading, I hope you will enjoy your AWS solution architect certification journey as much as I do and ace the exam using my tips.