In my last commentary, I presented an overview of study materials that you can use to prepare for certification exams. Such materials include study guides, cram guides, and practice exams. However, the typical certification exam covers a vast array of information, and no certification study guide—no matter how well written—can delve too deeply into the material. You must consult alternative sources to gain depth.

First, consider what I call the overview books, which address the areas that network administrators and end users deal with every day on the job. Examples include the "Windows 2000 System Administration Handbook" (Prentice Hall, 2000) and "Mastering Windows 2000 Server, 3rd edition" (Sybex, 2001). The scope of such books, as with the study guides, is often broad, but they provide real-world examples that can help drive home the relevance of a particular topic. I highly recommend that you buy at least one of these overview references.

Next, turn to books that are specific to a particular technology or concept. Examples include "DNS and BIND, 4th edition" (O'Reilly & Associates, 2001) and "Windows 2000 TCP/IP Black Book" (The Coriolis Group, 2000). If you really want to understand the systems you're working on, you must know the systems' key concepts inside and out. Study guides and the overview books might address the overall topics, but they can't offer the kind of depth and detail that a book that's dedicated to a subject can offer.

Microsoft's resource kits include not only utilities that you'll turn to repeatedly in the real world but also some of the most instructive in-depth study material available. The "Microsoft Windows 2000 Server Resource Kit" (Microsoft Press, 2000) is the single most useful source of information for preparing for the core MCSE exams. The resource kit is available for free on the Microsoft Web site.

Finally, consult white papers and online articles. Requests for Comments (RFC) might be dry, but these are the documents from which all Internet protocols are born. You can also access a seemingly infinite number of free white papers, articles, and tutorials on the Internet. Go to your favorite technology provider's Web site and perform a search for the terms "whitepaper" and "white paper" to access interesting and free information directly from the source. My search at the Microsoft Web site, for example, uncovered a great resource: the Windows 2000 DNS White Paper .

These real-world resources are available for whatever exam you're preparing for. For Cisco Systems, Linux, 3Com, or any other technology, you can find overview books, in-depth books, and white papers that will contribute significantly to your knowledge. Don't rely on study materials alone to prepare for your career in IT.