After months of speculation, Microsoft finally released the exam titles and objectives for the Windows Server 2003 Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and MCSE tracks. As many of you know, Microsoft had initially mapped the Windows 2003 exams directly to the Windows 2000 equivalents. But the company abruptly pulled their Windows 2003 exam information from its Web site and shortly thereafter announced that the two tracks wouldn't be interchangeable.

The bottom line is that to upgrade, current MCSAs must take Exam 70-292: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSA Certified on Windows 2000, and MCSEs must take both Exam 70-292 and Exam 70-296: Planning, Implementing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSE Certified on Windows 2000. How does the new track look from the perspective of the uncertified? From this perspective, Microsoft has finally delivered by testing the real-world skills required of Windows administrators.

When Microsoft released Exam 70-214: Implementing and Administering Security in a Microsoft Windows 2000 Network, I argued that although the exam was much needed, the material it covered was more appropriate for the core exams and not for an elective, which people can skip in favor of easier exams. With the Windows 2003 track, Exam 70-214 is no longer an elective. That security content is now part of the core exams.

The new server exam, Exam 70-290: Managing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment, finally addresses OS updates (e.g., service packs, security patches, Windows Update). For Windows administrators, OS updates are a real-world concern that previous exams have largely ignored. Furthermore, Microsoft has split the Win2K track's network infrastructure exam, Exam 70-216: Implementing and Administering a Microsoft Windows 2000 Network Infrastructure, into two exams, Exam 70-291: Implementing, Managing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure and Exam 70-293: Planning and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure.

Exam 70-293's objectives incorporate much of Exam 70-214's material and goes much deeper into network security than any other exam in the Win2K track. Topics such as protocol security, data transmission security, secure network administration practices, wireless network security, public key infrastructure (PKI), security baselining, and planning and managing a security framework and update infrastructure never appeared as certification exam material, at least not as part of core certification objectives. As a result of such changes, we now have a certification that's more relevant for companies looking to hire Windows administrators.

Another nice feature of the Windows 2003 exams is that they appear to contain less redundancy, something that plagued the MCSE track going back to the early days. For example, the Win2K track's Exam 70-216 and Exam 70-217: Implementing and Administering a Microsoft Windows 2000 Directory Services Infrastructure had identical DNS objectives. The Windows 2003 track retains DNS coverage in Exam 70-291 but drops it from Exam 70-294: Planning, Implementing, and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Active Directory Infrastructure.

I'm encouraged that at a time when certification has reached a low ebb, Microsoft has come through with a Windows 2003 track that stands to be its most relevant yet. If you take the time to learn this track's material--and not just the shortcut methods you need to pass the exams--you'll be well prepared for real-world Windows 2003 administration. After all, the whole point of certification is to demonstrate that you have the skills you need to do the job. Microsoft takes a lot of heat for its repeated bungling of its certification program, but this time the company stepped up and got it right.