In the past year, several new certification tracks have emerged that stray from the popular hardware and OS certification tracks (e.g., the MCSE). The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), the SANS Institute, and Cisco Systems, for example, have introduced new and credible security certifications. And you can now pursue a vendor-neutral certification path for wireless networking and several options for Linux certifications. Apparently, Microsoft's success with its certification program has spawned a new industry—certification.

I wonder, though, how many certifications we actually need. I hold the MCSE+I, the Microsoft Certified DBA (MCDBA), the MCSD, and the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) certifications. But more significant than the number of certifications is that I've maintained them for more than 7 years—and I know firsthand how much time, effort, and money it takes. Full immersion in Microsoft technologies has been the only way that I've been able to continue to pass tests that covered such a wide range of topics. Adding certifications that address security, Cisco, wireless, Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server), or Linux to my workload would be overwhelming.

However, today's networks consist of a patchwork of components from several vendors, which means that as an administrator, you must be knowledgeable about more than just Microsoft or Cisco products. You must be a jack-of-all-trades, which would seem to support the need for multiple certifications. The question then becomes how many certifications can you afford to maintain?

Perhaps this difficulty explains why, 2 years after the release of Windows 2000, the number of Win2K MCSEs remains a fraction of the total number of Windows NT 4.0 MCSEs. Many of us have had to turn our attentions to other technologies and haven't had the time to learn anything outside of the scope of our daily tasks. The Win2K MCSE exams cover a range of skills that far exceed what the typical administrator calls upon, so you must make time to study for the parts of the exams that don't relate to your day-to-day tasks. Most administrators decide that their time is better spent learning about other areas of their networks, not studying for MCSE certification exams.

Ultimately, whether you pursue a certification will depend on its value to you, your career, and your company. Earning Microsoft and Cisco certifications is an easy choice because those certifications are now prerequisites for many IT jobs. CompTIA's A+ and Network+ certifications are good choices for similar reasons. The rest of the certifications have yet to prove that they offer enough value to warrant the effort required to earn them. Your guess is as good as mine as to what will become the next "must-have" certification.