Microsoft recently overhauled its entire professional certification program, and the new role-based model is definitely a lot easier to navigate than its predecessor. However, there's still a bit of haziness surrounding the difference between the two major non-developer paths for Azure professionals: Azure Administrator Associate and Azure Solutions Architect Expert.
At first glance, Microsoft seems to distinguish administrator and architect by relative level of professional experience: the Azure Administrator cert is considered 'Associate' level, while Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architects fall under the 'Expert' label. So, does that mean a cloud architect is just an administrator who got promoted?
And to make matters even more murky, no one seems to agree on exactly what these terms actually mean—Gartner even lists cloud administrator as a synonym for cloud architect and cloud engineer.
So what's the actual, real-world difference between Microsoft's Azure Administrator and Azure Solutions Architect certifications? Which one should you aim for to get the most possible benefit out of the process? Here's what you need to know.
I want to get Azure certified. Where should I start?
It depends. Professionals already working in an Azure role who simply wish to back up their skills with an official certification can explore the different options available and start working toward the relevant exams right away.
If, however, you're currently in one of the following situations, consider starting with the Azure Fundamentals learning path:
Just getting started with cloud concepts and don't have a clear idea of the specific role you'd like to focus your career on
Familiar with other public clouds but don't have any Azure experience
An on-prem sysadmin or architect preparing to transition into a cloud-focused role
Preparing for and taking the Microsoft Azure Fundamentals exam (AZ-900) will get you up to speed with the core concepts relating to Microsoft's cloud. Once you have this entry-level certification under your belt, you'll be better equipped to make a decision regarding your desired career path.
Part 1: Microsoft Certified Azure Administrator Associate
Starting May 1, 2019, you only need to pass one exam to earn this associate-level certification from Microsoft. AZ-103: Microsoft Azure Administrator combines the material previously covered by the AZ-100 and AZ-101 pair of tests.
What is a cloud admin?
If you're familiar with the day-to-day of a traditional on-prem admin, you probably already have a good idea of what that type of role might look like in a cloud-first environment. Per Microsoft's definition, cloud admins are in charge of implementing, monitoring and maintaining Azure infrastructure. Their role spans the full gamut of cloud services, including those pertaining to compute, networking, storage and security.
Cloud administrators are responsible for keeping the company cloud up and running smoothly; their specific tasks can (and usually do) vary significantly from one day to the next according to immediate operational needs.
Key skills for cloud admins
The subject matter covered on the AZ-103 certification exam provides a good overview of the type of technical skills required to be a successful cloud admin. To ace the test—and land your dream job—you'll need to know how to:
Manage Azure subscriptions and resources. This includes basic concepts such as assigning permissions, configuring tags and policies, and understanding the different ways to analyze resource consumption and costs.
Implement and manage storage. You'll need to familiarize yourself with services such as Azure Data Graph and Azure Data Box in addition to knowing how to configure storage accounts and implement backups.
Deploy and manage virtual machines for Windows and Linux
Configure and manage virtual networks and implement advanced virtual networking
Manage identities using Azure Active Directory
Evaluate and perform server migration to Azure. It's never a good idea to simply take an on-prem infrastructure and drop it in the cloud as-is.
Implement and manage application services. Here's where you get to learn all about serverless computing, one of the hottest cloud-related buzzwords right now.
Secure identities. Are you familiar with MFA? Great—now, it's time to meet a couple more initialisms in the rights-management game: RBAC and PIM, two methods for managing access to sensitive cloud data on a need-to-know basis.
If you have prior experience administering on-premises infrastructure, you already have a solid foundation to build on. As you can see, there's quite a bit of overlap with your current skillset. The general purpose of an admin doesn't really change in the cloud, but the day-to-day tasks involved in the role are vastly different. Don't make the rookie mistake of assuming your on-prem skills will translate 1:1 into Azure.
Don't make the rookie mistake of assuming your on-prem skills will translate 1:1 into Azure.
Preparing for the AZ-103 exam
You can either study for your AZ-103 at your own pace for free, purchase a third-party training program, or take Microsoft's instructor-led approach.
I can't speak to the quality of paid study materials (if you've tried any of them, please tell us about your experience in the comments!), but I must say that Microsoft's shiny new Learn modules do a fantastic job covering the key topics you'll be tested on during your AZ-103 exam. Once you've completed the following five learning paths (which will take you roughly 32 hours to get through), you should be all set to ace your Azure Administrator certification:
Azure fundamentals (length: 9 hours 35 minutes)
Manage resources in Azure (length: 4 hours 15 minutes)
Administer containers in Azure (length: 2 hours 23 minutes)
Secure your cloud data (length: 6 hours 45 minutes)
Administer infrastructure resources in Azure (length: 9 hours 34 minutes)
Part 2: Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architect Expert
Azure Solutions Architect is the Microsoft-branded version of the cloud architect job title and its many variants. To earn this expert-level certification, you'll need to pass two exams: AZ-300 and AZ-301.
What is a cloud architect?
According to Gartner, cloud architects fulfil three main roles within their organizations:
Leading cultural change for cloud adoption. Cloud architects should be the foremost advocates for adopting a cloud-first mindset company-wide. Simply put: they're in charge of selling the cloud and its benefits to all business units—and making sure the outcome lives up to expectations.
Developing and coordinating cloud architecture. Just as traditional architects design houses according to spec, cloud architects are in charge of translating business requirements into the foundations of an ideal Azure infrastructure.
Developing a cloud strategy and coordinating the adoption. In addition to architecting the organization's Azure infrastructure according to business needs and industry standards, cloud architects are responsible for ongoing optimization and ensuring best practices are followed.
In other words, where the cloud admin takes on more hands-on, day-to-day operational tasks, cloud architects focus the bulk of their efforts on the big-picture side of bringing businesses into the cloud and championing best practices on an ongoing basis.
Key skills for cloud architects
A cloud architect should possess the following core knowledge and skills:
Collaboration and communication. All the technical prowess in the world won't get you very far as a cloud architect if you don't know how to collaborate effectively with other departments. A big part of the job involves coordinating between IT and business operations throughout the various stages of the cloud adoption journey. What's more, as cloud architect, you'll be in charge of 'selling' the cloud and its benefits to the organization at large, as well as ensuring that the infrastructure solutions put in place are able to deliver on those promises.
Broad technical knowledge. You'll need to master a wide range of technical concepts in order to gain the big-picture understanding required to succeed as a cloud architect. In addition to being familiar with the full scope IT operations—networking, identity management, virtualization, etc.—it's useful to have advanced knowledge of at least one of the following: Azure development, Azure administration, or DevOps.
Budgeting. Cloud architects aren't just in charge of the technical side of Azure infrastructure. They're also frequently the ones accountable for justifying cloud costs to the business and balancing performance requirements with budget caps. Be ready to brush up on your data analysis skills.
Governance. Good governance is vital to any organization's success in the cloud. As an Azure Solutions Architect, a large part of your role will involve building and implementing a governance plan that accounts for the full scope of your company's cloud journey.
Preparing for the AZ-300 and AZ-301 exams
To earn this expert-level cert, you'll need to first pass the AZ-300: Microsoft Azure Architect Technologies exam, then move on to AZ-301: Microsoft Azure Architect Design. If you're willing to go the paid route in order to prepare, Microsoft offers instructor-led training for both exams. You can also find a variety of third-party study resources online, such as PluralSight's popular video training series on becoming a Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architect.
You can also prepare for the exams at your own pace for free using Microsoft Learn.
AZ-300: Microsoft Azure Architect Technologies
This exam covers the basic hands-on technical skills you'll need as a cloud architect—the foundational stuff. If you're already familiar with the topics listed below, take the official AZ-300 practice test to identify any potential gaps (and see if you can get away with not studying).
Topics covered on AZ-300
Deploy and configure infrastructure (25 - 30% of the exam)
Implement workloads and security (20 - 25% of the exam)
Create and deploy apps (5 - 10 % of the exam)
Implement authentication and secure data (5 - 10% of the exam)
Develop for the cloud and for Azure storage (20 - 25% of the exam)
Related Microsoft Learn paths for AZ-300
Microsoft Azure fundamentals (never hurts to brush up on the basics!)
AZ-301: Microsoft Azure Architect Design
Here's where you'll be tested on core architect-specific concepts and skills. If you can master the following cloud design topics, you're well on your way to earning that sweet certification.
Topics covered on AZ-301
Determine workload requirements (10 - 15% of the exam)
Design for identity and security (20 - 25% of the exam)
Design a data platform solution (15 - 20% of the exam)
Design a business continuity strategy (15 - 20% of the exam)
Design for deployment, migration, and integration (10 - 15% of the exam)
Design an infrastructure strategy (15 - 20% of the exam)
Related Microsoft Learn paths for AZ-301
Azure Administrator vs. Azure Solutions Architect at a glance
Here's a quick recap of the main differences between Microsoft's Azure Administrator Associate and Azure Solutions Architect Expert certifications:
No matter which certification path you choose, one piece of advice will always apply: don't let yourself fall behind on industry news and best practices. The rate at which the world of Azure—not to mention cloud computing as a whole—is evolving is virtually impossible to keep up with unless you make a conscious effort to remain up to date.
Never stop learning! (Seriously.)
One of my personal favorite ways to stay in the loop is by reading the weekly Azure.Source digest on the official Azure blog. Fair warning: it might take a couple hours to get through each edition, but if you only have room in your life for a single source of Azure news, make it this one.
Happy studying, and good luck on the certification! Have any study resources or go-to sources for the latest Azure news? Share them in the comments!