Solutions Architect c01 c02
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Should I take the AWS SAA-C01 or SAA-C02?

Julie Elkins
Julie Elkins

If you’re getting ready to test for your AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate certification, you currently have two test choices: the shiny, new SAA-C02 exam or the soon-to-be-retired SAA-C01. I’ve taken both exams, and I know many are curious about which to take since AWS rolled out the new exam. What’s the difference between them, and which exam might be best for you based on your training and knowledge? Read on…

Test, test… 1, 2… 

If you’ve been in the process of prepping for cert exams, the past couple months have been a bit of a ride. First, we were holding our breath for AWS and Google Cloud to expand online cert testing. (In case you missed it, with AWS, you can now sit any exam remotely, while Google Cloud lets people sit a couple of exams.)

Then there have been all the changes around exam and certification expirations. Take the Certified Solutions Architect – Associate. …Please! (Cue rimshot.) But seriously, take it. It’s the top cloud certification for years running for a reason and it gives you a broad overview of all things AWS. Or, as AWS puts it, it “validates the ability to design and deploy well-architected solutions on AWS that meet customer requirements.” Not bad stuff to know!

Not sure how to plot your path to AWS greatness? Check out Which AWS certification is right for me? for help getting started.

Don’t change the subject

It’s worth noting that AWS doesn’t usually make huge changes to their exams. They also don’t usually update the exam code. So you’d be right in assuming that while the subject is basically the same, the new exam brings with it a shift in focus.

What’s AWS have to say about the new exam? “This new exam version (SAA-C02) includes updated content across all domains as well as new objectives aligned with AWS platform innovations in categories such as databases, cost optimization, and security. AWS Certification regularly updates this exam to reflect the rapid pace of innovation on the AWS platform and the latest in best practices for architecting on the AWS Cloud.”

So what’ll it be? Old or new? Door one or two? Here’s the skinny on what to expect to help you decide which one might be right for you.

CSAA-C01or2

A tale of two tests

I sat for the beta version of the new SAA-C02 in November 2019 and the SAA-C01 in October 2018. To keep things relatively simple, I’m going to focus on the updated areas I saw on the new SAA-C02 exam.

Overall, I’d estimate a third of the new exam features new AWS services, resources, and tools. But I felt the rest of the exam questions seemed to have been re-designed to feature the architecture and implementation of AWS services and resources, rather than specific numbers and facts about AWS resources and services. On my beta exam, I saw questions much more focused on Cost Optimization, Security, Aurora, FSx, and the architecture of AWS.

Ready to get into the nitty-gritty? Let’s break it down with a deep dive into a few different areas of the exam.

Compute and Networking
  • I personally felt the networking questions were harder on the SAA-C02 than the older SAA-C01.
  • I saw a heavy focus on understanding High Availability and how to implement it in your designs. There were also questions around how to secure multi-tier architectures, along with a few questions on scenarios for high-performance computing. Specifically, I saw questions with VPN and Direct Connect regarding not only high availability but also knowing the performance of each and how to provision both. There was also more depth on VPC Endpoints, so knowing the differences between Interface Endpoints and Gateway Endpoints, but also how to use both in your designs.
  • I had one question on my beta exam on Resource Access Manager (RAM). So I’d make sure to understand what RAM is, how sharing works, and the limitations of RAM. I also had a question on Private Link and the AWS Global Accelerator, which I’ve never seen featured in the SAA-C01.
Storage
  • I had more S3 questions on my beta SAA-C02 exam. Make sure you know S3 storage classes and how the storage classes would work best for specific scenarios. I also had more S3 performance questions, and S3 encryption was featured more prevalently, which I think goes along with the new updated exam adding more focus on security. I also had a question around S3 Events, which I hadn’t seen on the SAA-C01.
  • Another thing on the SAA-C02 exam that I had not seen on the SAA-C01 exam was FSx. Make sure you have a solid understanding of what FSx is and when you would use it.
Databases
  • I saw a huge shift in the amount of Aurora questions on my beta exam than on the older SAA-C01 exam. This shift was specifically around Aurora Serverless and the high availability that Aurora and Aurora Serverless provides. I’d recommend understanding the different architecture behind RDS database instances and Aurora database instances. Also, I saw more DynamoDB questions around the performance of DDB and DDB streams are.
IAM and Accounts
  • I didn’t see much of a change under IAM from the SAA-C01 to the SAA-C02, but I did feel that AWS Organizations and Cognito were featured more.
Application Services
  • I didn’t see a big change for this category either. I’d recommend knowing SQS at a high level and understanding that SQS is great for decoupling architectures so your designs are not dependent on each other. I had a harder question on SQS versus Kinesis, so understand both and how they can work together.
  • Let’s jump back to S3. For the SAA-C02, make sure you understand how to architect high availability regionally versus globally. I had a few scenario questions around this design, so for global high availability we could use S3 Transfer Acceleration, Cross Region Replication, or CloudFront with S3.
  • I did see a much heavier focus on Route 53, so make sure you understand what it is, how it works, and how Route 53 integrates with other services — plus latency for Route 53 routing.  Also new for the SAA-C02, I had a scenario question on Amazon MQ.
Disaster Recovery and Migrations
  • On the new exam, I saw a few questions on the Database Migration Service (DMS) along with a question on AWS DataSync.
Security
  • I want to mention Security specifically as a category because the security coverage seemed to have more focus on the Web Application Firewall (WAF). And there was definitely more AWS Key Management System (KMS), so understand KMS and the compliance levels it has.
Cost optimization
  • Finally, I want to mention Cost Optimization. I saw a heavy focus on my beta exam around all aspects of cost optimization and how to design cost-optimized architectures. I’d definitely take some time to know what AWS services can help you use cost-effective resources and cost optimize your architectures.

Which exam is best for you?

I personally always recommend taking the latest version of an exam. But either will give you a highly sought-after certification that’s valid for three years. Whichever exam you choose, with the right plan of attack and some preparation, there shouldn’t be too many surprises.


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