Breaking the Code on Security Certs

How to decipher key differences among CISSP, CISA, CISM and GIAC.

GSEC, CNSP, CISSP, Security+, CISA, CISM, GCWN, GCFW, GCUX and so forth: The list of security certifications is so long it could squash a router.

As if proliferating certifications werent enough to confuse IT professionals, recent cat fights among cert providers have made it worse. Witness the recent charge by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium—ISC2—against the Information Systems Audit and Control Association & Foundation. In November, ISC2, which issues the CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) cert, charged that ISACAs new CISM (Certified Information Security Manager) certification was too similar to the CISSP, that it would confuse the market and that it would force security professionals to obtain multiple credentials.

With such a plethora of competing certifications, its understandable that IT workers could be baffled about which security cert to pour their blood, sweat, tears and cash into. The good news is that, despite all the designations, three major vendor-neutral sources are responsible for most of the important security certs on the market: ISC2, ISACA and The SANS Institute, whose certifying arm is the GIAC (Global Information Assurance Certification). Here is a peek at those three bodies and their certifications, as well as feedback from hiring managers.

The Golden CISSP

ISC2 calls its CISSP the gold standard of security certifications, and IT managers tend to agree. The Quarterly Hot Technical Skills & Certifications Pay Index 2002 survey compiled by Foote Partners LLC, a New Canaan, Conn., research company that follows IT salaries and bonus pay, showed that CISSP holders last year earned a median salary premium of 11 percent—one of the highest bonuses tracked. CISSP also had the No. 1 annual growth in premium pay, jumping 38 percent in one year.

Typical of the IT executives who put enormous stock in the knowledge and skills of CISSP holders is Paul Mueller, vice president of technology services for Schneider National Inc., the largest truckload carrier in North America. Like most IT execs, Mueller views certs as simply one component of an individuals background. With that said, however, he admitted that certifications can influence decision making when hiring and that the CISSP designation carries more weight than any other security cert.

"I think its a case of the time, effort and commitment necessary to acquire the certification, as well as the degree of difficulty," said Mueller, in Green Bay, Wis. "The testing is quite rigorous, and the breadth of knowledge that is necessary to effectively pass the exams and secure the certification is pretty broad."

The breadth of knowledge covered by the CISSP is indeed broad: "2 inches deep and a mile wide," said Alex Bradstreet, senior IT consulting manager for Baker Newman & Noyes LLC, an accounting firm in Portland, Maine. Bradstreet received the CISSP in November 2001. Rather than covering technologies in-depth—as the GIAC certs do—or focusing on security management—as does the CISM—the CISSP focuses on best security practices, appropriate security controls and the business rationale behind those controls.