Linux Certifications Pick Up Steam

Tests designed to set minimum standard for Linux administration

Linux certification has moved quickly from an interesting idea to an accepted means of ferreting out qualified staffers for newly emerging Linux installations.
With corporate Linux use climbing, finding admins who already know how to make Linux boxes sing has become critical. Although certifications are no substitute for reference checks and other traditional screening methods, a certification does at least document that a candidate has certain key skills.

In recent times, Linux penetration has climbed to roughly 25 percent of the corporate operating system base, edging up on Windows 50-percent penetration, according to Web Research data from last year.

The growth has come as corporate IT managers gain confidence in Linux’s capabilities. While IT execs have hedged their Linux bets in the past, implementing it only for front-end e-mail and Web servers, infotech managers are beginning to see more value in Linux’s open source model.

Responding to the growing demand for Linux smarts, a handful of certification programs have come into existence over the past two years. One of the most visible tests comes from Linux vendor Red Hat, whose Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) program is designed to parallel the widely recognized Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer program. Red Hat offers four days of training for the RHCE, followed by an intense one-day test to assess an admin’s practical knowledge of the system.

Linux-Certifications

In addition to answering a battery of OS-specific questions, RHCE candidates must figure out how to fix a crashed-out Linux server running in single-user or rescue mode, solving four different randomly chosen problems. Candidates must also perform a chosen Linux installation, bringing a specified set of services online; test administrators score the installation at 25 different points. “This is a very difficult exam,” says David Egan, an instructor with the IT training company.

Vendor-Neutral Approach

For engineers who want to take a vendor-neutral approach to Linux, a growing number of options exist. Among the most visible are efforts by the Linux Professional Institute (LPI).

The Linux Professional Institute is a nonprofit group with strong roots in the open source movement. The LPI execs are determined to keep test development in the hands of the professionals who use the system.

“We work with third-party vendors, but we do not endorse and we do not do training ourselves,” says Evan Leibovitch, co-founder of LPI and president of the Linux support company Starnix. “The intention was to stay within the Linux model — to be a community organization which serves the community first.”

LPI’s certification tests are developed in close collaboration with server admins in the field. In fact, the tests are developed primarily by volunteers with strong experience and interest in the future of the Linux platform. Professionals are involved only at the final stage; consultants skilled in general test procedures help LPI select the questions best suited to measure a candidate’s abilities.
To gather additional test materials, the nonprofit solicits comments from Linux developers through Linux-related e-mail lists and other public forums. All told, about 1,200 developers and admins have written LPI to offer feedback and pose questions.
Based on that input, LPI intends to develop three levels of certification. Its first-level exams, which just hit the streets, cover junior-level systems administration. The second-level tests will cover more senior administration issues. By the third level, admins will choose from a few specialized options, allowing them to be certified in such areas as Web serving and integration with Unix and Windows systems. “The exact nature of the third-level tests hasn’t been determined yet,” Leibovitch says.

More Than A Luxury

Although Linux certifications are growing, they’re still less popular than tests on competing platforms.

Ultimately, Linux certifications will clearly find a place in corporate life, offering a dose of security in a rapidly changing world of OS management. If nothing else, Linux-certified admins have managed to impress a tough, IT-savvy audience at least once, Egan notes.

“If you have passed this exam, you have proven to a peer that you truly do know most of the standards and concepts of Linux and you know how to do an installation for all of the standard services,” Egan says. “A candidate couldn’t come in off the street and have memorized the commands.”
The day is quickly coming when having Linux-certified developers on staff will be more than a luxury, suggests Jim Williams, director of the network consulting company 13x. Williams, who has been in the networking business since 1988, remembers when Novell certifications were key, but today, he says, only 0.1 percent of his work is Novell-related.

Today, he is shifting away from Windows Server work and toward Linux. If a potential hire shows up with a Linux certification, Williams says, he may not hire that person automatically but he is sure to take a look.
“Linux is now probably 50 percent of my business, and by next summer I expect it to be 60 or 70 percent,” he says. “Microsoft will never go away, but as Linux matures, I’m able to do more and more with it, and replace Microsoft as much as possible.”

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