Reflections on Linux Certifications

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Certifying for the Linux platform is becoming more and more important for system administrators. As businesses continue to not only recognize, but also prioritize, open source software throughout their infrastructure workers are often tasked with proving their knowledge. While certifications in the Linux community have never held a position of any real importance for junior through to mid level administrators, ongoing competition amongst technicians along with corporate “bragging rights” (think the ability to put XXX certified on their advertisements) have brought certifications back to the forefront.

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There are several large companies which publish their own certifications: Redhat, Novell and Canonical just to name a few. There are also a handful of “independent” bodies which provide neutral validation as well (Linux Professional Institute and CompTia). Some of these certifications are well documented and resources are easy to find. For others, such as the Ubuntu Certified Professional, available resources are very limited (NOTE: easily available resources are considered to be local book stores like Indigo/Chapters, online sellers such as Amazon.ca, and websites/tutorials). The purpose of this article is to give some feedback on those certifications which I have obtained and to give some insight without violating the certification agreements I have signed.

I should start off by saying that I have worked as a Linux Administrator for almost four years now. I worked for a major movie studio for three of those years and now work for a company which produces and supports financial software. I have two undergrads and a masters from university (aside from a minor in computer science the degrees are irrelevant) as well as a two year college diploma in Networking. I have passed certifications from LPIC, Cisco, CompTia, Canonical and Novell. I have been using Linux as my only operating system since about 2005 but, as we all do, I continue to bump into Windows from time to time. The reason for stating this is to give the reader a point of reference to consider while reading these reflections. I am not a guru but I am not an absolute beginner either. If you are similar to myself, you may find yourself saying “of course its easy for the author they have X amount of experience”. Hopefully this disclosure will give you a sense of what challenges may be waiting for you in your certification journey.

Linux+

In general I have gained a lot of knowledge through studying for the certifications. Although my experience has not been the same from all vendors. Starting with the Linux+ (keep in mind that this is before they were “powered by LPI”), I found the required knowledge very very archaic. It was interesting from a historical perspective but on a practical level, so much has changed that most of the information in the study guides were far outdated. It touched on everything from LILO (who really uses it any more?) to any number of things which are not required by any modern system (file system tuning for ext2 etc.). While there may be some justification for this antiquated knowledge, in general I found it far too outdated to be useful. Bear in mind though, that LPI is now working with CompTia to raise the quality of testing.

LPIC Logo

LPI certifications were very informative and there were a lot of things which I learned simply because I had never had cause or inclination to study. Particularly for those who are less experienced working with run levels, dmesg and a handful of other things which go mostly unnoticed to the average user, the LPI level 1 exam forces you to become more familiar with not just how the system works but also why (granted most the “why” has historical roots).

In addition, it does a fairly good job of working with both the RPM (Redhat Package Manager) as well as Apt so providing a cross section of the major package managers. The thing I found interesting was that while they are weighted the same on the objective list, I found that there was, in my experience, what seemed to be more of a focus on RPM. Along those lines, I am disappointed that Zypper is not covered or mentioned really at all. For those who don’t know, Zypper is SuSe’s version of yum (a command line package manager). I have heard some say that this is because YaST is also accessible from the CLI, but in truth there was virtually nothing to do with YaST either. There are a lot of SuSe shops out there and to be fair representation of knowledge I feel that there should have been more of an effort to include some SuSe-related technology.

In general I felt that the LPI exams did a good job of covering both the basic tasks like moving, copying and deleting files, to using text manipulation tools such as frmt, expand, cut etc.. This is where I had to do a substantial amount of learning because while I am pretty handy with sed and awk, I had never used tr, nl, frmt or anything of that ilk. Those who have been using Linux for a while and yet have not bumped into these tools would do well to learn about them before venturing into the exam room.

Another thing of particular note was that command line printing (using lpr and other things) also took a decent amount of the focus on the exams which I took. This combine with command line email were other areas of difficulty of mine. I had never, to that point, needed to know anything about managing print queues from Linux nor had I really needed to know about exim, qmail or other Mail Transfer Agents.

Not surprisingly, networking is a very large part of these exams as well it should be. Unlike other sections, this was for me, the easiest. I think that this was due to the amount of experience I had had from work and from personal computers, setting up and experimenting with network settings. I do recall learning a decent amount about how NTP actually works but aside from that there were no major surprises.

In terms of study material, I read two books and did a substantial amount of reading on the internet. The most helpful resource by far was Roderick W. Smith’s LPIC-1: Linux Professional Institute Certification Study Guide. This book was extremely well laid out, easy to read and really did a thorough job covering the LPI objectives. I put this on my my Sony e-reader and studied on my lunch breaks and other periods of downtime. I browsed through several study guides and most of them looked helpful. In the end though I read through LPI Certification in a Nutshell, I think that the updated version of Smith’s book would have been sufficient enough on its own to prepare me for the LPIC.

Ubuntu

The Ubuntu Certified Professional exam was the hardest for me to prepare for. Partly because the study guides were a lot more sparse. I used a 2008 copy of Michael Jang’s Ubuntu Certified Professional Study Guide (Exam LPI 199). I did find this somewhat helpful but I still struggled to pass the UCP exam in-spite of reading this book cover to cover. Part of this was due to my own personal timing. I could not find an updated version of the book and so by the time I wrote my exam I was being tested on the 10.04 LTS as opposed to the 8.04 LTS that Jang’s book was written about. The UCP exams more than any other, had a significant amount of questions similar to “What command do you type to launch the GUI window for setting up printers”. This made it more challenging because if I were to configure a printer I would either do it from the CLI, or I would navigate to its’ tools through the menu not both. Granted there is some value to knowing the commands to launch the graphical tools (such as the ability to troubleshoot a failed program launch), I still struggled to care enough to remember system-config-printer as opposed to just going to System > Administration > Printing.

At any rate I spent a lot of time looking for largely non-existent resources. Through work though, I had access to various “video” series for UCP. I believe these were also narrated by Jang but I could not force myself listen to them. The narration was horrible! He was obviously reading the whole time, but his inflexion points were wrong and his tone varied at improper times. It reminded me of very early text-to-speech synthesizers. It was so bad that I tried to watch them muted but I got very little out of them. From what I did see, they seemed to be very in-depth and may prove invaluable for those just starting out. For those more seasoned Linux users, you may be better off hunting for the information on your own.

Overall I would say that the LPIC exams were well worth while especially from a personal-growth point of view. The older Linux+ from CompTia was much less helpful, but as previously mentioned they have joined with the Linux Professional Institute and as I understand it, passing one will certify you for the other, but check with LPI and CompTia for exact details. The UCP has the potential to gain momentum as Canonical continues to strike deals with the likes of Asus, Dell, System76 and other resellers to get Ubuntu pre-installed on many consumer computers.

There are many fine resources out there from books to websites as well as forums. There are a great group of guys over at the Alternative Operating Systems section at overclockers.com who are quite dedicated to helping and answering questions. Its a fantastic resource and those working towards professional credentials should definitely consider becoming apart of the community. Hope to see you there!

Stratus

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Discussion
  1. Thanks for this. I am a mediocre Linux admin, and am looking into a few Linux certifications. This article did great at explaining my options and how they compare! :)
    Well written, by the way. I didn't expect any less with that kind of education! :)
    I am glad you found it useful. Sometimes its hard to describe what to expect without violating the terms of the certification.
    As always feel free to ask whatever questions you might have and we will try and help you along
    Man till i read that i was so excited about my Linux+ courses... It will be good for me to increase knowledge but still wont be the same as another course i guess...
    Well like I said in the writing, I did my Linux+ March 2010, so the Linux+ may have changed by now.
    The best advice is to stay excited about your subject matter and you will always continue to learn
    Stratus_ss
    Well like I said in the writing, I did my Linux+ March 2010, so the Linux+ may have changed by now.
    The best advice is to stay excited about your subject matter and you will always continue to learn

    well after doing some research I learned that the A+ courses as an whole are kinda like remedial math in high school... Bare basics which is not bad because everyone needs basics but the videos are meant to be about old hardware which is kinda nice in a business standpoint because i know of alot of companies still using windows 2000... :facepalm:
    Nice article, good write-up for would-be Linux techies. :comp:
    But in my experience, being "Linux Certified" can today mean practically anything, it could be completely archaic knowledge that has no relevance in modern computing, or it could be the complete opposite, meaning "what do you do in the GUI to do X". As you said, you were used to setting up printers in the terminal, not the gui.
    That means that you could have succeeded in setting up a printer, but you would have failed the question on the test. Not a good test of abilities I would say.
    There is no equivalent to Cisco CCNA in Linux certifications, and by that I mean that there is a need to have a quantifiable baseline of knowledge that tells a prospective employer what the person actually can do.
    Also, as you said, there are many commandline tools that is the backbone of Linux administration, such as chmod/chown, grep, sort, awk, ps, df, du. That should be the basics, and just build on top of them.
    Just my 0.02€/Mats
    mats.lundqvist

    There is no equivalent to Cisco CCNA in Linux certifications, and by that I mean that there is a need to have a quantifiable baseline of knowledge that tells a prospective employer what the person actually can do.
    Also, as you said, there are many commandline tools that is the backbone of Linux administration, such as chmod/chown, grep, sort, awk, ps, df, du. That should be the basics, and just build on top of them.
    Just my 0.02€/Mats

    Actually the LPIC is seeking to be that baseline and has largely succeeded in rallying the community. Ubuntu, Novell and to a lesser extend RedHat all either have the LPIC-1 as their foundation or as a required part of their certification.
    Its just taking a while for the wider world to learn of them
    Although I can't speak from experience, I have talked to a good bit of people who can and from what I hear all the certifications are a joke.
    A lot more people have just the certifications than an actual understanding of the general thing they are certified in.
    I suppose the certifications can be regarded as a foot-in-the-door but should never me regarded as more than that in my uneducated elitist mind.:bang head
    This post is irrelevant.:blah:
    DISCLAIMER: I have not read the entire article yet, but still wanted to comment on some of the other comments so far. If I mention something already stated in the article...well....shoot me.
    Now...
    Actually the LPIC is seeking to be that baseline and has largely succeeded in rallying the community. Ubuntu, Novell and to a lesser extend RedHat all either have the LPIC-1 as their foundation or as a required part of their certification.

    As you mentioned in the article, LPI is now heavily involved in the Linux+ cert and they are actually tied to each other. If you take your Linux+ now, you can have it submitted to LPI to count as your LPIC-1. Sort of a twofer.
    Although I can't speak from experience, I have talked to a good bit of people who can and from what I hear all the certifications are a joke.

    My personal opinion would be to agree to that IT certs are mostly a scam these days. Really, what does it mean to be "certified" these days? It means you were able to pay someone to allow you to take a test and you were able to answer the majority of the questions correctly. With the exception of few cert exams (such as the RHCE), you don't actually sit down and prove that you can accomplish anything other than regurgitation.
    A lot more people have just the certifications than an actual understanding of the general thing they are certified in.

    Agreed. There are many people that simply memorize a brain dump and then regurgitate it for the exam, yet couldn't set up a server or configure a network to save their life. This lends more to the argument that certs are mostly a joke. Even worse, the same could be argued regarding an IT related college degree these days.
    I suppose the certifications can be regarded as a foot-in-the-door but should never me regarded as more than that in my uneducated elitist mind.

    Certifications for better or worse are still very highly relevant in the career world. Possibly even more so with the current state of unemployment where you now have people with a Masters and many years of experience competing for the same job and salary as those with a Bachelor's and minimal experience. I can speak from experience that I have recently been looking to change jobs and have seen many many positions where the employer either preferred or flat out required specific certifications. So as much as we love to hate them, they are still very much needed in the "real world".
    There is no equivalent to Cisco CCNA in Linux certifications, and by that I mean that there is a need to have a quantifiable baseline of knowledge that tells a prospective employer what the person actually can do.

    Yes and no. I would argue that CCNA is less about a "baseline knowledge" of what one can actually do and more name recognition, but still a mixture of both. In this regard, the closest thing for an employer looking specifically for a linux administrator would be one of the Red Hat certs. Usually, more specifically the RHCE. I have found that the majority of employers looking for a linux admin are looking for one to run a Red Hat environment and thus will get the same name recognition tingles from the RHCE as the network admin needing employers will get from a CCNA.
    Good read. Been thinking about doing Linux+ myself for awhile. Making me rethink it.

    In today's employment situation, the more certs the merrier. The Linux+ exam is rather cheap (for a cert exam) and will get you two certs for the price of one. It will also allow you to continue on with the LPIC-2 afterward to look even better. That said, I wouldn't put TOO much effort into studying for it as if it were some amazing top tier cert. If you don't have any others, there are certainly more important ones out there. The CompTIA certs are more like the low hanging fruit though.