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.
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.
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.
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.
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!