Linux Certification: Vendor-Specific or Vendor-Neutral?

Thursday Jan 18th 2007 by James Maguire
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Plenty of organizations offer Linux certification, with some geared for a specific flavor and some focusing on Linux overall. What’s the best option?

Talk to anyone who follows hiring trends in IT and they’ll tell you the same thing: having Linux proficiency is growing increasingly important in getting and keeping a job in IT.

From sysadmins to help desk workers to database miners, knowledge of open source has moved from being a cutting-edge “gee whiz” skill set to a must-have tool for IT staffers.

Naturally, this increases interest in Linux training programs. It’s often said that “you can’t get a job without experience,” but how do you get a foot in the door to gain that experience without demonstrating competency first?

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That’s where Linux certification comes in. These cert programs boost your chances of scoring one of the many jobs that now require Linux smarts.

But there’s an odd fact about Linux certification: there is no central organization that governs it. Linux itself, of course, is not “owned” by anyone, so no one company or organization has the final say about certification.

Consequently, there have sprung up several organizations and companies that offer Linux certification, all of whom are happy to take your money, test you, then award you a nice piece of paper that says you know something. One certification company even gives you a lapel pin if you pass the exam.

(You know you’re a geek if you wear a lapel pin that tells the world you passed a Linux test. Still, while it won’t help you get a date, it might help you get a job.)

Given all the competing choices an IT staffer has when selecting a certification program, what’s best? Is it more advantageous to earn a vendor-specific cert, or one that demonstrates overall Linux proficiency?

To answer that question, Datamation spoke with representatives from four leading Linux certifiers: Red Hat, Linux Professional Institute, CompTIA, and SAIR Linux GNU. As you’ll see, the programs, prices and approaches are as different as the organizations themselves.

The final answer as to which is the "best" Linux cert depends, of course, on what stage you are with your career, and what you plan to do in the future.

Take a look at these leading Linux certification programs:

Red Hat

Linux Professional Institute

CompTIA

SAIR Linux GNU

Red Hat: North American Market Leader

It’s often the case that when an IT pro decides to earn a Linux cert, they choose Red Hat’s program, chiefly because it’s the dominant Linux distro in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, this is a choice that Randy Russell, Red Hat’s Director of Certification and Curriculum, agrees with wholeheartedly.

“Overwhelmingly, Red Hat is the choice in production environments,” Russell says, while freely conceding his bias. “Simply by virtue of our market share, we are the enterprise leader.”

Moreover, he observes, there’s no such thing as a vendor-neutral Linux installation. Companies commit to a given flavor (or in some cases a few flavors), but learning about “generic” Linux won’t prepare a tech pro for the real world, he says.

Additionally, Russell points out a feature of Red Hat certification that gives it clear bragging rights: the exams are performance-based. Unlike many cert tests, which are multiple-choice, the Red Hat exam requires test takers to perform actual tasks in a real server/PC environment.

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Multiple-choice tests, “are notoriously susceptible to things like ‘brain dumps’ and ‘item leakage,’” he says, meaning the questions are publicly available and therefore are too easy to be meaningful. “When it comes down to it, you can make a trip down to Barnes and Noble and buy a book off the shelf that essentially will get you through those questions.”

In contrast, that fact that Red Hat's exams force applicants to, for instance, actually configure a Web server with a given set of criteria makes it far more challenging – and so employers put more weight on it, Russell says.

The relatively low percentage of students who pass the Red Hat test suggests the exam is truly a tough one: only a little over 40 percent of test-takers pass the exam the first time, Russell says.

Indeed, Red Hat states that its tests “cannot be prepared for by training [studying books] alone.” Hands on experience is needed to pass the exam. IT workers are advised to spend time in a Red Hat environment before the test. (Some tech pros even buy their own cheap x86 box to help prepare themselves.)

But what about the IT staffer who has no access to a Red Hat environment?

For these workers, Red Hat offers a series of training courses that take place in hands-on, technical environments. The company has about 40 different training-testing locations in North America, with many around the world.

There are four types of Red Hat certification:

• Red Hat Certified Technician (RHCT)
This entry level cert demonstrates competency on single system administration.

• Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE)
The term “RHCE” is often found in job ads – this cert is truly a door-opener in the working world. The RHCE cert requires everything that the RHCT does, along with deeper knowledge of services and security.

• Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA)
Earning this cert requires five extra exams on top of the proficiency required for RHCE. The emphasis is on planning expertise at the enterprise-wide level.

• Red Hat Certified Security Specialist (RHCSS)
Like the name suggests, this cert is all about keeping your system locked down and airtight.

The courses Red Hat offers to prepare for these exams are structured at various levels. The lowest-level class is designed to educate someone with no Linux experience at all, so some IT pros won’t need to start at the bottom.

The course level at which a student needs to start affects how much they’ll need to spend on training. If no Linux training at all is required, an IT pro can come in and take the test without any classes. The cost for the RHCE exam is $749; the lower-level RHCT is $349.

But many IT staffers will need classes. To earn the RHCE, Red Hat offers a series of three courses, each costing $2,298, with a bundled price that includes the exam for $6,336. This complete program requires three weeks of full-time work (plus the study outside of class that many students will need to ace the final exam).

Russell stresses that this dollar amount does not come with a guarantee that a student will earn the certification. Simply put, the program is challenging.

“We don’t target a particular pass rate, we don’t try to make it hard or easy,” Russell says. “There’s a set of things we think you need to know, and we measure them harshly and unambiguously.”

However, he adds, “Lest people get too discouraged, our numbers suggest that people have a pretty good success rate on subsequent attempts.”

For those students who require extra study after failing the test – or for experienced Linux admins who don’t need much training before the test – there’s a fast-track course that costs $2,798, including the exam.

Take a look at these leading Linux certification programs:

Red Hat

Linux Professional Institute

CompTIA

SAIR Linux GNU

Linux Professional Institute: Popular Global Choice

Linux Professional Institute (LPI), a non-profit organization based in Canada, is one of the world’s leading providers of Linux certification. Unlike Red Hat, LPI’s program is “vendor independent,” meaning it doesn’t focus on a specific distro.

LPI’s testing “applies to any vendor-specific technology,” says Jim Lacey, CEO of LPI. “The difference is that we test your skills at the command line. So there’s less testing on specific types of GUI tools that are different between SUSE Novell, Red Hat, Red Flag, etc.”

“What we truly test is your knowledge of Linux itself.”

The LPI cert is particularly valuable for those individuals who need to support many different Linux distros, he says. LPI “is a bit of a Switzerland,” in the world of Linux, in that it takes no stand for or against any specific platform.

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“If you’re in a Red Hat-specific shop, and maybe that’s all you’ll ever deal with, certainly the RHCE would be a good thing to obtain,” he says. “However, as Linux becomes more of a commodity, you’re starting to see many different skills that are necessary.”

In other words, “Even in you’re in an all Red Hat shop, you may see other technologies enter the fray as time goes on.”

The LPI tests are multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank. Lacey is well aware of the criticism of multiple choice tests, and how performance-based testing is seen as superior by some. However, “the truth of the matter is, we spend an inordinate amount of time [going through] performance-based exams ourselves,” to write the multiple-choice test.

“What it all comes down to is, whether or not your exam is based on a job task analysis (JTA), and ours is,” Lacey says. Input to this JTA comes from tech employers in major cities across the globe, he says. “So when we release an exam, it’s very specific to the needs of the industry, and it truly measures your skills – there’s no way you can study for our exams and ‘spec and dump’ the information. You truly have to know the technology.”

More people have taken the LPI Linux cert exams than other type of Linux cert, Lacey claims. By his count, some 35,000 people have earned LPI certs.

The tests are given in all Thomson Prometric and Pearson VUE centers worldwide, with more than 7,000 locations across the globe. LPI has established a global master affiliate network, so it gives the test everywhere from Delhi to Beijing to New York to Silicon Valley. The LPI program is sponsored – that is, approved and recognized – by companies like IBM, Novell, Turbolinux, HP, and Intel.

About 65% of test takers pass the LPI exams, Lacey says. The company strives to keep the pass rate between 60-70%. “As we rotate in new [test] items, we watch those items…and if an item does not do well, then we retire that item and replace it with a better, more specific item.”

The LPI certifications are as follows:

• LPI Level 1 (LPIC-1)
Requires proficiency at the Linux command line, ability to perform easy maintenance tasks, and knowledge of how to install and configure a workstation.

• LPI Level 2 (LPIC-2)
All the skill sets from Level 1, plus ability to administer a small to medium system; ability to plan, maintain and troubleshoot a small mixed network; and ability to advise management on automation and purchases.

• LPI Level 3 (LPIC-3)
Just added in January 2007, this includes all the skills from Level 1 and 2, plus: to pass Level 3, someone should have several years experience installing and maintaining Linux on a number of systems; have experience at the enterprise level; have knowledge of LDAP necessary to integrate Unix and Windows services; and be able to architect and build a full environment using Samba and LDAP.

The costs of getting certified at Level 1 is $300 (requiring two exams) and Level 2 certification is an additional $300 (also requiring two exams). Lacey expects the base cost of Level 3 certification, which is still brand new, to be $250, plus $150 each for a series of elective exams that would complement the core competencies of Level 3.

The cost of the study materials for LPI varies widely, because a student could theoretically use any number of study programs to develop the level of Linux proficiency needed to pass the tests.

Lacey stresses that the LPI exams incorporate feedback from many companies across the globe – 400 experts worldwide, he says. ‘We’re not telling the industry what to measure, we’re asking the industry what they need to measure.”

“Each geography [across the globe] has its own focus on a particular distribution,” he says. “As you travel around the globe, one of the big names may be prevalent, or they may not.” For example, “We’re seeing Asianux starting to take shape in the China-Japan-Korea triangle,” and he notes that the LPI cert is relevant for this distro. Similarly, SUSE is big in Germany, and, again, the LPI cert relates to this distro.

“And [LPI] is also applicable in North America, even though Red Hat is prevalent,” he says.

Take a look at these leading Linux certification programs:

Red Hat

Linux Professional Institute

CompTIA

SAIR Linux GNU

CompTIA: Laying the Foundation for a Linux Career

CompTIA recently surveyed its members who have earned certifications across many areas (not Linux specifically, but other tech disciplines) regarding what type of Linux certification is more desirable: a vendor-specific cert, or a vendor-neutral cert?

About 40% selected “vendor-neutral” Linux cert as the best choice, with some 50% selecting “vendor-specific” Linux cert as a better option. Most telling, however, is the fact that 85% chose “both” – earning both a vendor-specific and a vendor-neutral Linux cert – as the most desirable choice.

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CompTIA’s own certification, called Linux+, is vendor-neutral. “It makes sense for people to learn about Linux on a vendor neutral training and certification program first, before they make the platform decision,” says Carol Balkcom, CompTIA’s product manager

CompTIA promotes Linux+ as a foundational certification, the kind of cert a techie earns when they’re first getting their feet wet.

“Linux+ is for people with six to twelve months experience” in Linux, she says. Indeed, the Linux+ cert is positioned beneath LPI’s Level 1 exam, she says. While the Linux+ cert is for newbies, it does presume some basic expertise with computers.

“By the time they get to Red Hat, they should have had some experience with Linux already, and made the determination that they need to get that platform-specific certification.”

The cost for the Linux+ exam is $225, though CompTIA members get a discount. The training manual, to prepare for the 98-question multiple-choice test, retails for $65. The total number of people who have earned Linux+ certification is approaching 10,000.

In terms of helping an applicant find a job, the Linux+ cert opens doors for help desk and tech support positions, Balkcom says. Any employer “who needs help with Linux boxes, I think if they were evaluating resumes, then having the Linux+ on there would make a difference.”

Take a look at these leading Linux certification programs:

Red Hat

Linux Professional Institute

CompTIA

SAIR Linux GNU

SAIR Linux GNU: Multi-Vendor Linux Certification

SAIR Linux GNU is a Linux program owned by Thomson Prometric, the testing organization with offices across North America and the world.

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SAIR, instead of being either “vendor-neutral” or “vendor-specific” could be described as “multi-vendor.”

Bill Patton, the president of SAIR, says that its certification “goes into the configuration of the three different flavors of Linux: SUSE, Red Hat, and Debian.” In his view, there’s great value in a Linux certification whose focus is wider than a single vendor.

Plenty of employers agree. HP uses SAIR as one of its certification partners, Patton notes. And when Reuters made a systems switch, SAIR trained some 1,000 of its IT worker. SAIR has also trained employees of companies like FedEX and GlaxoSmithKline.

SAIR, which sells both the exams and courseware, requires a series of four tests for each of its certification levels.

• Level 1 – Linux Certified Administrator
Demonstrates proficiency in single server installation and configuration; requires in-depth knowledge of command-line arguments, network integration, and security and privacy issues.

• Level 2 – Linux Certified Engineer
Requires everything from Level 1, plus multiple server installation and configuration in a heterogeneous environment; also, proficiency in Apache Webserver, Samba, and Sendmail.

The combined cost for the course manuals and test fees is $900 for Level 1, with an additional $900 for Level 2. Or, an individual may chose to take just one or two of the exams within a given cert, which would lower their fees.

Level 2 certification “opens up a lot of jobs,” Patton says. Successful exams takers get both a wallet card and lapel pin proving they’ve passed. The Level 2 cert equates with Red Hat’s RHCE cert, he says.

Touting his program as any company president would, Patton claims that the SAIR cert is “Quite more comprehensive than the Red Hat or Novell,” certification.

Take a look at these leading Linux certification programs:

Red Hat

Linux Professional Institute

CompTIA

SAIR Linux GNU

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