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The Linux Professional

Why Certify?

by Jeff Dean

Welcome to The Linux Professional. Over the past few years, several Linux certification options have come to market, creating a new but somewhat cloudy landscape for professionals in search of professional credentials. In this series of articles, we'll take a look at current developments and trends in certification for Linux system administration. I'll share some of my certification experiences with you, and discuss evolving certification and training programs.

Linux Certification

LPI. Vendor-neutral; administered through regional centers. $100.

Red Hat Certified Engineer. Administered in Durham, N.C., and other centers. $749.

Sair Linux and GNU. Three levels, four exams each. $100 each.

Prosoft. System administrator test.

Until recently, few resources were available for those interested in the Linux job market. However, web sites such as and, along with a number of technical jobs databases, are making a Linux job search much easier. Of course, with wide media coverage, wild stock successes, and preinstalled Linux systems available from major manufacturers, Linux is no longer an obscure operating system, and more jobs are sure to follow. Coupling this with a worldwide shortage of IT talent, we could make a case that the Linux job market will eventually be a piece of cake for even the most inexperienced candidates among us. It seems, on the surface at least, that differentiating yourself from the other candidates for Linux-related positions may not be necessary.

"We're likely to see a surge in demand for Linux employees and a complementary increase in the Linux training and certification market."

In the Windows world just the opposite is true. Applicants holding a Microsoft Certified Software Engineer (MCSE) certification can expect to increase their chances of landing a job, and do so with better pay, than a similarly experienced non-MCSE. To satisfy the resulting demand, a huge market for training classes, books, exam prep software, and other resources has appeared. While we can't underestimate the influence of Microsoft's marketing muscle in creating momentum for MCSEs, the demand for Windows administrators is large in part because of the commodity nature of the Windows platform. On the other hand, in the traditional Unix market, I think it's fair to say that Solaris, HP-UX, AIX, SCO, and the other proprietary Unix operating systems are specialties. Finding expert developers and administrators for those OSs is a challenge, and the mentor/apprentice approach, with some vendor training and perhaps certification thrown in for good measure, is adequate to grow experts from within.

Right now, we can probably say that Linux is also a specialty, but in the future we'll probably see a shift in that thinking, and Linux will become a commodity product too. I hope that good Linux mentors will be around to develop future talent. However, we're likely to see a surge in demand for Linux employees and a complementary increase in the Linux training and certification market. The result may be a job market similar to the present one for MCSEs. With a bunch of resumes floating around HR departments, each with a Linux certification proudly displayed, what will become of resumes lacking that stamp of approval?

Linux Certifications

So just what does it mean to be "Linux certified"? Unix certification programs have existed for some time, mainly provided by Unix vendors. Neutral certifications have been a goal, but are also a hotly debated topic. The System Administrator's Guild, an arm of the USENIX Association, is laying the groundwork for a vendor-neutral and OS-neutral certification program, but it's a long way off. Time will tell if such a certification will serve the needs of commodity Linux deployment.

"The RHCE certification is thorough and practical, requiring the hands-on demonstration of non-trivial debugging and setup skills."

Red Hat Certified Engineer. A few Linux-specific certification programs are already maturing. Red Hat Software's distribution-specific Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) program has been very successful. From a personal marketability standpoint, the RHCE is arguably quite worthwhile, due to Red Hat's popular position in the Linux world and on Wall Street. Having attained the RHCE certification, I can attest that it is thorough and practical, requiring the hands-on demonstration of non-trivial debugging and setup skills. These features differentiate the RHCE certificate from other, computer-administered certificates. Unfortunately, due to the practical nature of the RHCE exam, it is not as widely available as its competitors. It is administered at Red Hat headquarters in Durham, N.C., and at a selected group of Global Knowledge testing centers. The RHCE exam costs US$749.

Wave/Sair. A distribution-neutral program you may want to consider is the Sair Linux and GNU Certification program. The Sair program certifies candidates in three levels: Administrator, Engineer, and Master Engineer, with four exams each, priced at about US$100 each. The first four exams are available now at Sylvan Prometric centers worldwide. While this program does not include the hands-on aspects of the RHCE exam, it is quite thorough, and like the RHCE has garnered significant interest in the press. It's also attracted corporate suitor Wave Technologies, one of the larger technical training vendors, who has inked an agreement to acquire Sair, Inc.

Wave will be continuing the Sair Linux and GNU Certification program through a new division of Wave Technologies. Clearly, corporate America sees an investment strategy in Linux certification. And while corporate acquisitions cannot be construed to predict a market reality, Wave's move cannot be overlooked.

Prosoft. A program from Prosoft Training offers a single exam to qualify as a Linux Certified Administrator. The exam is also delivered at Sylvan Prometric. It is similar to the basic Sair tests, but doesn't go into as much detail. This exam is coupled to Prosoft's Linux training program.

You might say the Linux Professional Institute's exam development is equivalent to the open source software model. Let's call it "community testing."

Linux Professional Institute. These programs offer credible certificates by successful companies. However, a new alternative also exists. In January 2000, the first exam from the Linux Professional Institute became available. The LPI certification program is unique in the marketplace for a number of reasons:

•  It is vendor neutral.
•  LPI is non-profit.
•  It has financial backing of significant corporate benefactors, including Caldera, IBM, Linuxcare, SGI, SuSE, TurboLinux, Wave Technologies, Macmillan (publishers of que, Sams, and New Riders books), Osborne/McGraw-Hill, and others.
•  Exam questions cover publicly available objectives.
•  Exam questions are adapted from submissions by volunteers.

You might say it is the exam development equivalent to the open source software model. Let's call it "community testing." The LPI is planning on a series of three exams for its first level of certification, titled "Linux Professional Institute Certified," or LPIC.

The LPI T1A Exam

I recently sat for LPI exam T1A at a Virtual University Enterprises affiliated testing center near my home. When you register, the exam is awkwardly labeled "117 1A Beta" and costs US$100 for each attempt.

I didn't encounter many surprises during the test, and found the experience similar to other computer-administered exams, such as those required for the MCSE. It is delivered on a PC in a private room with no notes or other reference material. Students are given 90 minutes to complete 60 questions.

About 75 percent of the exam is multiple-choice, single-answer questions. Some of them present a scenario needing administrative action. Others seek appropriate commands for a particular task or for proof of understanding of a particular concept. All of these questions contain five possible choices with a radio button selector for responses.

A few of the questions are multiple-choice, multiple-answer questions, which are answered using checkboxes. These questions have one or more correct responses, each of which must be checked. These are probably the most difficult style because the multiple answers increase the likelihood of mistakes. An incorrect response on any one of the five possible answers will cause you to miss the entire question.

The last 15 percent or so of the exam consists of freeform answer questions, which use a one-line text area for your typed response. Some of these questions check your knowledge on things such as important files, commands, or well-known items that can be expected to be drawn from memory.

The 1A test is aimed at junior level administrators. Experienced Linux administrators will probably pass the test without difficulty.


If you're thinking about Linux certification, you'll need to choose the program that best suits your career needs. Do you want to pursue a distribution-specific certificate or one that's neutral? Do you suspect that one of the existing certification programs will become more meaningful than the others? No matter what you choose, you or your employer will be paying a price for your exams. Time will tell if that cost is warranted, and the extent to which employers depend on the various Linux certifications in their hiring decisions.

Future articles in this series will give an overview of the LPI, Sair/Wave, and Red Hat certification programs and exams, and will highlight new developments in Linux certification and training.

You may be wondering if I passed the LPI exam. Since it's so new, it is still in "beta" stage while the LPI creates statistics on exam results in order to set pass/fail thresholds. So, I'll have to bite my nails until my results are released. In the meantime, I'll be preparing for the upcoming LPI 1B exam, due out in the coming months. Wish me luck.

Jeff Dean is an engineering and IT professional currently writing a Linux certification handbook for O'Reilly and Associates.

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