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Certifications a must for Linux admins

Seemingly everyone in the Windows world has a certification or three but there aren't too many people with Linux certs. Getting one would be a good career move, experts advise.

Enterprise IT administrators holding a Linux certification are in possession of a coveted confirmation of their skills with the operating system.

Experts say as more enterprises explore the potential cost savings and efficiencies promised with a switch to Linux, admins holding a Linux cert will be higher on the list for new jobs, promotions or pay raises.

"Bosses are telling managers to get their Linux hats on, that they are going to be using it very soon," said Ross Brunson, director of Linux and Unix education with Philadelphia-based The Training Camp, an outfit that trains and prepares administrators for certification exams.

The prevailing certifications available to admins today are the vendor-neutral LPI cert from Toronto-based Linux Professional Institute and CompTIA's Linux+. Vendor Red Hat Inc. also offers two levels of certification for engineers proficient on its version of Linux.

"Ironically, the tech downturn was a good thing for Linux," Brunson said. "Linux shines where companies have budget restrictions. Compared to a year ago, there's a 30% to 50% growth in the demand for Linux certification preparation."

While the Linux operating system is basically free, certifications are not. They require expensive classroom time, and administrators or their employers must pay for the exam.

"The predominant factor that's getting a lot of people into our classes are what I call 'recovering MCSEs [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers]," Brunson said. "They're in Microsoft environments and have applied for jobs where Unix or Linux is mandated, or now they're responsible for new areas -- Windows admins who now have Linux servers doing production work."

Brunson said he also teaches administrators who realize they need to be able to service a heterogeneous environment.

"Adding Linux to a Windows system admin's resume is a virtual guarantee of a higher slot than without," Brunson said. "When companies are looking for only one person, you suddenly become much more attractive."

Ultimately, administrators must decide whether to pursue a vendor-neutral certification or one offered by a provider like Red Hat. Picking the right certification for you depends, apparently, on whom you talk to.

Brunson is an advocate of vendor-neutral certifications and said it's best to know the basics of Linux in order to be compatible with the different distributions, be they from Red Hat, the United Linux quartet of SuSE Linux, TurboLinux, SCO or Connectiva, or others.

"It's important to have basic kernel knowledge and a vendor-neutral certification in case an administrator changes jobs," said Holger Dyroff, SuSE Linux director of operations for the Americas. "You need to know about Red Hat and SuSE and others. Independent certifications are quite important for basic knowledge, but then it is also important to have specific knowledge about the distribution you're working on at a particular time."

Peter Childers, vice president of global learning services at Red Hat, said some vendor-neutral certifications may not be up to date. Also, most vendor-neutral certifications don't mandate hands-on practical experience, unlike Red Hat exams.

Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), Red Hat's advanced certification, confirms that an administrator can administer servers, deliver services and secure a box. It's a performance-based exam done on live systems.

"It's a proof of competency," Childers said. "Certifications have been criticized as not focused on actual skill. It's often an exam cram. You often hear people say 'I just got my cert, now I'll get my skill.' Our certification is performance-based. They actually sit down, build a server, configure it and are tested on it."

Red Hat Certified Technician (RHCT) is an entry-level certification that has been offered since January. Childers said there are 9,000 RHCEs and 2,000 RHCTs.

The LPI exam, meanwhile, is offered on two levels, a junior level (LPIC1) and an intermediate level (LPIC2). A third (LPIC3) is under development. It's significantly less expensive than the Red Hat exam, which can run as high as $11,000.

"You have to practice your skills," Childers said. "No one has a vendor-neutral system out there unless they are building the OS themselves by hand. Those who seek our certification are making a commitment in a production environment to using our server products."

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