Open source opportunities

Linux professionals might describe themselves as “certified geeks.” But this term is becoming more serious as IT professionals look to organized certification and educational programs to boost their Linux knowledge and marketability.

The ubiquity of certification programs for Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc. products reflects the popularity of those technologies. And as Linux usage increases in corporate networks, interest in open source certification and education is climbing.

Demand for employees with Linux skills can be correlated with Linux’s expanding presence in corporations, observers say. According to IDC, Linux accounted for 23 per cent of new server software shipments last year, almost twice as much as Novell NetWare and Unix combined, and behind only Windows. Open source servers running Apache Web Server and Linux also are said to be the most-used software combination for running Web servers, according to Netcraft, an Internet research firm.

Independent companies that provide training, testing and certification for Linux include CompTIA, SAIR and the Linux Professional Institute (LPI), along with vendor-specific certifications, such as the Red Hat Certified Engineer program.

Novell also has started offering Linux education as part of its certification process, as the vendor incorporates more Linux technology into its products. IBM also offers certifications for some of its commercial software products on Linux, such as DB2 database and WebSphere application server.

Some of the most popular certifications are LPI’s Level 1, 2 and 3 programs. The programs are a hit with Linux users because they were created and are conducted similarly to the open source model, in that no one vendor dominates the training. Input on the program also comes largely from its alumni.

“LPI was borne out of a community development process,” says Evan Leibovitch, LPI’s president. He says this is what makes it different from vendor certification programs. “Different automakers don’t give out driver’s licenses for their own cars, and you wouldn’t trust a pharmacist who received an education from a drug company,” he adds.

LPI gave out 10,000 exams from its inception in 2000 to May 2002. Since last year, the firm had administered another 10,000 exams.

The certification program has a pass/fail rate of about 50 per cent, and about 7,000 people are LPI certified, he says.

For each LPI certification level, a single exam is given. The Level 1 exam tests areas of Linux systems administration, such as setting up a mail or Web server, adding and removing user accounts, and troubleshooting. Higher-level certifications, such as Level 2 and 3, test more complex skills such as Linux kernel programming and configuration. Leibovitch says LPI’s certification program is shaped by surveys it sends out to IT professionals who use Linux, asking what skills are important to their jobs. Linux vendors and experts in the open source community also contribute to the programs.

In the field

One IT integration firm uses the LPI certification as a requirement for all new hires.

“We started requiring LPI certifications a few years ago,” says Matthew Rice, president of Starnix, an IT consulting company that specializes in installing Linux technology. “We felt (LPI) was a credible enough body that we only began hiring people that are LPI-certified or who could be certified by a certain time period.”

Rice says the certification helps him find Linux talent and is reassuring for clients.

“Some of our clients have tried Linux either through a provider who didn’t know what they were doing or by trying it themselves,” Rice says.

“Usually they’ve made an awful mess of things by the time they call us. And one of the first things they say is, ‘How do we know you’re not any worse than the last outfit that tried to help us?’ One thing we can point to is our certified staff,” he adds.

The adoption of Linux into certification courses from other vendors is a sign that demand for Linux knowledge is growing, says Adam Williams, systems administrator at Morrison Industries, an industrial equipment sales and service company in Grand Rapids, Mich. Williams manages a network of around 200 nodes with Linux as the primary operating system.

“Novell certification covers parts of Linux now, which is a good thing,” says Williams, who doesn’t hold any Linux certifications. He organizes a local Linux users group in Grand Rapids and says interest in certification for Linux is growing among the group’s mostly Novell-certified members.

Jeff Davis, systems programmer with Amerada Hess in Houston, which uses a large cluster of Linux machines for petroleum research, says Linux certification doesn’t equal Linux competency.

When it comes to hiring, Davis says, “Certification can be a determining factor between two people with equal skills and experience.” But he adds, “I’m not a strong believer in certification in general.”

Because Linux is often picked up informally, while in college or on the job, Davis considers experience to be the most important attribute for someone interested in working with Linux.

“If you’re starting out and getting out of school, then it’s probably a good thing,” Davis says of Linux certification. “I know people who are certified that are good, and people who are certified and who are not good. Lots of people I work with don’t even have a college degree but they’re phenomenal programmers. It’s all about the people.”