February 9, 2001

Linux certification programs: Will only the strongest survive?

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -
If you're an I.T. professional working with Linux, you have a handful of options if you want a certification, and the vendors are jockeying for the position as the dominant product.

Linux users can choose among a distribution-specific hands-on training and certification program (Red Hat), a test-and-training combo (Sair Linux and GNU Certification), or a community-driven test where you choose your own training (Linux Professional Institute). Another cottage industry of Linux training companies has sprung up around the certifications.

Most people in the Linux certification industry say there's room for more than one product, and the vendors all have heavyweight backers -- Red Hat, of course, backs the Red Hat certification; Thomson Corp. owns Sair; and distributions such as SuSE, Caldera, and Mandrake have rallied around LPI.

During LinuxWorld New York last week, Sair announced its level II training and exam for Linux certified engineers. At the same time, the LPI folks were surveying Linux system administrators as they prepared to create their level II exam. Also recently announced is a new Linux+ certification basic-level certification from CompTIA, which has support from both LPI and Sair.

Sair's level II exam, an addition to Sair's level I Linux certified administrator exam, includes electives on Apache, MySQL, Sendmail, and Perl. Tobin Maginnis, president of Sair Linux and GNU, talks up his program's "comprehensive, in-depth, and objective nature" that's not biased toward any distribution.

Sair's most recent numbers say 712 people have passed one or more of the four tests that make up level I, and 131 have passed all four tests. Test takers must also pass four tests to receive the Level II certification from Sair.

Over at LPI, organizers are hoping for community support to launch the level II exam. Responses to the job analysis survey are needed to write the questions, says Dan York, co-founder of LPI. "We felt that (the exams) ought to be independent and controlled by Linux professionals who were actually using Linux, rather than a courseware company, which is motivated by revenue, or by a distribution," he says. "We wanted to see Linux certification controlled by the community."

LPI people also talk up their psychometric analysis of the exams, which, they say, insures questions are both scientific and fair.

There's some disagreement among the certification vendors and the more than half dozen Linux training companies about whether the Linux certification market has room for all of them. LPI has given about 1,300 exams since mid-2000, with about a 50% pass rate, and more than 10,000 people have gone through Red Hat training, with about 4,000 taking the Red Hat certified engineer exam and about 2,500 passing, according to Peter Childers, vice president of Global Learning Services for Red Hat.

Most in the industry say corporate interest, although not yet an overwhelming demand, is driving the need for Linux certification, to provide " a known yardstick" for evaluating employes, as LPI co-founder Evan Leibovitch phrases it. LPI approaches certification as a way to sell Linux to the business market.

"The market is very good for certification," says Sair's Maginnis. "Linux is interesting in that it has multiple appeal. It has the college student appeal, it has the rugged individualist appeal, and it's starting to have this corporate appeal."

No one will admit they're trying to put the other guys out of business, but some in the industry, like LPI's Leibovitch, wonder if there's room for more than one distribution-neutral certification.

"I can see a continuing need for companies like Red Hat to have distribution-specific elements in what they're doing," he says. "Certainly, [with] the marketplace as it is, there's no Linux governing authority saying there has to be only one certification body. At the same time, I need to stress, we're not driven by profit motive. We are not driven by shareholder concerns as much as what we perceive to be the needs of the community."

LPI's York admits his group directly competes with Sair. The two sides have talked about merging, he says, but the philosophies are too different. "They are a for-profit training company that is looking to make their revenue off their courseware and certification exams," he says. "LPI is a stand-alone non-profit certification entity that does not have anything to do with the education that prepares you for it."

Chander Kant, co-founder of LinuxCertified.com, a training company that offers weekend system administration bootcamps says demand seems to be driven right now by Sair and Red Hat more than businesses who don't have stake in the certification business. But he predicts that more corporations will demand Linux certifications in the future.

"In the past, I did view someone with Red Hat certification positively," Kant says. "If you are a hiring manager in a non-technology company, and you want someone to come in and administer your Linux environment, a certification does provide insurance of some sort."

Kant believes LPI has an advantage because it doesn't tie users to buying training. "I believe there will be place for maybe a handful of players, maybe two or three to offer different types of certification," he says. "I think there will always be a place for niche activities -- Red Hat is doing something special around its packaging, so Red Hat certification can test someone's ability to understand that packaging ..."

Sair's Maginnis says he can't predict the market, but he's confident in his company's product. "There will always be multiple agents that will offer people expertise in this public knowledge," he says. "Our take on this is we don't claim to be the only anointed certification entity for something called Linux. What we say instead is that there's 6,000 software packages out there, they come together in different versions to form a distribution, there's over 100 distributions, and we want you to know the key conceptual issues behind all these software packages ..."

Red Hat's Childers sounds like Mr. Marketing when asked about the certification market.
"RHCE is in a class by itself: RHCE is the only performance-based test on an OS," he says. "RHCE is often compared with the only other well-known performance based certification in I.T. today: Cisco's prestigious CCIE certification."

Red Hat's certification program, at two years old the granddaddy of the industry, has been updated within three weeks of each Red Hat version release, Childers says, and test takers know they're getting up-to-date information.

"I.T. professionals who want to prove their skills at system and network administration must be trained and tested at a detailed, distribution-specific level," he adds. "That's why distro-neutral or 'generic' approaches to certification can neither be up-to-date nor specific enough to test professional level technical skills."

For more information on Linux certification and training programs, including the location of training centers from Botswana to Venezuela, check out LinTraining.com.

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