April 17, 2003

Spring into Linux training

- Lee Schlesinger -
On April 23, as the flowers appear on the earth and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land, Microsoft releases Windows 2003 Server. That marks a good time for Microsoft shops to begin some training -- in Linux administration.

Many Windows shops are still using Windows NT Server 4.0. Microsoft has already announced that this product is on its last legs; Microsoft will stop providing hot fixes at the end of 2003 for all but security issues, which it will continue to provide until the end of 2004. Given that deadline, these organizations must decide how to upgrade their server infrastructure. If they've bought into Microsoft's Software Assurance program, they've already paid for their server operating system upgrade, and will likely continue on to Windows 2003 Server. But many companies have rebelled against Microsoft's attempt to extract a steady stream upgrade dollars from its customers. These organizations can benefit from Linux -- if they have the expertise to take advantage of it.

One of the main barriers to corporate Linux adoption is simple unfamiliarity. A cure for that is employee training, which benefits not only the organization but the employees. Training is key to helping organizations keep competent employees; it helps workers stay satisfied with their skill levels and hence their jobs.

Nowadays, however, with companies cutting back on all budget categories, getting your company to pay for formal classes may be difficult. Bringing an instructor in-house is costly, and sending employees out to classes means not only losing their skills for a day (or longer) but also paying for travel and expenses.

Fortunately, with open source software, hands-on training is as inexpensive as you could wish for. Dig out an old computer that's too slow for Windows 2003 Server, download your favorite distro or buy it from your favorite ISV, and set your admins to work on it.

If yours is like most organizations, it's easier to talk about training than it is to find time to do it. At the same time, training is essential. Good system administrators who feel they're falling behind in their skills are going to demand to keep up, either in your organization or someone else's.

Take advantage of that desire to learn. Mark out an hour or two a week for your staff to perform tasks under Linux that they already know how to perform on other operating systems. If you can't spare even that amount of time, just make the machines available; motivated administrators will use the equipment on their own time. If you have a Solaris, AIX, or HP-UX expert on your staff already, you have a jump start; make him a mentor for the rest of the group.

Make sure your staff is thoroughly familiar with common Linux components and applications like Samba, lpr and lpd, Apache, an e-mail server like qmail or sendmail, cpio, and ipchains, iptables, and Snort. Set discrete tasks and goals -- for example, ask them to provide equivalent file and print services to what the organization is currently using, have them pilot a migration from Exchange Server to open source e-mail, or have them create and monitor a secure subnet.

The experience your staff gains this way should benefit your organization, if not immediately, then in the medium term, as it broadens the feasible options for new server operating systems.

Some employees will want tangible substatiation of their skills in the form of certifications. Possession of a certificate demonstrates that your skills have been tested against a defined set of tasks by an objective third party. Groups like Linux Professional Institute, CompTIA, and Red Hat offer certificate programs in Linux administration. Human resources departments seem to find certificates worthwhile. I'm less impressed. Classroom and book learning can't hurt, but they're no match for hands-on real-life experience.

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