Using Linux to Teach Unix System Administration

A teacher at the College of DuPage in Illinois, has found that teaching system administration to beginners is both easy and cost-effective using Yggdrasil Linux.

College of DuPage

There are several handicaps inherent in teaching a class in Unix administration in an academic environment. In order to learn to be an administrator you need to actually administer the system—you must have complete control of the box. In most colleges and universities this is an impossibility, given security concerns, administrative overhead for such a setup and the need to equip individual workstations with the Unix operating system. Those colleges having such a setup in place have found it inefficient—either the hours must be limited or the machines go unused outside of class hours.

I have been able to alleviate the above concerns by utilizing Yggdrasil Linux, with the added advantage that the students can take the operating system home, work with it and bring it back to class for labs or assignments. Yggdrasil Linux can be run entirely off CD-ROM and RAM, and it uses a single diskette for booting and data storage. The overhead for such a setup is the same as the normal maintenance costs for a PC; the only additional requirement being a CD-ROM drive, if one is not already installed on the system.

The College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois (the second largest community college in the U.S.) has offered classes in Unix administration since 1985, due to the close proximity of Bell Labs and the former Western Electric facilities. Initially, the students ran Minux on an 8086 PC, and the lab was entirely devoted to Unix.

This lab was dropped when the College obtained an AIX system, and as a result, the students no longer had a place to practice administering a Unix system. Over time, more and more restrictions were placed on access to administrative files or doing administrative type functions not requiring root access. At first, access to the AIX system was over a network using a boot disk and, more recently, using a menu selection in DOS and MS-Windows. The overwhelming majority of students in the classes are computer professionals. The prerequisites for this class include “Introduction to Unix”, which in turn requires knowledge of a programming language.

When I started teaching the Unix administration class about six years ago, we were using a four-year-old book which did not cover many of the current features of Unix. In addition, there was no easy way to conduct meaningful labs. I went through three more textbooks over the next five years while looking for a book that was relevant to the students. Most textbooks covered too many versions of Unix, which was confusing for many students.

My teaching options were:

  1. Continue using the system as it existed and resign myself to the students being unable to practice administration.

  2. Request that individual workstations be set up to run Unix. As this had not been done before, this option would have been difficult, as well as costly, to implement.

  3. Investigate running Unix on a PC without affecting the current academic networking environment.

I felt the third option was the only viable one. There are several manufacturers of Unix or Unix-like operating systems for the PC, including SCO Unix and Solaris x86. However, none of them have the wealth of free software along with available source code that Linux has. In addition, there are no licensing or distribution restrictions on Linux other than the GNU-type copyrights. It is supported by many USENET newsgroups and many helpful people on the Internet.

Last year, in addition to AIX, I decided to give my students the option of running Linux from a CD-ROM—in fact, I encouraged it. I was not willing to require it until I saw the results of my experiment. It was an overwhelming success and most students welcomed running Linux at home, since it allowed them to do assignments without having to come to the campus except for class. Only one student had a PC at home without a CD-ROM drive, and he was able to come to campus to use a PC. Therefore, this solution did not prevent any students from doing their assignments.

This year I made running Linux a requirement and chose as the textbook Linux System Administrator's Survival Guide by Timothy Parker, Ph.D., published by SAMS. I chose this text over a number of other books because it covered most of the class topics, was easy to read and was easily supplemented. I have written a Lab and Projects manual that includes assignments in Linux, AIX and generic Unix. I am planning to expand it to a full-fledged text as time permits, using recommendations of my students and my experiences.