Validation of Linux Certification

Mr. Hynum talks to Tobin Maginnis of Sair Linux about his certification and training program.

Sooner or later, like it or not, it had to happen. The corporate “suits” have discovered Linux. Wall Street went ga-ga over Red Hat, Inc. last August and swooned again for VA Linux Systems in December. Predictably, some financial analysts stood back and wrung their hands like fretful parents, warning of the perils of puppy love, calling it a passing infatuation. And they're partly right. The stock market is ever fickle, and investors are always cruising for a fresh, new face.

Professional pessimists aside, those in the know about Linux and corporate America have no doubt the two were meant for each other. The more pressing concern among the Linux faithful is that free enterprise may compromise the Open Source movement and the ideals it has long stood for.

Dr. Tobin Maginnis, a Linux devotee since its inception, worries about that, too. As founder and president of Sair, Inc. of Oxford, Mississippi, Maginnis has developed a certification program aimed at moving Linux into the IT mainstream without sacrificing its integrity. The program, called Sair Linux and GNU Certification (SLGC), is unmatched in the industry for its breadth, depth and scope, covering training and testing in all recognized distributions. Best of all, it has the blessing of open source's founding fathers—pioneers like Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens, all of whom serve on Sair, Inc.'s board of advisors.

Compaq (http://www.compaq.com/), the second largest computer manufacturer in the world, has already signed on, partnering with Sair, Inc. to become a Sair Internal Training Organization. John Wiley & Sons (http://www.wiley.com/) is publishing SLGC test preparation materials and making them available globally, and Sylvan Prometric (http://www.sylvanprometric.com/), the international leader in IT certification testing, is offering SLGC exams at its testing facilities worldwide.

Other deals in the making include negotiations with a strategic partner in South Korea to establish Sair Asia, which would serve the emerging Pacific Rim markets including South Korea, Japan and China.

And that's just for starters. Dr. Maginnis, a professor of computer science and a Linux researcher at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, told me:

The question is not what can or will Linux do for corporate America. The fact is, Linux has been serving corporate America for years. It's not uncommon to ask a CEO or CFO if their company uses Linux and to have them respond, “No.” But ask their IT department the same question, and the answer always seems to be “Yes!”

Linux is truly unique among operating systems in that many corporations have already adopted it for internal use without upper management's knowledge or approval. Production goals and budgets are always in conflict, and management always expects to be able to do more with the same resources. So a clever programmer says, “Hey, why don't we use that old Intel 486 we replaced last month? I know Linux will run on it. We can set it up, do a quick configure and finally get management off our backs.” That's more common than a lot of people realize.

Only now, upper management is finally catching on, and they're definitely not complaining.

Maginnis caught on to open source's potential two decades ago and became one of its earliest converts. When AT&T released its Version 6 UNIX to universities in the late '70s and early '80s, Maginnis used it to teach operating systems in his classes at Ole Miss. Between 1979 and 1983, he and colleague Don Miller developed Thriftnet, a suite of networking programs for UNIX and other operating systems, and the software was distributed free.

As open source evolved, Maginnis stayed abreast of every new development, from Minix to FreeBSD, which he taught in graduate-level courses. He began using Linux as a network server and firewall in 1995. His current research topics include the construction and integration of distributed operating system components into the Linux kernel and the development of a performance-oriented distributed operating system.

Besides his academic credentials, Maginnis is an experienced businessman and entrepreneur. The seven-year-old Sair, Inc., a custom software programming company, has developed more than 45 large computer graphic and simulation programs for Chicago-area companies. Its client list includes Abbott Laboratories, Illinois Superconductor, Siemens Medical Systems, Dade International and Kraft General Foods.

A student gave Maginnis the idea for Linux certification in 1997:

One of my students stopped me in the hallway one day and asked if there was a Linux certificate. There wasn't one, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. The problem was, enrollment in computer science programs had been on the decline, but there was a strong demand for trained professionals in the workplace. Vendor certificates were clearly becoming a trend in the industry. It occurred to me that this was a chance to do something real for the promotion and acceptance of open-source software.

The result was SLGC, aimed at providing the highest-quality certification training material and exams in the industry. Sair's efforts are focused on the continued development and distribution of the most accurate, timely and progressive materials in the constantly growing and evolving market.

These materials cover the most popular and recent distributions as well as regional variations for premium packages offered to corporate clients, both in the U.S. and internationally. The materials are offered through established training centers, including New Horizons Computer Learning Centers Inc. (http://www.newhorizons.com/) and Productivity Point International (http://www.propoint.com/), as well as through independent facilities around the world. Exams are available through Sylvan Prometric and VUE (http://www.vue.com/) in more than 140 countries (for a sample exam, go to Sair's web site at http://www.linuxcertification.com/).

In addition, Sair's self-study materials can be purchased through traditional retail outlets such as Barnes & Noble bookstores and through Amazon.com.

Best of all, SLGC is structured to follow existing models of professional continuing education and testing. Offered in four levels, SLGC qualifies its graduates as administrators, engineers and master engineers.

Purists need not be alarmed. SLGC is designed to serve the needs of corporate America while advancing the cause of Linux itself, a cause that remains dear to Maginnis' heart. “Our certification program is built, first and foremost, on a commitment to the Linux community,” he said.

According to Kevin Seddon, vice president of operations for Sair, Inc., Linux certification is the obvious next step in the Open Source movement's evolution:

IT professionals have long recognized Linux for its strengths—stability, flexibility and efficiency. Those are valuable qualities in the corporate world as well, which is why Linux is being seen as a viable alternative to Microsoft. Corporate acceptance, in turn, means increased funding for open-source research and development in order to meet the private sector's needs. With major corporate clients on board, they will pour in the resources. The possibilities are limitless.

In addition, all the major computer manufacturers—IBM, Compaq and Dell, to name a few—have made a major commitment to Linux and open-source software. Most already sell machines with a preinstalled Linux/GNU system. “That's a clear sign of Linux's initiation into the mainstream,” Seddon said.

Compaq, for example, has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Linux, putting it to work on their new X86 and Alpha servers. Under the terms of Sair's partnership with Compaq, Sair will provide corporate training (using Sair's materials) to Compaq personnel and help develop new Linux-based training materials for the X86 and Alpha ASE programs. “Toward that end, Compaq and Sair, Inc. will work together to expand Linux's capabilities, which, in the long run, benefits the Linux community as a whole,” Seddon said.

Sair is also working closely with Linux user groups around the world to hone and improve SLGC's knowledge matrix and objectives. And, in the finest Linux tradition, Sair has pledged to give back a percentage of its revenues to the Open Source community to help fund additional research and development. Maginnis has said:

We recognize that the Linux phenomenon is the result of many idealistic people who will never be paid for their years of hard work. We think the best remedy to this situation is to actively support the development of new open-source software. It's common sense that if free software creates a special business environment, that business should find a way to give back to the Open Source community. Other companies have done that, and Sair will do it, too.

In that regard, Sair's plan is to identify and fund key projects which will best serve the Linux movement. Possible projects include creating anti-aliased fonts for X11 or creating a grammar checker.

Finally, Sair, Inc. is working to develop an international consortium of universities and businesses actively involved in open-source research and development. The goal is to create a focused, structured and prioritized research network in which researchers around the world share information and collaborate on projects for the private and public sectors. Seldon said:

This consortium would bring together many of open-source's greatest minds—both in the public and private sector—and help them work together to solve common problems. It would attract more funding for research. It would help cut back on duplication of effort. And it would provide an organizational structure through which information can be shared and disseminated more effectively and promptly.

Maginnis and company are convinced that certification will be the spark plug that fires the Linux engine in the coming years. Certification is, simply put, skill validation, but it means more than that. Certification sets criteria and standards that must be met in order to serve the needs of the market. It's a focused, results-oriented process which IT professionals are accustomed to and which the business world expects. Seldon told me:

That's the beauty of SLGC. It's a comprehensive program created by someone inside the Linux community who has successfully “translated” the process by working through traditional outlets such as training facilities, testing facilities and the corporate community. And, through our board of advisors, some of the greatest names in the Open Source movement have contributed to it.

Even so, Sair's work is just beginning. International Data Corp. (IDC) research states that Linux was the fastest-growing server operating environment in 1998, growing more than 190 percent in that year alone and capturing more than 15.8 percent of the 4.4 million unit revenue shipment server operating systems market segment. According to a December 10 article in the Los Angeles Times, many corporate investors sense the potential for Linux to become the backbone of the Web. They also believe it could play a significant role in providing the software for the expected wave of new digital appliances, such as video recorders and mobile computers.

If that's the case, Sair, Inc. is uniquely positioned to meet an ever-growing demand for IT professionals certified in Linux. In conclusion, Maginnis said:

All the signs are that Linux certification is an idea whose time has come. We are obviously excited about the possibilities. At the same time, we recognize our responsibility to the Linux community. We strongly believe in the ideals of the free software system, and we plan to show our commitment to those ideals in very tangible ways. For me, personally, it's been a privilege to have worked within this community for 20 years and to watch Linux evolve and thrive. There are a lot of unsung heroes out there who made it happen and who will continue to make it happen. We look forward to working with them in the future and doing our own small part for Linux. We know we can't do it without them.

Rick Hynum is a scientific and high-tech freelance writer living in Oxford, Mississippi.

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