Designing a Course in Linux System Administration

How one professor designed a class on Linux system administration--and how you can follow the class along on-line.

I have been a Linux advocate for about ten years now. The first version of Linux I installed was Red Hat 3.0.3. I had used a UNIX-based system in graduate school, and I was somewhat familiar with how to get around (read: how to screw things up). I work at a school that is inundated with Microsoft products. After being there a year or so, I decided to branch out on my own and install Linux on my desktop machine. I have never looked back, and I have been using Linux as my desktop of choice ever since, at home and the office. I occasionally have booted into Windows if I wanted to play a game or read an occasional PowerPoint presentation, but that has been about it. Yes, I know about WINE and CrossOver, but a few games and programs inherently run better when run in a Windows environment. However, more often than not, there are options under Linux that are equally as good as, if not better, than those available under Windows. This is part of the main message I have been touting to our students, faculty and staff for the past few years.

As a result, I have come to be known on campus as a Linux advocate. If people have questions about Linux, they usually find their way to my office as often as they find themselves in the IT office. I also have been bugging our Director of Academic Computing about when the entire campus is going to switch over to Linux. We do have some Linux boxes buried deep in the recesses running our mail server, Blackboard and a few other applications, but we have nothing in the way of a visible Linux presence on campus. The Computer Science department recently converted the Computer Science lab from SGI boxes to Linux boxes, but that is about the extent of Linux on our campus. Is it possible that Linux will be used more widely on campus in the future? I am not sure. It probably will be a long, uphill battle, but one that luckily can be won. If you check out the May 2005 issue of LJ, you can see how a few people got the job done at the Mountainland Applied Technology College.

As you probably can tell, it has been my mission to make Linux more widely accepted on our campus. A colleague from the computer science department, Dr. Kenny Moorman, and I ran a Linux class in our May term a few years ago. May term is a short four-week semester that runs, coincidentally enough, during the month of May. I am running the class again this May. My goal is to try to teach the course in such a way that our students can integrate their PCs into our existing framework. I have to show them how to set up their desktop systems so they can surf, check e-mail, burn CDs, but I also need to teach them some basics on administration. Although I will be teaching them how to turn services on and off, I don't think it would be wise for them to use their boxes as DHCP servers, mail servers or anything of that ilk. I think it would be a nightmare for the campus administrator if students started to hand out IP addresses. At this point, the big question then becomes how I should set up the class?

While Dr. Moorman and I were trying to plan out the class the last time it was taught, we realized that few resources were available in terms of how to make a class like this one successful. A few years later, I still have not found many resources to help develop this class. So, I decided that now might be the time to write down what I think might make the class a success. To start, I have identified four main ideas that I want to address when constructing this course.

  1. Why is Linux important? What is the open-source philosophy? What is the history of Linux?

  2. Are there any good Linux text books out there?

  3. What information should be contained in the course?

  4. What types of assessment should be used.

Let's address these issues one at a time.

Why is Linux Important?

Why is Linux important? I can sum it up for you in one word: freedom. If you have been following the Open Source movement, you know I am not talking about the price of the software when I say freedom. That simply happens to be a nice perk. No, the freedom I speak of is being able to use your computer and software in the manner that you wish. It is about not being tied down to any certain vendors who roll out "upgrades" that are incompatible with your current projects. I am talking freedom from viruses; freedom from monopolistic companies that use unfair business tactics to squash their competition; freedom that leads to imagination and innovation. This is the type of freedom to which open source can lead, and it is the type of freedom that should be important on college campuses.

It seems a natural fit that a class on open source should be available on a college campus. If there is to be a change in the open-source vs. closed-source discussion, then we need to teach the up-and-coming engineers and computer scientists about a world in which there are options. We need to teach them where Linux came from, why it has grown and where it is going. This class needs to talk about the differences and philosophies of the Cathedral and the Bazaar. By giving students the arguments for and against both sides of the story, they can make informed decisions and form educated opinions, instead of simply sticking with the status quo. If you can win their hearts, it is much easier to win their minds.



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Josh More's picture

When I was working on my RHCE, I needed the ability to 'break' a system for me to practice fixing it. To ease this, I started the trouble-maker
project. It is designed for both the person studying at home and for use in a classroom environment. It might be helpful to those of you creating break/fix tests.

While work has stalled due to me focusing on my new job, the project is certainly not dead. I will happilly accept any new scenarios that
people feel like adding.

rhce dumps

shaik's picture

it would be pleasure if u send the dumps of rhce

Usefullness of trouble-maker

Larry Vidrine's picture

I'm a home user of SuSE 9.3 Pro and Knoppix 3.8. Trouble-maker is made for people like me (who are adept at creating problems for themselves and not so adept at solving them), as well as for sys-admins whose job it is to solve problems other people have created.

I have a few other problems to resolve first, but when they're taken care of, I will try touble-maker: just to create problems for myself, and work my way through them. It would be really handy to create problems, and if I can't solve them (I'm sort of a bulldog in my efforts to solve problems), then I can easily recover (I like that idea).

So far, I've found 17 ways to trash my system, and an equal number of ways to protect myself from myself. A way to test something without thouroughly trashing the system would be just awesome.

Keep working on it. This is just too valuable to let lie fallow!

Additional GPU Tutorials

Mike Chirico's picture

The following link "Souptonuts" contains GPU tutorials that I have put together, which include building a Linux system on cdrom using BusyBox and the latest 2.6 source kernel. Plus, getting Gmail with Postfix. There are also over 150 Linux tips that are updated weekly.

Hope this helps,

Mike Chirico

Other resources of information you might want to check out.

James's picture

"Rute User's Tutorial and Exposition" by Paul Sheer might be another resource for you to investigate.

Linux Certified has an excellent class outline for Linux fundenmentals. You might want to check with them about using their course flow.

Also don't forget to mention the Linux Documentation Project.

I hope your course, is fun and thought provoking for you and your students.


Conclusion: computers are hard to use

Anonymous's picture

It's wonderful that you would like to teach the students about free (as in freedom) software!

However, I think that in 2005 users come with expectations of ease of use, so given you have only 40 hours, I think you should go GUI all the way for the first 30, then leave 10 for CLI related work.

System administration at the level of a single machine can mostly be done using a GUI, so it's unfair to make free software seem less familiar and dated than Microsoft's Windows or Apple's OS X.

Most distributions have GUI package managers to install or remove software. Teach them how to get all security patches through the available tool. The first thing I noticed about Linux coming from a MS Windows-environment was that I didn't have to reboot each time I wanted to try new software or updates - fantastic!

Teach them how to turn on the firewall feature, and teach them that an email is a networked postcard anyone can read, unless you put it in an encrypted envelope using GNUPG. Teach them it is rude to forward infected email to unlucky Windows users, so have them install ClamAV and teach them how to update it.

Teach them to write, calculate, and present their papers using on of the Office suites, most likely 2.0.

Teach them to drag-and-drop files to move, copy or delete using the GUI file manager. Have them create archive files using a GUI archive tool.

Summary: free software is easy and familiar, but power-users tend to make things difficult for newbies by saying "The only way to get your feet wet is to get up on the 10 meter high-board and do a double into the pool - it's so easy!". Please don't do that.


Anonymous's picture

However, I think that in 2005 users come with expectations of ease of use, so given you have only 40 hours, I think you should go GUI all the way for the first 30, then leave 10 for CLI related work.

I beg to differ. If someone's going to learn Linux administration, teach them the command line interface 100%. If someone's too lazy to learn the CLI, they shouldn't do Linux administration; keep them away from my systems.

I don't know what being in 2005 has to do with whether or not a person should learn the CLI. If they don't want to to work 100% on the command line, then they can learn to be a MCSE.

It's the difference between paper administration and real time administration - theorizing or doing. I think it's hard to explain but if one hasn't done command line administration they cannot possibly understand the difference. Once you've done it, you don't want to work with GUI's because they slow you down and they don't catch every possibility.

Finaly a outline for a Linux Course

Nicolas Kassis's picture

I've been trying to create a linux tutorial to present at my university but I never had any thing to base it on. This might be a good outline for it.

Book writers should take a look at this list of topics.


In general I like the idea but I'd like to add.

James's picture

1. Teach them how to read a man page...... Don't let them spend ages spinning their wheels when so much help is right there. This doesn't have to be more than 10 minutes and a lot of "what does the man page say" being asked when they ask questions. The more you teach how to read a man page the more they will carry beyond the class.

2. Move from teaching NFS to remote file systems and administration. The idea that beyond the bootloader and the initrd image the need to have anything physically local is a matter of choice not necessity. Let student A play with launching an app not even installed on his/her box but rather installed on another students. I've sat half way round the world reading mail over ssh forwarding with a mailreader installed on my home system not on my laptop, all with the click of an icon.

Heck, If your school is like so many that require students to have laptops,or if they have some kind of computer access. I would highly recommend handing out copies of Knoppix on the first day. That way they can play at home and not lose anything they have. 1 knoppix CD plus 1 floppy and they can carry thier desktop anywhere. (the floppy is for configs) If they have a usb Pendrive/keyring drive, they can carry their desktop and their home.

Only hand out a LiveCD if you use it in class!

Anonymous's picture

My son is 6 years old and my daughter is 4 - they don't know which system is "right for them", so they are happy clicking any menu that lets them play Supertux. My wife is a Windows user, and accustomed to certain ways of doing things, and if Linux differs in any way what so ever "Linux sucks". The point is this: if you don't use Knoppix in class, don't give them Knoppix to play with. Give them what they use in class. You are there to teach them, so teach them by dipping their toes, then, if they are confident - teach them to swim.

Things to add

Jason Coutu's picture

When talking about man pages, it is important to talk about serching techniques, and tools. Man is useless without appropos or some other serach tool. Google is also a great resource. Some students will take offence to having to look things up for them selves. This year I had a student tell me that if I didn't teach it in class he shouldn't have to look it up. I told the student that the class should also teach the student how to learn. :)


Lab Tasks for Linunx

barryp's picture

Great article ... rings true for me, as I am in the same boat: one of forty lecturers working with Linux within a sea of Microsoft OSes ... everyone else is on XP (except for one, who uses Mac OS X). I've intergrated Linux into as many of my courses as I can. On one, a final year SysAdmin course, I have my students work exclusively with Linux. I've developed a collection of Lab Tasks based on Marcel Gagne's first book that they work through,and that work well. The students seem to enjoy working through them ... even though, for some, using Linux after years of XP is a bit of a shock at first!

Paul Barry
IT Carlow, Ireland

Paul Barry