Building a Linux Certification Program

by Dan York

Some time ago, the idea for a certification program for Linux existed only in the minds and discussions of individuals and small groups of people in different locations and all working separately. Over the past year, many of these separate people have come together in a community-based effort to define a Linux certification program. Who is this group? How did they come together? What have they accomplished to date?

We call ourselves the Linux Professional Institute (LPI). As stated on our web site (http://www.lpi.org/), our mission statement is:

We believe in the need for a standardized, multi-national and respected program to certify levels of individual expertise in Linux. This program must be able to satisfy the requirements of Linux professionals, as well as organizations which would employ or contract them.

Our goal is to design and deliver such a program from within the Linux community, using both volunteer and hired resources as necessary. We resolve to undertake a well-considered, open, disciplined development process, leading directly to the establishment of a recognized and widely-endorsed Linux certification body.

With these words, we put in writing our overall goal, a remarkable initiative that emerged from mailing list discussions over much of the past year. In this article, I will discuss how the initiative evolved, what our current plans are, and how you can become involved.

A Brief History

One part of our effort began with an article I wrote for the October 1998 issue of Linux Gazette (www.linuxgazette.com/issue33/york.html). In that article, I outlined the reasons I felt a certification program would help the growth of Linux, and encouraged people to contact me. The response was tremendous, and we immediately established a mailing list to help coordinate our discussions. Along the way, we found other individuals and groups who were also working on certification and tried to find ways to work together on this certification effort.

Meanwhile, a separate effort was underway, coordinated by Evan Leibovitch of the Canadian Linux User's Exchange (CLUE). Starting in April 1998, they established a mailing list focusing on certification and had gone quite far in discussing how a certification program might be implemented. The list grew rapidly and came to include people from around the world. At one point, their list included representatives of three distributions: Caldera, SuSE and Debian.

Last November, Jon “maddog” Hall of Linux International introduced me to Evan. We immediately saw the similarities between our two efforts and explored ways of combining the energy of our two groups After our groups united, we implemented an organizational structure to help work together and proceed along multiple paths to develop our program. As we proceeded, the initiative attracted a highly talented pool of volunteers, many of whom contributed (and continue to contribute) very long hours toward bringing our collective program to reality.

The Need for Certification

Many of us believe a certification program for Linux will occur. The question is whether we want that certification program to come from a particular vendor or have it evolve from within the Linux community.

The people who have come together behind our effort believe there are a number of reasons why certification is necessary. Briefly, we feel certification will do the following:

  • Accelerate corporate adoption of Linux. As more and more people learn about Linux and pursue certification, they will speed up the adoption of Linux within corporate environments.

  • Create industry recognition. Microsoft, Novell, Lotus and others have spent millions of dollars convincing the IT industry of the value of certification. A Linux certification program will allow those who value certification to see that Linux “has emerged as a viable option”.

  • Counter the “no-support” argument. As more candidates earn certification, it becomes a statistic that can be used to indicate how many Linux support professionals are available in the IT industry.

  • Provide a learning path for new users. Often, people who want to learn about Linux do not know where to start. A certification program can provide a path for learning.

  • Provide an organizational mechanism for training centers and publishers who want a path to help educate their clients (students or readers).

  • Expand the marketing of Linux. Every training center and every book that focuses on the path to certification of a product creates more marketing of that product. Until now, marketing budgets have been used to promote other operating systems. We want to see a share of this money promote Linux and recruit new users.

  • Turn students into advocates. If students learn about Linux and how to install, configure and use the operating system, they will become advocates for Linux as they move into the IT industry. People recommend products they know. We need them to know Linux.

  • Provide other means of employment for Linux-skilled individuals. Each person who can be employed writing or teaching about Linux becomes yet another advocate, potentially full-time, for Linux.

  • Recognize capabilities of Linux professionals. A well-done certification program provides a mechanism to recognize the accomplishments of individuals who use Linux.

  • Assist in the hiring process. Most controversially, a certification program can assist a hiring manager in understanding what level of expertise someone has. It cannot be used as the sole criterion and is not a replacement for years of experience. However, many IT managers want to start using Linux and are seeking people knowledgeable in Linux. If the managers don't know Linux, how can they be certain of the type of background someone actually has? A certification program helps managers know that an individual has at least a basic level of Linux knowledge.

A longer description of some of these points can be found in my October 1998 article in Linux Gazette.

Developing a Consensus

After recognizing the need, the people who joined our mailing lists rapidly came to a consensus on a number of issues, including:

  • The cost of attaining Linux certification should be as low as possible. Costs of exams should be targeted to cover delivery of the exam, with perhaps a slight portion to help offset development of future exams.

  • The mechanism we develop for delivering Linux certification must be global in scale. People in any nation must be able to take exams toward certification.

  • The Linux certification program must be distribution-neutral and vendor-neutral. It should not be seen as biased toward any one Linux distribution, nor toward any vendor of education or other services.

Through our program development, we decided we would handle distribution differences through a distribution-specific exam. We would create a separate exam for each distribution and cover the items unique to that distribution, such as installation, graphical administration tools and file locations.

Exam Structure

In order to be global and able to deploy on a massive scale, we also decided that for at least the first levels, we would need to use standardized computer-based testing systems such as those offered by VUE and Sylvan Prometric. We debated at length about utilizing web-based testing, but could not at this time determine any mechanism for preventing fraud. As long as someone could have a friend nearby providing answers (or taking the exam for them), the potential for abuse is too high. We agreed to continue monitoring technologies in the hope that someday a solution might be found.

In the meantime, we will be working with the computer-based testing vendors to make our exams available throughout the world. We are also considering other forms of proctored testing in locations where testing centers are readily available. For the highest level of our certification program, we are still debating whether to have some form of “hands-on” testing. That discussion and decision is still ongoing.

Throughout our discussions, we also realized we wanted our program to focus only on certifying individuals. We want multiple paths to certification. One person might download our exam objectives off the Web, work with their system at home, then go and take the exam, paying only the minimal cost of the exam. On the other hand, a candidate could also spend a great deal of money on instructor-led classes to prepare for certification. Someone else could also go to the bookstore and buy books that would prepare them for certification. Computer-based classes and web sites will certainly be options as well. We decided that our effort would be spent on certification, leaving the education of candidates to training centers, publishers and others interested in providing such services.

Our program is a community effort open to all who want to be part of the process. For that reason, we continue to use open, public mailing lists for the majority of our work.

Finally, a common refrain has been that we do not want our program to be as weak as many perceive other IT certification programs to be. We want to be sure this program is done right.

Our Program

While developing our program, Evan Leibovitch brought in much of the work developed through the CLUE mailing list. The mailing lists discussed and debated the program at length. Eventually, a Program Committee led by Tom Peters took over responsibility and fleshed out more of the details.

Through our program, certification will eventually be available at three levels, though the names of these levels have not yet been finalized at the time of writing (March 1999). The exams will be developed gradually, with the required exams for the first level being created before the second level and so on. In the short term, this will allow participants to complete lower-level certification while more-advanced exams are under development.

Content for the exams is presently under active development, although by the time this article is published, much of the first level of exams should be nearing completion. Although the exact content and objectives for each exam are still under development, the exam structure (we chose to label individual tests as “T#”) is shown in the sidebar “Exam Structure”.

Our intention is to create a separate T2 exam for most major distributions. The list of T5 exams is merely a set of examples of the kind of specialized exams which may be produced at this level; the exact list has not yet been determined.

As we have currently defined the program, candidates will be required to pass certain tests to reach the various levels of certification:

  • To achieve Level 1, an applicant must complete T1 and one or more of the T2 exams.

  • To achieve Level 2, an applicant must complete Level 1, as well as exams T3 and T4.

  • To achieve Level 3, an applicant must complete Level 2, as well as any two of the T5 exams.

The choice of T2 and T5 exams completed will be indicated on the participant's certificate as endorsements.

Where We Are Today

Throughout early 1999, much of our work occurred in the individual committees focused on very specific tasks. As outlined below, we developed a job analysis survey, began our public relations, built an Advisory Council to provide additional feedback and formed an independent nonprofit corporation.

Among our pool of volunteers were several individuals with degrees in psychometrics, who spent considerable time working on methods to validate the results of our exams. One of these individuals, Scott Murray, chairs our Exam Development committee and has been working hard on ensuring our exams are developed in the best method possible.

In March and April 1999, Scott and Tom Peters developed a web-based system through which we conducted an extensive job analysis survey. The main purpose of this survey was to aid us in developing the objectives of our first level of exams. Hundreds of volunteers took time to complete our surveys and help us statistically validate the tasks Linux system administrators do on a daily basis. The results of this survey were used to help us derive the exam objectives we have posted on our web site.

During this time, we wanted to ensure our program met both the needs of the Linux community and the organizations which will employ the successful candidate; therefore, Evan, Chuck Mead and I along with other members of our Corporate Relations Committee built an Advisory Council. This council consists of individuals and organizations who can provide us with the feedback we require. Members of our Advisory Council are part of a private mailing list to which questions are occasionally posted and feedback solicited. Their assistance is sought to help guide the overall direction of the LPI program, as well as in helping solve questions that arise from time to time within the mailing lists where a wider industry perspective may be useful. As a consultative body, the Advisory Council provides input to the LPI Board when it makes decisions related to LPI. In the process of building our Advisory Council, we had very successful meetings, both at trade shows such as LinuxWorld and CeBIT, and also separately with individual people and companies. We announced a large council including representatives from several distributions, Linux International, Linux Journal, UniForum, publishers, information technology companies and others who believe in the need for Linux certification. We appreciate their support and assistance in making our program a reality. Visit our web site (see Resources) for the full listing of our Advisory Council.

Meanwhile, Evan and the Public Relations Committee were collecting names and addresses of reporters and web sites. Evan coordinated our work to regularly distribute news releases publicizing our efforts. His work resulted in a great increase in the number of visits and added participation in our plans.

We also began to work with the System Administrator's Guild (SAGE), a special technical group within USENIX, whose members are working on developing a certification program for UNIX. We shared information about efforts and designated a few individuals to act as liaisons between the programs.

Finally, our Steering Committee began the process of becoming a formal Board of Directors and incorporating as a nonprofit corporation. Our board also began the process of submitting funding proposals to finance the exam development already underway.

How You Can Help

By the time you read this, several of our exams should be nearing completion. Yet even as those exams are nearly done, we have many more still to develop. Over 200 people are now on our various mailing lists, and there is no shortage of tasks to complete. Please visit our web site, read about how you can become involved, and join in our efforts to make a strong certification program for Linux.

Conclusion

It has been a wild ride since we began our discussions last fall. We have had vigorous debates and put in some very long hours. Above all, though, our effort has shown the power of many people working together to accomplish a common goal. We've been able to take on large tasks and accomplish them primarily because we could divide the effort between many people. It has truly been a community project which we believe will result in the finest certification program in the information technology industry. We invite you to visit our web site and join with us.

Resources

Dan York ([email protected]) is a member of the Board of Directors for the Linux Professional Institute. He has been a technical instructor and training manager within the corporate training industry for nine years and has been working with the Internet and UNIX systems for 13 years. He is also a member of the Certification committee of the Systems Administrators Guild (SAGE—a division of USENIX). He is employed by Linuxcare, Inc., (http://www.linuxcare.com/) to work full-time on helping develop the LPI certification program.

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