An Accurate Assessment?
As the Linux community has grown from the world of the hobbyist to include professional administrators, the infrastructure of the community and marketplace has evolved to support this rapid growth. We now have numerous Linux periodicals, reference books, web sites and significant corporate involvement. In recent months, the idea of a certification process to quantify the skills of system administrators has also become quite popular in the Linux community. Numerous information technology companies such as Sun, Cisco, Novell and Microsoft have had popular certification programs for their own particular product lines for some time.
Several current certification programs try to gauge the skill level of Linux system administrators via testing. The more well-known programs include Red Hat's RHCE, Sair's GNU/Linux Certification and Linux Professional Institute's LPIC.
Recently I took the first-level Linux Professional Institute Certification exam (101). The following is a brief overview of the program and also a review of my experience with the exam and preparation materials.
My background is varied, but I have been working with UNIX systems in some limited form for about seven years, first doing data conversions and later working with database applications. I have been using Linux for about three and a half years. Primarily a Red Hat and Mandrake user, I have lately begun to fiddle with the Debian distribution in my spare time. Once an ardent user of RPM (Red Hat's package manager), I now see the beauty of Debian's apt-get commands. For more important programs, I tend to compile from source rather than using packages. But I don't compile and install every single released kernel; in fact, before the stable 2.4 kernel arrived, I hadn't compiled a kernel in months. For me, Linux is about the freedom and flexibility I find in using and developing Linux applications daily, not loading the latest development kernel to look for bugs (though many people do this, and Linux is better for their efforts).
In my current job, I do a mix of programming (Perl for CGI, DBI and shell scripting), system administration and implementation. As the webmaster of the northern Virginia Linux Users' Group and Tux.Org, I get to dig into topics such as Apache web server configuration and DNS. At home, I once had a Linux box with 380 days of uptime and currently use Linux for all of my day-to-day work. This includes reading e-mail, writing code, compiling programs—pretty much everything. I have a small network there with a gateway machine and six machines behind it. In summary, I am comfortable with most basic administration topics.
My motivation in taking the certification test was two-fold. I hoped to quantify my Linux knowledge, which was gained with little formal training. Plus, the certification would surely make a nice addition to my résumé.
I chose the Linux Professional Institute Certification program over the other options because of its apparent vendor and distribution neutrality. The Linux Professional Institute has support and input from a wide array of sources. These include Caldera, IBM, Linuxcare, Silicon Graphics, SuSE, Hewlett-Packard and VA Linux Systems, among others. The LPI advisory council of over fifty members reads like a roll call of the well-known members of the community.
The LPI certification process consists of three levels, each requiring successful completion of two tests. Each level has a numeric designation for its tests, 101, 102, 201, 202 and so on.
LPI outlines a body of knowledge with specific skills at each certification level. For example, according to the LPI web site, to be successful with a Level 1 exam, you should be able to complete the following tasks: work from the UNIX command line; perform easy maintenance tasks such as helping users, adding users to a larger system, backing up, restoring, shutting down and rebooting; install and configure a work station (including X) and connect it to the LAN or a standalone PC via modem to the Internet.
As such, the Level 1 detailed objectives list addresses the technology behind these tasks and the mechanics of performing them. For example, part of the detailed objective for setting up the X Window System reads:
Obj 1: Install and Configure XFree86—Verify that the video card and monitor are supported by an X server, install the correct X server, configure the X server, install an X font server, install required fonts for X (may require a manual edit of /etc/X11/XF86Config in the Files section), customize and tune X for video card and monitor.
Commands: XF86Setup, xf86config.
Files: /etc/X11/XF86Config, .xresources.
The full set of detailed objectives appears quite comprehensive and representative of the Linux tasks a system administrator might face on the job. The structure of the material on the LPIC web site was logical and straightforward. It provided a good system for easily reviewing a small chunk of related materials, rather than requiring great effort to pick out the relevant material.
At the time I began this process, there were two LPIC preparation books available. I purchased both, mostly to get a feel for the format of the tests and to use as a concise list of topics to be reviewed. These books were General Linux 1 Exam Prep, published by the Coriolis Group and LPIC Prep Kit 101, published by Que.
The Coriolis book ($49.99 US) had good content for reviewing administration topics, and I even learned some neat things by reading it. The book provides a review of the topics in both the 101 and 102 exams, so I only had to read half of it for this first exam. Each chapter reviews its topics thoroughly and provides a practice test at the end. However, the practice tests are full of errors, typographical and otherwise. For example, in a question that has possible answers of A, B, C or D, the answer key states that the answer is 10. I got the feeling this book was really rushed to market. The accompanying CD-ROM of practice tests has a clunky and amateurish feel. I checked the Coriolis web site for an errata page for this book but did not find one.
The Que book ($39.99 US) has clear, concise content, but the CD-ROM of practice tests is a technical abomination. For example, while taking a practice test, if you need to review or change a previous answer and then move forward to continue the test, the program falls into a nasty little loop. The same question is presented to you repeatedly, while the test program still expects the answers to the questions that should be there. The only solution is to kill the test program and start over. It was frustrating, to say the least.
Working around these technical hurdles, I did the practice tests twice, a few weeks apart, and noted my errors. I restudied the areas where my knowledge was weakest, read applicable man pages and tried out unfamiliar commands and tools.
Besides studying for the exam itself, I had to make an appointment at a local testing center and pay the required fee. Each of the six LPIC exams costs $100 US. The LPIC exams are administered through VUE (Virtual University Enterprises), which also administers numerous other certifications exams.
To register, I used the VUE web site to set up a VUE login and password. The web site has a nice interface for choosing a nearby testing center and making an appointment for the exam. I paid the $100 fee by credit card and received an exam appointment confirmation and payment receipt a few hours later via e-mail—all very simple and straightforward.
Having registered and paid the fee, I arrived on the assigned date to take my exam. I was given 90 minutes to complete a computer-based selection of 60 questions. The format of the questions included a mix of multiple-choice, “choose all answers that apply” and short answer fill-in-the-blank.
The 60 questions, apparently chosen at random, did not allow me to be tested evenly (or at all in some areas) on the many facets of administering a Linux system. I do not remember seeing a single question on how to back up a system. A certain number of questions from every section in the LPI “detailed objectives” would have been more accurate in testing my overall knowledge, even if it made the exam longer.
I felt the exam questions placed too much emphasis on knowing arcane and often little-used options for many system commands, though this may be the result of my particular type of experience. In my exam, there were numerous questions on text filters and the use of sed and regular expressions. In all honesty, I have yet to create a regular expression in my work without a couple of passes to get it exactly right.
The testing software (Windows-based) provided a comment mechanism, so I commented on many of the questions heavily, critiquing confusing wording and undefined scope. In general, I found the test questions confusing and, in many cases, downright misleading—something I cannot completely attribute to a lack of knowledge on my part. I hope others commented on the questions and that the comments made their way back to LPI for consideration.
Finally, I did not receive a grade when I completed the test. The attendant at the testing center handed me a page that told me the exam was in beta testing, and results would be mailed to me in 6 to 12 weeks. LPIC eventually scored the exam and mailed me the score four months after the test date. I did pass the exam, with a score of 540 on a scale of 200-800.
My knowledge is not where it could be, and I continue to learn every day. But, the exams still need considerable improvement to be considered a fair assessment of an administrator's skills. I believe the work is actively underway at LPI to improve the certification exams. Even with the minor difficulties, this certification program is still my choice over the others, mostly due to the wide support and vendor neutrality of the program.
Computerized testing doesn't allow one the luxury of fiddling with the options to obtain an exact result (like regular expressions) and thus was not a good mechanism for testing some areas of system administration, where bizarre and varied problems are encountered daily. Other exams may have a more practical approach in challenging you to fix a broken system within an allotted time period.
In summary, taking the LPIC exams can be a good personal assessment of system administrator knowledge even though quantifying that via a computerized exam may not be entirely perfect. Plus, I feel that certifications, along with strong and relevant experience cannot hurt your chances in our competitive world. I recently registered for the 102 exam to be taken soon.