Linux System Administration: Growth in the Enterprise

by Tom Adelstein

Trout Creek, Montana hardly seems like a place one would expect to find a center of Linux learning. Please do not tell Mike Weber of SpiderTools that. He spent the last six years developing one of the more robust training facilities in the US.

According to Mike, "We started Linux training in 1999 as we were doing a lot of experimentation with Linux for a school district to try to move their servers from NetWare to Linux. As we tried to make it happen, we found a lack of good training out there. It was expensive and difficult to get access to live classes. So, we started creating computer based training".

In an article by Dave Kearns, he mentions a conversation with one of his readers. He quoted the reader as saying "It is frustrating, to say the least, to see Novell gleefully decide that we (others with my experience) all need to embrace an OS that we have no familiarity with and that few of our software vendors support. If Novell were willing to make an initial investment in helping us retrain (for free, or at least at a greatly reduced price), it would make it easier for us to justify staying with Novell products."

You can find many articles on the Internet relaying statements like this such as one from Mary K. Pratt who writes, Linux use is growing faster than the talent pool needed to support it. Here's how IT managers see the problem and what they're doing about it. Mary states:

Customers of GAF3 Solutions tell the technology services provider that they want to use Linux because they hear it's reliable, robust and relatively inexpensive. But a customer recently balked at the one-month delay to install a Linux server. Why such a long wait? GAF3's Linux expert was overextended, says George A. Fitch III, president and CEO of the Dover, N.H.-based company.

Few Linux professionals will take exception to enterprises complaining about a lack of Linux administrative talent in the market place. Linux has gained market share quickly and many companies say they cannot find enough people to handle the work. So, they attempt to convert Microsoft trained engineers to work on Linux. That confirms a statement Mike Weber made to me when he said, "We see a number of young administrators who have new jobs that require a larger skill set than what they had to get the job".

When administrators suddenly find themselves needing to perform tasks on a new Linux server, Mike Weber's team can provide rapid training. According to Mike, "the availability of broadband has allowed people to connect and use interactive multimedia for training now. We have students all over the world who can access our training because of broadband. Consequently, we have moved our focus to supporting Linux servers instead of simpler generalized Linux skills".

Other changes in the environment have allowed on-line training to help people develop Linux skills. Again, Mike explains, "In 1999 it was difficult to deliver multimedia for Linux on a CD that would run easily in Linux. It was frustrating to have to build Linux training that ran with Wine or in Windows.

"Today, almost all of our students already work as administrators and learn new skills at the same time. We have students who build a web server on our live servers and then the next day repeat the process on their job. That's is what we are trying to provide, real skills on real servers so people are more effective at work".

Weber's training facilities use virtualization. Instead of having to provide a server for each student on a separate machine, Mike sets up virtual instances that allow his students to accomplish their training exercises in real time. The company designs mix and match courses with 20 modules allowing server installs such as mail, DNS, server management, security, etc, Students can complete a module in one week intervals with live instructors.

Mike's basic System Administration Course takes six weeks and runs $195. When I saw the price, I had some skepticism as to his ability to deliver. So, I asked some fundamental business questions, the answers to which satisfied my inquiring mind.

The costs of creating an on-line training facility with Linux run low. Also, when you live and work in Trout Creek you do not need to outsource your personnel. Mike can use the same curriculum to train his instructors. His current batch started learning five years ago while in high school. They not only use Linux, they help design and implement the curriculum.

What About Linux Enterprise Providers?

Earlier this year, Novell began offering free training to help users and channel partners gain familiarity with Linux. They announced the course at BrainShare Europe. They call the course "Bridging NetWare skills to Novell Open Enterprise Server for Linux."

According to Novell's announcement:

"The course consists of Web-based self-study modules that will take the student through the process of transitioning NetWare skills to Open Enterprise Server Linux equivalent tasks. Students will be presented with common tasks and skills in NetWare and learn how to accomplish the same tasks and skills on Open Enterprise Server Linux. Capabilities cover the introduction to Open Enterprise Server features, deployment options, file storage, print and web services, administration, and configuration. Multiple lab exercises are used to enable students to practically apply course concepts and reinforce proficiency with the Novell services."
You do need to commit time and effort. The course consists of 10 modules that all in all, take an estimated 20 hours to complete. That's not a long time given the content, though.

The modules are:

1 - Introduction to Linux
2 - Linux Fundamentals
3 -Introduction to Open Enterprise Server Features and Services
4 - Install Open Enterprise Server Linux
5 - Administer Linux
6 - Manage the Network
7 - Use Server Management Tools
8 - Manage The File System
9 - Monitor the Operating System
10 - Creating a Linux Training Plan

Novell has offered excellent educational training throughout its history. In fact, I took their expensive NetWare training back in 1993. With the changing of the guard from Utah to Massachusetts, the training quality has not diminished, though their costs have gone down.

In my opinion, Novell still has a long way to travel before they get a handle on the training needs of enterprise users. With a focus on migrating from NetWare to Linux, they seem to have left out an important segment of the existing base of trained operating system professionals.

Making the Move from Windows – Little Chance

Though I do not like to admit it, I moved from NetWare to NT back in the mid-1990's. I can recall having to purchase Oracle adapters to make Windows speak TCP/IP. When I started administering NT, few people had the certifications and the knowledge to run Microsoft networks.

At the time, Novell owned 90 percent of the PC nodes. Almost all comprehensive accounting systems, for example, ran only on NetWare with the Btrieve database back-end. I even recall a time when we migrated Great Plains from NetWare to NT and the pain it caused.

I take some exception to reports such as the Yankee Group's which claim that a lack of skilled Linux administrators diminishes the cost savings when enterprises switch to Linux. I incorporated Linux into my existing NT skill set with little trouble. It took me approximately a week to become comfortable with Linux and the GNU userland tools.

I earned my first MS administrative certification as an Internet Specialist back in 1997. Aside from programming the first ASP solutions, I had to understand the Internet. At the time, I considered that an extension of networking LANs and WANs.

I spent a week of evenings learning to connect to the Internet with a daemon through a serial port. At the time, I had not found a dialer. I did find the Linux Documentation Project and Celeste Stokely's UNIX serial port resource center.

I didn't know how to configure Apache or Sendmail but I had enough understanding to know where to look. I felt like I needed to learn the secret handshake when I started reading the package names like Emacs, Vi and teTeX. But some folks at the University of North Carolina gave me the secret handshake at a conference.

Two of my first Linux learning experiences as a NT administrator involved setting up Samba and a TIS firewall. I learned Samba using Red Hat 5.0 on a DEC 486-66. I remember connecting to the SMB network using the command line interface. I found that exciting. Now they have GUI tools that do it automagically.

I built the firewall using a DEC Multia. I found BIND 4 a little intimidating but at least it worked. I remember buying the Multia at an auction and discovering that Linux actually ran on it.

I do not remember any Linux administrative courses offered on-line or anywhere else. I could have used them. I do remember how disappointed I felt when CompTIA started selling the answers to the NT exams and the number of MCSEs swelled.

I do have a point here. I think reports like those from the Yankee Group prejudices IT management. If one of your administrators cannot learn a few Linux system administrative tasks, then you have a bigger problem than you think.

Your administrators may know how to run Windows server wizards, but they do not necessarily qualify as Information Technology specialists. They lack the agility of Linux self-taught technologists who learned what they know by hunting and pecking through web searches, reading mailing list archives, hanging out on IRC and posting to forums.

You Windows engineers may have the capability to pull Cat 5 Ethernet through the ceiling with a fishing rod, but does that qualify them to work in your Network Operations Center?

Enterprise management can no longer afford to ignore Linux. The Information Technology field changes rapidly and Linux has gained an advantage in several areas in which you will have to deal. Start with VoIP and Asterisk Open Source PBX's.

According to Forbes Mark Spencer, a 29 year-old Linux programmer may have single handedly taken down the telco equipment market:

With Asterisk loaded onto a computer, a decent-size company can rip out its traditional phone switch, even some of its newfangled Internet telephone gear, and say good-bye to 80% of its telecom equipment costs.

What will you do about that, Mr. CIO? Ignore it? Perhaps you might consider getting with the program and either have your system admins train in Linux or find somebody who will.