This feature first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
In my experience as a systems administrator, I often run into colleagues who tend to either a) advocate strongly for Linux and opensource software, or b) rail stridently against it.
I'm sure some of these operating system biases (Windows vs. Linux vs. macOS, for instance) are rooted in what's most familiar and comfortable for the administrator. Nevertheless, we live in a cross-platform world, and you may be wondering whether you should formally add Linux to your IT skill set.
Today we'll begin by making a case for Linux skills in general, and then Linux certification in particular. Then we'll survey the three most popular beginner-level Linux certifications. Let's get to it!
Why you should care about Linux
As much as we could chat about Linux's supposed superiority over Windows with regard to flexibility and security, for many businesses the choice of a server operating system boils down to the good old bottom line — cost.
Most Linux distributions are free and open-source software (FOSS), as are many of the enterprise server products that run on Linux. Nowadays even Microsoft plays strongly in the Linux market. Microsoft's .NET Core runtime environment works on Linux, and with it you can actually run formerly Windows-only applications like SQL Server and IIS Web Server on Linux as well as Windows. What a time to be alive!
According to ZDNet, about half of the VMs running in the Microsoft Azure public cloud are Linux. Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) were designed, at least originally, exclusively to run Linux-based cloud VMs. After all, Amazon even makes available its own personal Linux distribution!
The truth is that Linux is not going away, and now that Microsoft actively advocates for the platform itself, we should see Linux taking an even more prominent role moving forward. This leaves you with an important question: How can you level up on Linux as efficiently as possible to maximize your IT industry viability?
Why you might care about Linux certification
I've found that IT certification is almost as hotly argued a subject as Linux vs. Windows. Some IT professionals complain that IT certification is a money racket. Other skeptics claim that certification floods the IT market with paper tigers� who have documented competence in skills they don't actually possess.
On the other hand, if you want to work as an IT contractor for any United States government agency, then you had better apply with your certification(s) in hand. Moreover, many vendor partner networks require certification as a proof of competency. Finally, earning one or more Linux certifications may put you a nose ahead of other candidates competing for your next IT career role.
Thus, I assume you do care about getting Linux certified. And I want to help you out because Linux certification in particular can turn into a snarly mess that can easily produce confusion rather than clarity.
The reason for Linux certification muddiness is the fact that Linux has no single vendor or governing body. By contrast, if you pursue Microsoft, Cisco, or Apple certification, for instance, you know right off the bat you are constraining your view within that ecosystem. Let's proceed, and I will attempt to make all things clear.
Certification as a way of Learning Linux
I tell my students all the time that, if nothing else, pursuing IT certification in a technology presents an excellent excuse to deep-dive into that technology. You'll also find that spending your hard-earned money on the exam registration fees often provides strong motivation for you to keep studying. (To illustrate, the Red Had Certified System Administrator exam fee is $400 per attempt!)
The most popular entry-level Linux certification programs
Sometimes it seems to me that there exist more Linux certification programs than there exist Linux distributions. Perhaps I'm being a bit dramatic — in any case, let's take a look at the three most popular beginner Linux certs:
CompTIA is a vendor-neutral tech industry consortium that has published a variety of beginner-level IT certifications for the past 25 years. Their Linux+ credential validates your hands-on experience with installing, configuring, maintaining, and troubleshooting Linux-based servers. To earn your Linux+ certification, you must pass the XK0-004 computer-based exam; here's some exam metadata, current as of September 2019:
- There are no prerequisites to take the exam.
- $319 registration fee
- 90 questions
- 90-minute time limit
- 720/900 passing score
- Multiple-choice and performance-based questions
Performance-based questions put you in a hands-on learning context. You will be required to complete actual Linux administrative tasks in a sandboxed environment. In this way you prove to CompTIA that you can apply the Linux theory you already understand.
According to the CompTIA website, the Linux+ certification has a three-year lifespan. As of this writing, however, CompTIA hasn't yet published certification renewal requirements. If you'd like to learn more about the CompTIA Linux+ program, visit their website.
Linux Professional Institute (LPI) Linux Essentials
Linux Professional Institute (LPI) is a non-profit organization founded in 1999 that was established to provide a worldwide Linux certification standard. Specifically, their LPI Linux Essentials certification can be used as a terminal objective, or as a stepping stone to a more advanced LPI Linux credential.
You must pass one computer-based exam (Exam code 010-160) to earn your Linux Essentials certification; here's some metadata I found on the LPI website:
- There are no prerequisites to take the exam.
- $200 registration fee
- 40 questions
- 60-minute time limit
In contrast to the CompTIA Linux+ title, the LPI Linux Essentials certification has a lifetime validity period. One important note: LPI and CompTIA had a long-running partnership in which LPI created the exams, and CompTIA offered them under the CompTIA Linux+ Powered by LPI title.
The CompTIA-LPI partnership has since dissolved and accordingly the Powered by LPI exams have been retired. You can learn more about Linux Essentials by visiting the LPI website.
Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA)
The CompTIA and LPI programs are not specific to a particular Linux distribution. As you may already know, however, Red Hat is a leading Linux vendor. They are somewhat of an exception to the FOSS ethos that is generally accepted in the open-source community.
At any rate, if you use or plan to use primarily Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) in your current or future job, then you may want to consider sitting for the Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) certification.
As was the case with LPI certification, you can earn the RHCSA on its own, or use it as a prerequisite for a higher-level Red Hat credential like the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE).
The EX200 RHCSA is a performance-based exam, so you need to be prepared to demonstrate hands-on competency with Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8. Here's some more metadata:
- There are no prerequisites to take the exam.
- $400 registration fee
- Approximately 20 questions
- 2-hour-and-30-minute time limit
- 70 percent passing score
- 3-year validity period
I noted in the previous list that the RHCSA has a 3-year lifespan; keep your certification current by completing one of the following Red Hat-related professional development tasks:
- Pass the latest version of the EX200 exam.
- Earn your RHCE certification.
- Pass any of the Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) exams.
As usual, you can visit Red Hat's website to learn more about the RHCSA program.
Your marching orders
Over my 20-plus years of IT and IT certification experience, I've passed nearly 100 certification exams. My three-part IT certification study strategy consists of the following three equally interdependent components:
Theory: Describe how the technologies behave in various contexts. Practice: Apply your knowledge through hands-on application. Review: Answer practice questions to get familiar with computer-based testing.
If you decide to go for a Linux certification, then I want to leave you with this attack plan: First, decide on a program. Second, conduct a personal inventory to determine your personal learning style. Third, amass the learning materials to cover the aforementioned theory, practice, and review elements.
For instance, you may decide to sit for the Linux+ certification, and you have identified yourself as chiefly a hands-on, practical learner. Your study plan might include the following elements:
Theory: Linux+ preparation computer-based training. This way you can follow along with the instructor on a separate virtual machine.
Practice: Lab simulation software, such as TestOut Linux Pro. Here you are led through guided, hands-on labs to solidify your skills.
Review: Practice exam software, such as products from GoCertify, MeasureUp, or Boson. These products help you get comfortable with how you will be challenged on your live exam.
The fourth (and final) step carries the most weight: Pass your exam, pick up your credential, go forth in your IT career, and apply those Linux skills!