This feature first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
According to W3Techs, more than 65 percent of the Internet is running on Linux- or Unix-based software, and everything from our Android phones to the Mars rover has been built using the Linux kernel. Jobs in tech support, DevOps, systems administration and engineering, and development can all benefit from a background in Linux.
Not only that, but the possibilities are sure to expand as the Linux and other open source initiatives continue to grow — you can even use a common Linux command line interface, Bash, within Windows 10!
The open-source nature of Linux is one of the major benefits of using it. Anyone with an Internet connection and a computer can download a distribution of Linux and start learning more or less immediately, no classroom or college degree required.
Of course, while self-instruction has its benefits, proving your Linux expertise may be easier said than done, especially when first breaking into the tech field. For both the new Linux user and the experienced sysadmin, this is where certification comes in.
A number of Linux-focused organizations and companies offer certifications, the most widely recognized being the Linux Professional Institute, Red Hat, and the Linux Foundation. These companies provide exams covering everything from the basics — LPI's Linux Essentials credential — to the in-depth and challenging "Certificates of Expertise" offered by Red Hat on such niche topics as performance tuning and data virtualization.
The LPI exams are quiz-based exams comprised of multiple-choice questions. Starting at Linux Essentials and progressing to the LPIC-3 300: Mixed Environment Enterprise Professional certification, the LPI certifications can verify a general knowledge of Linux that is extensive on certain points, albeit with no performance-based metrics. "Practical" skills cannot be demonstrated.
Raw recruits to the Linux realm may find LPI's beginner Linux exam, as well as its traditional exam formats, easier to manage them jumping into the Red Hat or Linux Foundation certifications. The Red Hat and Linux Foundation certifications require passage of performance-based Linux exams: The test-taker is given a Linux environment to set up and otherwise work from, completing a number of defined tasks, such as configuring a mail server or troubleshooting a system error.
The real benefit of these latter exams is that they demonstrate to potential employers that your Linux knowledge is practical as well as theoretical. Even if you start with LPI, you'd be well served to eventually set your sights on one or more of these more hands-on Linux certifications.
The most effective approach to study and training
No matter where you start on the path to Linux certification, you will have to spend a certain amount of time nailing down the basics. So what is the best way to prepare for a Linux exam? Ultimately, that depends on you.
Are you a highly-motivated self-starter? Are you the type who could use a little guidance to stay on track? Do you do great in classroom settings, but struggle to keep focus when working on your own? Regardless of your circumstances (and level of self-motivation), learning Linux is genuinely something anyone can do. In large part, that's because you can learn it just about any way you find productive and comfortable.
Do-It-Yourself Linux learning
If you learn best by doing, then the quickest way to start understanding the Linux landscape is to download a distribution and start using it. This is not to suggest that you need to delete Windows off your computer and adopt a Linux desktop — yet — but even Red Hat offers a trial version of their enterprise operating system, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, that learners can download and work from.
A practical knowledge of Linux is necessary to succeed even when taking a question-based multiple choice exam, so starting off by getting your hands dirty on the command line from the get-go will only be beneficial. Although you should bear in mind that this approach can be slightly overwhelming for a true Linux newbie.
Linux itself packages "man," or manual, and info pages into its environment. These allow users new and old to learn about the use of a command by typing man [command] or info [command] into the command prompt. These pages explain the usage of the command, provide information regarding any command flags, and otherwise explain how to use the command within Linux.
It's entirely possible to learn Linux from scratch using nothing but man pages. They are often harder to learn from, however, than alternative avenues of education, and familiarizing yourself with both the man and info page syntax involves a bit of a learning curve.
For many, these pages may work better as a refresher after learning the intricacies of a command from external sources, rather than learning the command and its functions from man pages alone.
As for determining what, exactly, you need to learn, every certification has its own set of learning objectives, which are generally viewable online. Objectives are the goals or tasks that exam candidates need to know to earn the certification.
For example, to successfully pass the Linux Essentials exam, you need to know how to change directories from the command line. For the Red Hat Certified Engineer exam, you need to know how to configure an iSCSI initiator. A serious self-teacher should be able to use these objectives to set up a learning plan and establish goals to be completed before taking the exam.
The downside to the learn-by-doing approach is that is can be a very isolating experience. With no teachers or classmates going through the work alongside you, it can be difficult to sort through any issues that arise, or make sense of any objectives you may have trouble understanding.
Generally friendly online communities such as StackExchange, IRC, or Slack can help. And of course the greater internet, in general, is a great place to look for (and find) suggestions, support, and answers. The biggest complicating factor is deciding how much time you have available to spend on finding or building a community to work within.
Bringing in outside help
If you want more structured learning without the cost and drawbacks of a classroom environment, there are other options available to help those studying for exams eventually find success. These include books, video learning plans, and whole websites dedicated to teaching Linux and preparing "students" for certification.
Unlike hitting your head on man pages or trying to parse through unfamiliar errors straight off the bat, these resources are often created with the intention of teaching readers or viewers the concepts needed to pass certification exams. More in-depth explanations are often given, and the language is often easier to understand.
For book-learners, companies like PacktPub and O'Reilly publish books on a variety of tech topics. Some books cover general Linux basics, while other are specifically designed to help you pass exams. There are also options outside of educational publishers, such as the popular Red Hat RHCSA/RHCE Cert Guide by Sander van Vugt. Many of these books are available in both physical and digital form.
For those who are more visual, video learning is another common route open to aspiring Linux professionals. Free videos are available from a variety of sources on YouTube, although it can be hard to vet quality.
Alternatively, for those looking for a more tech-specific experience, Linux-based educational companies, such as Linux Academy, provide high-quality video learning taught by experts and experienced professionals.
Companies such as these also offer something many other options lack: A community in which to ask questions, chat, and learn. Often, you have access to the various instructors who created the video content you are using. Some training providers offer exercises and server labs that provide learners a hands-on experience in a predefined environment, taking away the need to run your own servers locally.
A drawback here, as with simply installing a Linux distribution and teaching it to yourself, is that online learning and books are still driven by self-motivation and self-scheduling. There are no set class dates or times. You have to determine yourself when you can study, and then actually go get it done.
Finally, for those who thrive in highly structured learning environments, there is always the classroom option. While Windows still dominates most high school and college classes, some colleges offer Linux courses and certification prep courses, both for students and those in the community.
Classroom learning will vary in cost and quality per location. On the other hand, with regular due dates, set class times, and fellow students actively learning alongside you, a classroom environment can be just what some people need. Some classroom programs even incorporate the certification exam itself as the final step in your learning journey, often helping to defray some or all of the exam cost.
Similarly, many of the companies that offer Linux certifications also directly sponsor both physical and virtual classes geared toward earning their credentials. Both Red Hat and the Linux Foundation offer periodic training for aspiring certification holders, while the Linux Professional Institute has instead opted to partner with outside companies. Most LPI partners follow the self-learning virtual paths mentioned above, though two, in California and Utah, offer physical training locations.
The Red Hat and Linux Foundation virtual and classroom courses put you in direct contact with an instructor and fellow students who teach the class, either in-person or over a virtual classroom. There is real-time question-and-answer, and the process mimics traditional learning overall, but is condensed into a few days so that you may be attending "class" for four hours, four days straight.
The primary downside to these courses is the sometimes prohibitively expensive price tag — as much as $2,000 in up-front costs. These courses are perhaps most readily in reach of those whose employer is willing to pay for their training.
Don't delay; start today
Given a variety of options for education at your fingertips, there's no reason you can't start studying for a Linux certification right now. Consider your career goals, explore your education options, and get started: Whether that's on your own, on the command line, or exploring local options for in-class learning, Linux certification is within your reach.