Getting a Line on Linux Certifications

Certs can boost salaries and are inexpensive to obtain, but some say there's no need to get certified.

With an open, accessible code base and no license fees, Linuxs bottom-line appeal is obvious. Perhaps less obvious, however, is whether IT professionals should certify their expertise in this operating system and, if so, which cert they should pursue.

Some Linux certifications, at least, are becoming worthy of significant compensation, according to Foote Partners LLC, a research company in New Canaan, Conn.

Another argument in favor of getting Linux certifications is the price: Linux certification exams can cost as little as $89 (for Linux+), and only the most advanced, such as RHCE, command four figures.

Linux certifications arent yet ubiquitous, either: Currently, there are 7,500 RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer) recipients and 356 RHCT (Red Hat Certified Technician) holders worldwide, said Randy Russell, certification manager at Red Hat Inc., in Raleigh, N.C. The Linux Professional Institute reports a total of 5,000 LPI Certification Level 1 and LPI Certification Level 2 certificate holders. Roughly 1,000 IT pros hold the Computing Technology Industry Associations Linux+ certification.

However, Linux in the enterprise is a relatively new field of expertise, and IT pros can gain plenty of know-how without getting certified.

"I dont see a major need" for Linux certification, said Maria Schafer, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn. "All you have to do is dig around and find what you need." Still, that doesnt mean that certification wont be the way to go in the future, she said.

IT pros who decide to get Linux-certified have less deciphering to do than those seeking certification in other emerging fields—security, for example—because comparatively few outfits offer Linux certification.

CompTIA, of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., offers Linux+, a vendor- and distribution-neutral certification for Linux beginners—entry-level technicians with six months experience with Linux on desktops or networks.

LPI, a nonprofit organization in Brampton, Ontario, offers two vendor-neutral certification options: LPIC1 certifies knowledge of fundamental system administration characteristics common across all varieties of Linux. "We wouldnt recommend people take [the LPIC1 exam] with no experience," said Wilma Silbermann, executive assistant at LPI.

LPIC2 covers advanced system administration activities, including differences among Linux distributions. Two years of Linux experience is recommended, and LPIC1 certification is required. For both levels, applicants must pass two exams to earn certification.

Vendor-neutral certifications offer advantages for IT pros and the companies that hire them, said LPIs Silbermann and Meta Groups Schafer. Most important, certification holders who are well-versed in all Linux distributions neednt worry if one version comes to dominate the market.

Not surprisingly, Red Hats Russell disagrees. "Companies arent looking for vendor neutrality," he said. "Why not specifically learn about the technology thats going to be used in the field?"

Red Hat, currently the largest commercial purveyor of Linux, offers perhaps the most well-known vendor-driven Linux certification program. In January, the company began offering the RHCT exam, which certifies Linux technicians competence to set up and manage new Red Hat systems on an installed network. The RHCE exam certifies holders ability to set up and manage Red Hat Linux servers running production network services and security.

But do Linux certifications provide extra juice for a job search?

Yes, said Sean McPherson, director of operations at Xodiax LLC, a co-location and hosting company based in Louisville, Ky. "Any Linux cert our guys get is a boon," said McPherson, who is LPIC- and RHCE-certified.

Xodiaxs core systems are Linux-based, so expertise is needed in-house to keep things running optimally. In addition, the number of clients using Linux "is exploding," he said—and certified knowledge gives Xodiax staff credibility with these customers.

For those with the time and money, McPherson said it might make sense to take the LPIC path, then pursue RHCE to cover all the Linux bases. "Learning the differences between the distributions is fairly easy once you know how things tie together," he said.

Managing Editor Mary Stevens can be reached at