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Options abound in system administration

Whether vendor-neutral or vendor-specific, new sys-admin training can provide a boost.

In March I wrote a column about Microsoft’s new training and certification program, the Microsoft Certified System Administrator (MCSA). That program has taken off like a rocket–more than 5,000 people gained their certification in the first two months of the program. That news, plus a little bit of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, made me think it was worthwhile to write about other system-administrator training and certification programs.

Earlier this year, the government released its predictions for the hottest IT jobs over the coming decade. Computer software engineers will be most in demand, says the government–with an increase of at least 100 percent (but that’s another column). Computer support specialists are second on the list–a category that includes sys admins. The government predicts that demand for such IT professionals will be around 100 percent. This means that it would be hard to go wrong with your career if you decide you want to help companies make their computer systems work better.

According to the latest edition of “The Occupational Outlook Handbook,” the Bureau’s annual guide to jobs and careers, sys admins are “the information technology employees responsible for efficient use of networks by organizations. They ensure that the design of an organization’s computer site allows all the components, including computers, the network and software, to fit together and work. They monitor and adjust performance of existing networks and continually survey the current computer site to determine future network needs.”

Sound like what you already do or something you’d like to do? Then get ready to spend some time checking out the multitude of training and certification programs for sys admins. I’ll lay them out for you in this column, but it’s up to you to do the research and decide which are best for you.

System agnostic

With sys admins, one size doesn’t fit all. No two networks are ever the same; even two systems running the same operating system can have vastly different demands placed on them. Still, the core skills of network planning and administration are the same for every network. That’s the reality that the Systems Administrators Guild (SAGE) addresses in its new certification program.

The SAGE certification program focuses on core competency skills and is not vendor- or platform-specific. There are two tiers to the program. But since the program is so new, only one of the tiers is currently available. The cSAGE tier for junior-level administrators is the one now available through testing centers.

The guild defines a junior-level administrator as someone with one to three years of experience who administers a small site alone or helps with a larger site. He or she works under the guidance of a system administrator or computer systems manager. For certification testing purposes, it helps if the candidate has a good knowledge of how UNIX-based networks operate, some programming experience, and a working understanding of how non-UNIX-based networks operate.

To become a cSage, you must pass the hour-long core exam created by the guild, and you must pass at least one platform-specific exam. The platform-specific piece wouldn’t be one that the guild has created–at least, not at this point, since the program is so new. So, you could take one of the certification exams I talk about below and use it toward your cSAGE certification–as long as the guild says that’s OK.

The second tier, mSage, is for senior system administrators. The guild is still working out the depth and breadth of this certification. When it’s done, it will also be vendor- and platform-neutral, in keeping with the guild’s core competency philosophy on testing and certification.

Keep your eye on the SAGE program; I think you’ll see that within a few years the program has become useful and well-known. Because of its emphasis on core skills, it will enable employees to test their skills and employers to make sure that they are hiring someone with enough general knowledge to do a variety of network-related tasks.

System-specific

Vendors, naturally, are going to develop certification programs that focus on their products. If you work in a single-vendor environment, vendor-specific certifications make a lot of sense. If you work in a mixed-vendor environment, to save your sanity you may have to pick two or three out of the mix and get your certification for those only.

Whether single- or mixed-vendor, sys-admin certification will help you make sure you know all the tricks of the trade. Even if you become certified and then aren’t scrupulous about keeping those certifications current, you will still gain some practical knowledge and experience during the initial process.

I am going to give you a few details about some of the major systems-certification programs. Some of them I have written about in previous columns. If you’re interested in any of them, make sure to read the fine print about the certification requirements.

When you read through the information on the Web sites, pay particular attention to the training options for the certification exams. You can be a well-paid professional sys admin and still not know all you need for the exams. Thus, don’t be surprised if you need some classroom, online, or book-study time to pass the exams.

If you’ve got more than two years of experience with any of these operating systems, consider performing a self-diagnosis by taking the certification exam without doing any prep work. If you pass, great; if not, you can use the score results to figure out what kind of exam prep you’re going to need. The lower the score, the more help you will need from live instructors. If you only failed by a small margin, perhaps all you need is some quality time with an exam prep book.

Last year I wrote a column about Apple Computer’s new sys-admin certification program, the Apple Certified System Administrator (ACSA). The program is still under construction as I write this, but the company hopes to activate it by the end of the year. It will focus on the Mac operating system, and the administration basics exam will be the first available.

Microsoft’s MCSA program is also new, but as I said earlier, it is on its way to becoming a popular certification program. IT boot camps are already offering short-term prep classes for the exams. If you already have a Microsoft networking certification, even one that’s expired, you are a prime candidate for the MCSA. It can also be useful if you’re new to the IT world but have a degree in computer science and want to add some credentials to your résumé.

You can also become certified in Sun Solaris or Linux; not surprisingly, the network system vendors offer certification programs for their products. CISCO and Novell offer comprehensive programs with different certifications geared toward people with more (or less) field experience. For a handy way to start learning the details about these programs, you can visit the Fatbrain Web site ; click on the bookstore tab and click on the training and certification button.

I am glad to see so many more options opening up for sys admins to test themselves and to gain official recognition for their skills and experience. The SAGE certification is a good general program, and now that Apple, Cisco, Novell, Sun, and Microsoft have stepped in with their programs, the whole network and operating system spectrum is covered. Sys admins, whose jobs are unusually diverse, should have no problem proving their mettle to themselves and others.

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