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Trying on a new Hat

A new version of Red hat doesn’t necessarily require a new round of Linux training.

At the end of October, representatives from Red Hat Inc., the open-source technology provider, embarked on a tour from the company’s headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., planning to stop in a half-dozen cities to educate users and prospective users of the Linux platform.

If that sounds like an old-fashioned string of campaign whistle stops, you’re not far off. More and more companies are touting Linux as the future of operating-system software. If their projections come true, that could mean now is the time to explore Linux training options, not only for seasoned users, but for newbies as well.

What’s under the hat?

Red Hat Linux is among the most popular versions of Linux, and it’s easy to see why. Red Hat engineers assemble the Linux kernel and other elements of the Linux operating system, compile it, and test it for performance and reliability. Then they add new features, test for compatibility, all while sharing the software with customers, partners and software vendors, and members of the open-source community. Red Hat says no other Linux company has a process as meticulous.

Red Hat 8.0’s goal is to make Linux more palatable for users unfamiliar with Linux. With an eye toward the SOHO market, the Personal edition of 8.0 (priced at $39.99) features Bluecurve, a new operating environment intended to make Linux as easy and intuitive as Windows–though, of course, without all the bugs.

Red Hat 8.0 is available in both personal and professional editions. In both, Red Hat is providing the 8.0 OS on a five-CD set. Professional Edition includes two extra CDs plus additional documentation. One of the extra CDs contains OpenOffice and other apps. The other CD is for systems administration tools.

The OpenOffice suite includes document, presentation, and spreadsheet apps. Red Hat is also offering mail clients: Aside from updated editions of the Sendmail and Samba clients, choices include Konqueror; Kmail; Galeon; Ximian Evolution, a mail client application with an integrated contact manager and scheduler; and Mozilla, an Internet browser packaged with a mail client, address book, and HTML authoring environment.

In GNOME’s default configuration, Red Hat uses Mozilla instead of Galeon. In KDE’s default configuration, Mozilla appears in place of Konqueror, and Evolution in place of Kmail. Also built into 8.0 is Ximian Connector, which can be used for accessing Microsoft Exchange tools from Linux desktops.

Red Hat has updated the core components of its OS to gcc3.2 and kernel 2.4.18. Other components of the new release include Apache 2.0 Web server, plus updates to the Sendmail and Samba servers; NFS; FTP; DNS; BIND; and the Squid Web proxy server. Administrators are getting tools for configuring peripherals, personal firewalls, small networks, and servers such as Apache and Samba.

Get on the right track

Naturally, Red Hat recommends its own training, even providing its own certification, Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE). The courses available through Red Hat can cover essential knowledge and skills, as well as practical methods for developing Linux-based applications. Red Hat also offers courses that focus on specific areas of expertise, such as e-business, security, and embedded technologies.

But is further training truly necessary? Not in every case. Evan Leibovitch, president of Ontario-based Linux Professional Institute (LPI), a vendor-neutral, non-profit Linux certification provider, says general Linux training should cover knowledge that applies across the board.

“Linux in general is not as fragmented as, say, the UNIX companies are,” he says. “There’s far less difference between Red Hat and other versions of Linux as there are between Sun’s [Solaris] and IBM’s [AIX]. Basically, they fall into a few different categories: the installation method, the visual appearance of the graphic interface, and the way software packages are managed. Those are the ways Red Hat differs from SuSe or Caldera, and the way most of them differ from each other.”

That means a lot of what’s new in Red Hat 8.0 is a working out of some kinks: Leibovitch says Red Hat has done a lot of work on the graphic interface, as well as on the management and system administration parts of the program.

“But their guts–the Linux they use, the Apache they use, the various tools they use-are essentially identical [to previous versions],” he says. “It’s a refinement, and so it has newer versions of these kinds of software packages.” As solid as the RHCE track might be, it’s not for beginners.

“It’s an advanced program, a hands-on exam, and there are a limited number of places where it can be taken,” says Leibovitch. “Most of the Red Hat certifications that exist right now aren’t for the average user, they’re for system administrators. None of them will tell you how to use your browser better, or how to use applications. A lot has to do with troubleshooting and diagnosing problems. It’s not really end-user-oriented.”

The reason that your current level of training might just need some tweaking to stay up to date on Red Hat is that the architecture underneath Linux is very stable and robust.

“Going to 8.0, as well as the new versions of other Linux programs these days, you’re not seeing any earth-shattering technology differences,” says Leibovitch. “They’re still using a similar version of the Linux kernel. It may be more up-to-date, but that updating reflects far more fine-tuning than overhauling.”

Start at square one

So what’s a beginner to do? Fortunately, Linux training options are abundant. The first major step is to become LPI-certified. Two exams in three different levels, at $100 each, must be passed to gain this level of certification.

LPI level 1 is somewhat more advanced than CompTIA’s Linux+ certification and parallel to the prerequisites level of the RedHat training program. It means that you can work at the Linux command line, help out users, add users to a larger system, backup and restore, shut down and reboot a UNIX system and can install and configure a work station, and connect it to the LAN, or a stand-alone PC via modem to the Internet.

To attain level-2 LPI certification, you have to be able to administer a small to medium-sized site (in other words, plan, implement, maintain, keep consistent, secure, and troubleshoot a small mixed network; supervise a small staff of assistants; and advise management on automation and purchases).

Level-3-certified administrators should be able to design and implement solutions to complex automation problems, like multisite enterprises, heavy-duty Internet sites, custom solutions; initiate projects and develop a budget to implement them; supervise a staff of assistants; and act as a consultant to upper management.

Once you’re certified, you’re not on Easy Street; after all, you still need to get and keep a job. But there is a certain level of security in being certified in Linux administration that might not be found elsewhere.

LPI encourages people to upgrade and stay current, but it never expires certifications.

“One thing I think you’ll find as a difference in the Linux community as opposed to the UNIX or Windows community is how people can continue using an existing certification,” says Leibovitch. “I have found circumstances where certification was used almost as a way to force people to upgrade when maybe they don’t need it. That’s occasionally used as a tactic to force people to get trained on new releases, which helps drive sales of updates and new releases.” The bottom line is that newcomers to Linux administration don’t need to worry about picking up the finer points of Red Hat until they have an understanding of the basics, and seasoned administrators can pick up the new version’s refinements on their own.

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