Lowdown on Linux Skills

What does it mean for IT professionals now that Linux is finding its way into a growing number of corporate settings? For systems administrators—the corporate IT people most likely to be affected by Linux adoption—it means they'll have another operating system to learn as their companies capitalize on Linux savings by retraining staffers.

"It's definitely a year of cost containment," says Fran Linhart, director of certifications at The Computing Technology Industry Association Inc. in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., which offers an entry-level Linux certification. She notes that it's easier and cheaper to retrain existing staffers than to hire new ones. Indeed, employers paid for most of the 20,000-plus professionals certified by Linux Professional Institute Inc. in Brampton, Ontario, through the end of 2002, and for the approximately 6,600 professionals who qualified for the Red Hat Certified Systems Engineer designation.

On the applications side, programmers and developers may be called on to port Unix-based applications to Linux systems or to write new ones. But they won't need to learn new languages: They can develop applications for Linux in C, C++ or Java.

That's the key to Linux, say its supporters. The operating system will revolutionize the cost of back-end servers and create new jobs over time, building on basic programming, networking, administrative and business skills that many professionals already have, say those who use it.

"You don't need to understand business policies and practices any more or less with Linux than with other systems," says Bill Thompson, director of IT at The Sherwin-Williams Co.'s paint stores group. "You still need to meet the needs of the user, and Linux gives you a lot of tools to accomplish that." The Cleveland-based retailer is moving to Turbolinux.


In addition to understanding networking basics such as TCP/IP, administrators must know the idiosyncrasies of the commercial Linux distributions their companies run (such as the Red Hat or SuSE distributions). Linux certification programs also test for skills in networking services associated with Linux, including the GNU Object Model Environment, Apache Web server, Samba file sharing and others.


Unix users in particular find Linux easy to learn. "Anyone who knows Solaris or any major Unix platform could easily switch to Linux," says Brian Dewey, network engineer at Raymour & Flanigan Furniture Co. The Liverpool, N.Y.-based company runs 600 Linux-based terminals in 50 stores, as well as a Linux-based Domain Name System and e-mail, and Apache and Oracle back-end servers.

Dewey says he taught himself Linux the way many professionals recommend learning it: by downloading a free or inexpensive Linux distribution and experimenting with it.

Formal training options include vendor-neutral courses such as those offered by Linux Certified Inc. in San Jose and courses from vendors like Red Hat Inc. Local Linux user groups are also excellent sources of practical information about Linux deployment. Two online sources for Linux information, downloadable distributions and other links are www.linux.com and www.destinationlinux.com.


Linux skills offer a boost to administrator salaries, which have been dropping, says David Foote, president and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn., and a Computerworld columnist. Systems administrator salaries averaged $78,712 in total compensation last year—a decrease of 9.5% from 2001, according to Foote's "Quarterly IT Professional Salary Survey."

However, bonus pay for Red Hat and Linux Professional Institute certifications increased last year, with the median bonus at 8% of base pay for Red Hat Certified Systems Engineer and at 7% for the Linux Professional Institute's Level 2 certification at year's end, according to the firm's "Quarterly Hot Technical Skills and Certifications Pay Index."


Name: Brad Bice

Title: Systems administrator

Employer: Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage

Current IT staff: Eight

30-second resume: His early career experience included selling and installing hardware, software and networks and full-time technical support at Datatel Inc., a vendor of Unix-based higher education administration systems in Fairfax, Va. He joined Alaska Pacific in 1999, managing a mix of Red Hat Linux-, Unix- and Windows-based servers. One of his first projects was helping to set up two routers using Linux.

Skills boost: Bice, who runs Red Hat Linux on his desktop PC at work, offers this advice: "Download a Red Hat distribution, load it on an old PC, buy a basic Linux book, then play with it. Get Linux to dial into your ISP, get the Web browsers up, set up an FTP server—it's very powerful."

Bice says he picked up his first copy of Linux around 1994 and used it on a home PC not only to learn Linux but also to become versed in Unix skills. "I'd be very comfortable taking someone with deep Linux skills and putting them over a Solaris server," he says.

Learning Linux at home or via classes opens other career doors too, says Bice. Someone could download MySQL and PostgreSQL, learn them on Linux and build a solid background for becoming an Oracle database administrator. "All those skills would transfer," Bice says.

Having a mix of Linux and other operating systems skills and experience will be vital for IT professionals, he predicts. For example, the university is seeking a webmaster to manage its Red Hat Linux Web server running MySQL and PHP. "A Windows guy would be lost on that," Bice says.

But a faculty/student Web server is Windows-based, and the webmaster will be expected to support those applications as well. "We need both skill sets," Bice says.

Watson is a freelance writer in Chicago. Contact her at sjwatson@interaccess.com.

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