By William Jeffrey Rankin, Fri Dec 1 2017
Note: This article is based upon my Nov 16, 2017 presentation to the DMA Linux Users Group.
Late last summer I decided to take a class in Linux system administration and get certified. I've been using Unix/Linux since the early '90s and wanted to augment my existing skills and pick up some new skills. It probably seems strange for a designer to be interested in Unix, but I've always appreciated its power, modularity, and depth of its design.
There are a number of system admin-oriented courses and certifications that I considered (Red Hat, CompTIA, Linux Foundation). I ended up choosing the LFS201 course and LFCS exam offered by the Linux Foundation. The neutrality (wrt Linux distribution) of the Linux Foundation helped in making that decision. The wide coverage of the course was appealing as well: I wanted to start with something more general and then take more topical (perhaps distribution-specific) courses later. Finally, Linus Torvalds is listed among the fellows of the Linux Foundation. Registration for both the course and exam cost $499, the exam included a free re-take.
To back up a little, I first took the free edX LFS101x (Introduction to Linux) course. It was genuinely useful and I highly recommend it as either an introduction or refresher.
Here are my thoughts on both the LFS201 course and LFCS exam content.
Whew, that's a lot of content! At the time that I took the course, around September 2017, the course consisted of 42 chapters. Coverage included (just the high points here) filesystem layout, processes, package management, system monitoring, process monitoring, memory monitoring and tuning, IO monitoring and tuning, disk partitioning, disk encryption, LVM, RAID, user and group management, file permissions and management, PAM, network configuration, firewall, system startup and shutdown, GRUB, backup and recovery, basic troubleshooting, and system rescue. Exercises and labs conclude most chapters. In a word: exhaustive.
It took about a month for me to get through all the course material (I reviewed some of it). I found some chapters more useful and informative than others, including those chapters covering LVM, disk management, user/group management, and GRUB. Chapters covering system monitoring (processes, memory, CPU, I/O) and tuning were less useful. I was looking forward to learning more about these topics, but the course presentation was very dry. The content would've benefited a great deal from discussion of real-world scenarios that occur and the techniques/tools that can be used to fix issues. Put simply: make it real. Finally, one positive aspect of all the content was the command-line orientation. Graphical tools were discussed occasionally, but never as the primary means to perform a task.
A side issue regards the length of the LFCS Domains and Competencies (V 2.16). This document lists the knowledge and skills the Linux Foundation believes sysadmins should possess. V 2.16 is very long, and contains some odd items. This was a problem for me because it created uncertainty about what would appear on the exam, especially when it wasn't covered in LFS201 (I don't expect a 1:1 relationship between the domains/competencies, course, and exam, but the correlation should be reasonably strong). Fortunately, this has been addressed, and the latest domains and competencies document has been streamlined to make more sense.
While I can't get into specifics about the exam content, I can share some of the basics and offer some pointers. The exam consists of 25 questions and you're given 2 hours to complete it (enough time in my experience). It's conducted through a web browser (Google Chrome is required) using a plug-in that enables a terminal session to a CentOS installation (I chose CentOS for the exam, Ubuntu is offered as well). I was using a MacBook Pro connected to a Thunderbolt display. It's a terminal session only, no graphical tools are used. A test administrator monitors the session through your webcam. You'll be asked to remove everything from your desktop and the wall you are facing. You're not permitted to have anything to eat or drink during the session. From what I understand, you can request a brief break during the test session.
Critique of some of the course content aside, the course was thorough (almost to a fault) and well-done. I felt the exam was fair and support was great. For me, it was worth the investment. I'll also note that you can purchase the exam alone for $300 and use alternate resources for study (see the references below) instead of taking the LFS201 course.
Note: I'll be taking the LFS211 course (Linux Networking and Administration) and LFCE exam as well.