IMPORTANT: What to Expect of this Guide
This really belongs past the below introduction, but I want everyone to see it clearly. This guide probably won’t be like most other guides out there, but that’s because I don’t think the best way to learn is through a series of step-by-step guides. In fact, I think that is often detrimental to learning, as exercises become little more than follow-the-leader ventures which are forgotten as quickly as they are accomplished.
So, the plan is to produce a series of posts capturing the scope of the LFCE competencies and directing readers to the resources necessary for their proper understanding. After the series is complete, I may construct some VM images and associated series of exercise routines which aim to cover the broadest and deepest range of competencies in the most concise and effective manner.
I’m just doing the best I can, of course, and I am not affiliated with the Linux Foundation’s certification program in any way other than being a candidate for the examination. I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the conclusions presented in this informal guide, but I will try to make it worthwhile.
Ok, now that that’s out of the way, onwards we go.
Introduction to the Preparation Guide
So, I have been preparing myself for the new LFCE certification. Perhaps it’s the newness of the examinations or the intentional secrecy of the examination content, but for whatever reason, it is difficult to find reputable information on the Internet regarding reasonable preparatory steps for candidates to undertake prior to sitting for the examination. Since I haven’t yet taken the exam, I don’t know what’s on it beyond the information I can glean from the posted domains and competencies, but on the plus side, I am protected by my ignorance from overstepping the bounds of any non-disclosure agreements I will sign.
Nonetheless, I’ve been in system administration in a medium/medium-large-sized enterprise environment for four years, with my total professional IT support experience hovering around eight years. Since the examination is ideally designed with everyday administrative demands in mind, I should hopefully have a good grasp of the tactics, techniques, and procedures relevant to the listed domains and competencies.
The guide will be focused on a standard military breakdown of operations, applied to information technology system administration:
- Techniques are the general and detailed methods used by systems to carry out assigned operations.
- Example: the use of the /sbin/service executable to acquire information regarding the status of a daemon.
- Procedures are standard and detailed courses of action which link techniques in the performance of tasks.
- Example: the use of multiple techniques (/sbin/service, /sbin/shutdown, /sbin/chkconfig) in validating the automated startup of daemons on a system slated to enter production-level operation.
- Tactics is the intelligent leveraging of procedures and techniques in the operations of systems.
- Example: the choice to automatically start certain services while declining to do so for others when configuring a system for production-level operation.
My plan is to scour the Internet for information on each competency of each domain and provide a breakdown of the TTPs with which one should be familiar, some resources for learning more about them, and some exercises to perform to hone one’s skills and better judge one’s comfort level with the demands of the addressed competency. Because my work is primarily with Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS, and Fedora (and I wholeheartedly recommend participation in this community as both a wise career choice and a great FOSS choice), I will deepen the articles by focusing only on CentOS 6.4 (sorry Ubuntu/OpenSUSE folks – no offense, just a scoping decision based on the aforementioned conditions), which is the current CentOS choice for LFCE certification.
So get ready! The best way forward is to come to know these TTPs by thoroughly reading the relevant documentation and challenging oneself to apply the knowledge gained thereby in exercises designed to bring together the various TTPs into cohesive solutions for common system administration problems. This is my absolute favorite thing to do in the IT world, so I’m glad to share the love.
The Almighty Caveat
Of course, I cannot claim to offer an official guide. I am not a part of the Linux Foundation, and I’m really just giving this my best shot. My idea for the structure of this guide is to provide my best guesses at the technologies most relevant to the domains and competencies listed by the Linux Foundation for the LFCE exam and then to provide my favorite resources and guidance regarding the level of understanding to be reached prior to sitting for the examination.
That said, I am very much interested in feedback and would like this to become a solid source of information on the Internet, so let me know what you think and what you would like to see if you don’t see it already! Links to valuable resources I didn’t mention, or other takes on interpreting competencies are some obvious examples of welcome input. Don’t be shy! The best way to study open source software is openly and freely!
Implied Mastery of LFCS Domains and Competencies
So, as you might have discerned, I am interested in taking the LFCE examination, and not the LFCS examination. While the latter would be interesting and a better starting point if I were less experienced with Linux, it is also a nice feature of the Linux Foundation’s certification program that someone who feels that (s)he could comfortably pass the LFCS examination is not required to take it prior to taking the LFCE examination. While the domains and competencies of the LFCS examination are implied prerequisites for the LFCE examination, they are very rudimentary. If I weren’t preparing myself for the LFCE (and therefore in need of optimizing my time expenditure), I would gladly begin with the LFCS material, but that will have to wait until I’m done with this certification and I can relax a bit more.
A CentOS 6 Virtual Machine
So the first thing you should do is whip up a CentOS VM. I’m personally using CentOS 6.6, though I’m cognizant of the risk of making use of additional features not available in CentOS 6.4. This isn’t likely to be too common an issue, but just know that it’s there if you end up using a vanilla CentOS 6.6 machine as well. While virtual machine management surprisingly isn’t part of the domains and competencies listed for the LFCE examination, I would expect a candidate for the LFCE certification to be able to get a VM running and manage snapshots intelligently. If you can’t do that yet, now is the time to learn! Your first task should be to install a CentOS 6 VM, fully update it, and take a snapshot of its fresh, fully-updated state. This will allow you to work with the system without concern for messing it up, since you can always revert to the snapshot you made. I suggest learning how to use KVM and using it for these preparatory exercises – it’s the hypervisor built into the Linux kernel itself, so you know you’ll find it on any Enterprise-grade Linux-based virtualization platform (finding the most common toolsets is a big part of working professionally in the Linux environment).
Some Valuable Texts
If you have access to an academic library, score! I do have access to such a library and am a very happy and ardent user of proquest.safaribooksonline.com. If you are a member of any University community, check and see if you have access to that service. If you do, thousands of invaluable IT books are immediately at your disposal, and they should include the books I will recommend below. If not, the books I recommend are absolutely worth your ownership.
- The Linux Bible, 8th Edition – Christopher Negus
- Summary: I read this book cover to cover as one of the first texts I used when becoming involved in Linux system administration. It’s 864 pages of excellent introductory information that covers just about every domain and competency described by the LFCS and LFCE examinations.
- Strengths: Excellent methodology from the author – he shows how to acquire the information he presents with excellent command-line examples. He provides a superb introduction to Apache and SELinux, as well.
- Weaknesses: A bit outdated (uses Fedora 16 for demonstrations), but so fundamental that this bears not much of an impact, especially for our purposes here.
- RHCSA/RHCE Red Hat Linux Certification Study Guide, Sixth Edition and RHCSA/RHCE Red Hat Linux Certification Practice Exams with Virtual Machines – Michael Jang
- Summary: These texts are for the roughly-analogous RHCSA and RHCE certifications, and the Linux Foundation itself suggests that exam candidates use preparation materials from these exams to aid in preparation for the Linux Foundation examinations. The reason is that both certification programs are developed from the same theoretical basis (real system administration work converted into an examination process) and test for very similar competencies.
- Strengths: At over 1300 pages together, these texts fully cover just about everything you’ll need to know for the LFCE examination. I have very high confidence that someone who is capable of performing all of the tasks featured in these texts will have no problem gaining LFCE certification.
- Weaknesses: Again, a bit outdated (relies on CentOS 6.2), but again not severely enough to hamper our purposes here. I also find Mr. Jang to occasionally author bad sections (such as his section explaining autofs, though I had one hell of a time finding an adequate explanation of that system), so it’s wise to pair the work with another such as the Linux Bible, but together, they should suffice for our needs.
- Essential System Administration, third Edition – Aeleen Frisch
- Summary: This is one of the best in-depth texts regarding UNIX administration which I have come across. The explanations of the most basic aspects of *nix systems are unparalleled. Just check out the section on file modes and you’ll see the exhaustiveness of which I speak. I’m declaring it optional for the LFCE preparation guide here, but it is invaluable for broadening understanding of other *nix operating systems (AIX, HP-UX, FreeBSD, Solaris..) and the depth with which it handles the subject matter is really excellent.
- Mastering Unix Shell Scripting – Randal Michael
- Summary: Before I began working as a system administrator, I had about a year of computer science courses, including advanced algorithm development and other programming coursework in Java, C, and C++. I had experience with Visual Basic and PowerShell (if you’re a Windows administrator, that better be your new favorite thing), and so all I needed was a good book with excellent examples to get me oriented in the new bash environment in which I found myself. This book is wonderful in that regard, and I use it as a reference frequently. Being able to script actions on the fly in the command line routinely separates me from other IT employees, and as a result, I often get done in minutes what takes literally hours for others to accomplish. This is invaluable. Period.
A Closing Exhortation
On that last point (from the summary of Mastering Unix Shell Scripting above), I’d like to say this: most IT professionals I have met, somewhere in the range of 80% – 95% of all IT professionals I have met, simply don’t read much. They aren’t very interested in their profession beyond doing what it takes to get in and get out with a paycheck. I have devoted a very large amount of my time (regularly about 25% of each year’s working hours over the course of six years) to training and expanding my skills and abilities, and it has paid off immensely. I have reached a point in my career where the value I have gained from this practice is compounding to a great degree. As a result, I often have more flexibility and capabilities than even my most senior-level coworkers. I am frequently granted my requests of management far more readily than my coworkers because management knows that I can get things done properly.
This isn’t to brag (this blog is relatively anonymous, after all), but to tell anyone reading this who might wish to become an IT professional or who might feel stuck in a current position as an IT professional: knowledge is power. If you study and work hard, regularly practicing and honing your skills, you will have begun an investment which often takes years to pay off. For the first two or three years of my work and training as a system administrator, I was frequently working very hard to resolve issues which I had never encountered before. DNS, DHCP, NTP, AD, and the myriad common infrastructure components of computing networks were new to me and presented constant hurdles. But even early on, being reasonably organized and efficient, maintaining an exhaustive notebook of projects, investigations, results, procedures, and textbook notes, I found that I was immediately more effective than coworkers and I could devote the time I saved myself with this efficiency to training and study, whereas others would frequently complain of having inadequate resources to engage in such endeavors. Now, after three years of serving as Tiers 1-3 help desk support followed by five years of system administration work, I am finding that more often than not, I encounter troubles which I very thoroughly understand, having previously resolved or studied them in other situations, and that leaves a very comfortable amount of time for study and work on the more interesting subject matter. I don’t know where I’m headed, but information technology is so ubiquitous and so expansive that I am pretty sure I’ll be provided with very interesting material as long as I am interested to see it.
So let this be encouragement to everyone interested in seeking certification. That was how I began, and it has proven to me more valuable a career decision than where I worked, who I knew, or what my title was, or any of that other stuff at which people commonly throw their focus. I began at a help desk in a small IT department, and I simply asked what our organization needed in terms of IT knowledge. I was first directed to database administration, which I pursued briefly before being asked to change course and pursue system administration. I gained a small amount of funding (just a couple hundred dollars) with which I began some Microsoft E-Learning courses. I added in books from my local academic library and over the course of three years and seven examinations (including two retakes – don’t be too disappointed if you fail now and again), I became a three-time Microsoft Certified IT Professional as follows:
- MCITP: Enterprise Administrator on Windows Server 2008
- MCITP: Enterprise Messaging Administrator on Exchange 2010
- MCITP: Enterprise Support Technician on Windows Vista
I took the education seriously and didn’t cheat on the exams (despite the plentiful, easy opportunities to do so and the confessions of my former colleagues that they had cheated on theirs) and I came away with a very strong understanding not only of the Microsoft environment, but the common components of networking and computing infrastructure which I would then encounter, often at a lower and more interesting level, in the Linux environment. I was readied for my unexpected future purely because I took the time to do the right thing and study like a professional. That the Linux Foundation is now offering this opportunity gladdens me very much, for I think strong certification programs are one of the best features of the IT industry. They ensure that hard working, honest people can train themselves and check their abilities against reliable metrics to know how ready they are to professionally handle workloads.
The IT industry is becoming increasingly complex, and if the endless security breaches aren’t enough to convince you of its importance, knowledgeable and professional IT staff are indispensable and rare. So set for yourself training goals, and seek certification. Check with your organization for any training funds or other aid which might be available and gain momentum by carrying out the tasks you set out to accomplish – that alone will propel you forward as others will gain confidence in you and organizations which previously denied you aid may be more willing to invest in someone who regularly succeeds.
With that, I will begin to post some breakdowns of the domains and competencies of the LFCE examination. Feel free to leave comments or concerns and I will be more than happy to address them.