This is an essay I wrote in 2000 about Red Hat's RH300 training course and RHCE Certification exam. It ran on Slashdot, pretty much exactly like this. Most of the links are broken at this point, and I haven't tried to update any of them. 14 years later, I work for Red Hat, but I stayed at Boston University working on BU Linux for almost a decade after this article was written. Anyway, for history's sake, here we go.
I'm fortunate enough to work at a place that realizes the importance of keeping employees educated and up-to-date. Since my largest current project is Linux-related, and based on Red Hat's distribution in specific, we thought it'd be worthwhile to send me to Red Hat for their RH300 course. I'm pretty familiar with Linux, but I'm a long way from knowing everything, and it's always interesting to learn what the vendor thinks are the most important parts of their product. We chose RH300 because it's the highest-level systems administration class currently offered. It's also the one linked to the RHCE exam, which was an added bonus, but learning was my main goal, not getting the certification. This is my report on the experience -- hopefully, it will help you decide if this is a good choice for you, either as a sysadmin or as an employer.
This course is not only available directly from Red Hat, but also from various partner organizations, including Global Knowledge, which has a training center here in Boston. However, we decided that if we were going to go to the expense of sending me, I might as well go directly to Red Hat, to increase the chances of getting a good instructor, and to insure adequate access to resources. We've had experiences in the past with third-party instructors who didn't know much beyond what was written in the materials. Of course, I don't know that this would be the case with Global Knowledge's version of RH300 -- perhaps someone else can comment on any experience they've had there.
So, it was off to the Red Hat headquarters in Durham, NC. Incidentally, I stayed in the Residence Inn there -- it was listed on Red Hat's site as being nearby. They didn't mention that it was on the other side of a major highway, with no provision for pedestrians to get across. Moral: stay at one of the closer hotels, or else get a car. Anyway, the RH building is very nice -- much bigger than I expected. (I suppose the IPO cash is going to good use.) Of course, as students, we weren't shown much of it -- no tour, and we weren't introduced to any of the celebrity employees. (Fair enough -- with several classes coming through every week, they'd never get anything done.) The people I did meet seemed pretty cool, and in general I got the impression that it's a fun place to work.
The classroom was about as I expected -- projection screen up front, rows of decent-enough small-brand Celeron-based systems (one per student). The machines were on a private network -- reasonable for the course, but unfortunately there was no provision for Internet access, which at the least would have been nice to have when I finished labs early.
We did have access to a breakroom with free soft drinks / juice and various snack items. This is also where the lunches were served -- to my surprise, these were quite good, and there were even decent non-meat choices.
The instructor was very knowledgeable -- not necessarily a complete guru, but he knew his stuff, including the "why" behind the course material. He was able to present the material in a good way, and was good at answering questions. I think the decision to go to Red Hat directly was wise; unlike a third-party consultant, he had some idea of what was going on inside of Red Hat and of their potential future plans. For example, during the section on the printing subsystem, he mentioned that they're considering a replacement for LPR in future releases -- perhaps LPRng or even CUPS. It's unlikely that someone from a different company would have had access to that kind of information.
The other students in the course had a wide range of skills and backgrounds. I think that everyone probably met the listed prerequisites, or came close -- everyone knew how to use a text editor of some sort, and usually something better than pico. However, I could tell that some people were struggling. The instructor mentioned that the pass rate for the exam is about 65%, and I wouldn't be surprised if our class came out at that level or worse. It's not that anyone was stupid -- just that some people were out of their depth. On the other end of the spectrum, there were some people who were over-qualified: a few highly experienced sysadmins, and some folks from IBM's training program taking the class because they are soon going to teach it.
The course was generally similar to the outline found on Red Hat's site, although I think the online information is a bit out of date. (Notice that the web page makes reference to ipfwadm instead of ipchains or netfilter.) The eight units had slightly different names, and covered slightly different information. In the most drastic example, Unit 8, listed on the website as "Systems Administration and Security II", has turned into "Routers, Firewalls, Clusters and Troubleshooting". Some of the information listed in the online Unit 8 was moved into Unit 7, and some of it (cops, for instance) wasn't talked about at all. Hopefully, the online info will be updated soon.
Overall, the class went into less depth than I was hoping. Some of this was due to limitations of the lab setup -- it's a bit difficult to experiment with RAID in any meaningful way when you've only got one IDE hard drive, and obviously impossible to set up a cluster on one machine (short of running VMware). Other things where just plain introductory -- the section on the kernel, for example, focused on the steps required to build and install a new kernel, rather than being an in-depth discussion of tunable parameters. The part about Apache was similar; I was hoping to hear "You've all configured Apache before; here's things you should be aware of when you need it to do such-and-such", but the most advanced we got was setting up a virtual host. Building RPMs from source was mentioned briefly, but there was no information given on important and largely undocumented topics like --buildpolicy.
That's not to say I didn't learn anything -- the section on LVS / Piranha was enlightening even without hands-on experience, and I appreciated the part about quotas, which isn't something I've worked with much. And, I learned a large number of tiny things which add up to making the experience worthwhile to me. RPM can now do globbing over ftp! Portmap uses tcp_wrappers, but doesn't do reverse name lookups, so be sure to use IP addresses instead of names. RH Linux provides a little script called "service" that lets one avoid the tedium of typing /etc/rc.d/init.d/servicename all the time. And so on....
The "300" designation is a bit misleading. This isn't really what I'd consider an upper-level course -- it's more along the lines of SysAdmin 101. Overall, I think this class is probably worthwhile to someone with a good RH Linux background who hasn't done any systems administration. In fact, I'd even recommend it to people in that situation. On the other hand, if you've been a Linux sysadmin for a while, you'll probably be bored most of the time. It might be valuable to experienced Unix sysadmins who haven't dealt with Linux much (or even Linux admins who haven't used Red Hat Linux), but the course wasn't particularly taught from that angle and there are probably better options.
Since I signed a confidentiality agreement, I can't talk about specific details of the test, but I will address the exam in general terms. It's a day-long three part process, with each part being worth 1/3 of the total. To pass, your overall score must be at least 80%, and you can't do worse than 50% on any one part.
One of the sections is a typical multiple-choice test, but the other two are lab based. I was quite impressed with the hands-on tests -- they are certainly what makes the RHCE meaningful. I'm not aware of any other sysadmin certifications that work this way.
For one of the lab tests, students are given a several-page specification, and must install and configure Red Hat Linux and several network services. This wasn't particularly difficult, and shouldn't be for anyone with much experience. For me, the hardest part was resisting the temptation to go beyond the spec -- since I finished the given requirements with plenty of spare time, I considered installing and setting up additional services in a way that would fit in with the listed goals. But, I decided that it'd be better to leave well-enough alone -- there's no concept of extra credit.
The other hands-on test is the cool and exciting one. Students are given preconfigured setups which are broken in some way, and given a task that must be completed. The system's problem doesn't necessarily relate directly to the task, but does interfere with it. The test-taker must find out what's wrong and correct the error. (Reinstalling packages is not allowed.) Being able to list the steps taken and to repeat the fix is important, but ultimately the test is scored on a works / doesn't work basis. One the examiner verifies that the problem is fixed, he or she wipes the system and provides another broken config.
This problem-solving section directly tests skills important to being a sysadmin in the real world; if someone has trouble with these, they're probably not ready for a systems administration job. Of course, just passing this test doesn't guarantee good problem solving skills (let alone all the other needed abilities), but it does seem a genuinely valuable indicator.
I've only two complaints with this part of the test. First, I'd make it a much larger section -- at least 50% -- and I'd increase the number of problems given so that there'd be a better sample size. The various challenges are assigned at random, and some are easier than others, and each tests knowledge of different parts of the system. The way it's done isn't bad, but it wouldn't hurt to have a lot more of it. Second, I'd give each student two computers, and make more of the problems network-related. This has logistical and cost issues (especially in places other than Red Hat's own training centers), but since many of the problems faced in the real world have to do with the way systems interact, I feel it'd be worth it.
You may have noticed that I seem a lot more excited by the exam than by the course itself. I think both are valuable, but they seemed aimed at slightly different levels. The course definitely can serve as a good review for the exam, but if you need the course, you won't do well on the test. If you're tight on cash and the certification seems valuable to you or to your employer, going straight to the exam would be reasonable. (Make sure you take a look at Red Hat's test prep page.) On the other hand, if you need to be quickly brought up to speed on the basic knowledge required of a RH Linux sysadmin, it might make sense to take this course without worrying about the test. Since RH300 is equivalent to RH033 + RH133 + RH253, this could be a much more intensive and time-efficient option.
It's probably obvious, but bears mentioning anyway: this is a Red Hat Linux course and certification, not a general Linux one. I found this to be true both explicitly and implicitly. The instructor was good about saying "This is the Red Hat way of doing things -- it's possibly different on other distributions." (I found the increase-the-whole-pie attitude to be common to all of the RH employees I talked to.) There were also quite a few things that were just assumed. If you take the exam without knowing a lot about Red Hat Linux in particular, you're likely to have trouble.
This doesn't make the certification meaningless for organizations running other distributions -- many of the skills and knowledge required for the test (especially the problem solving part) are generally applicable anywhere. In fact, due to the lab-based testing process, I have more respect for this exam than I might for a multiple-choice test covering more distributions. I think this issue is a one-way sort of thing: the RHCE exam requires knowledge of Red Hat Linux, but anyone who can pass it shouldn't have much trouble picking up other flavors.
Ok, the web page promises that they'll give Red Hat promotional items to course participants. Yeah, well, they can do better on this front. Not even a t-shirt! C'mon, everyone gives t-shirts. Vendor shirts are a staple of my wardrobe! All we got was a mousepad, some stickers, and a baseball cap. (No chance of getting a red fedora.) Oh, and of course an official copy of the CD (with the 180 days of support). Many people in the class were surprised to learn that Red Hat doesn't sell anything from their offices -- you can't buy copies of the distro or additional merchandise. They've got a lot of students coming through there, so it seems like this could be a decent (even if relatively small) revenue stream.
Before I went, I flipped through RHCE Exam Cram, the sole study guide I found at the local bookstore. Someone in the class actually purchased it and brought it with them, and I got a chance to read more of it then. I wasn't really impressed. The book was especially concerned with what it called "trick questions", and indeed its sample questions were sometimes a bit confusing -- and often poorly worded. After taking the test, I can say that this seems mostly to be a problem with the book, not something encountered on the actual exam, which was mostly straightforward and fair.
There are several other RHCE study guides, but I wouldn't recommend spending any money on any of them. As the course instructor told us: if you're going to pass, you'll do so even if you don't have a guide. And if you're going to fail, the guide won't be much help.
I think the RH300 course and RHCE certification can be valuable to both employers and individuals. The course provides a nice quick overview of the basics needed to move, for example, from being a systems operator to being an admin. I wouldn't think of it as either a requirement for the test or as something that can make someone not ready suddenly have the skills required for the exam. Since the exam is hands-on and lab based, those abilities can only come from real world experience. Looking at that from the other direction: this is exactly what makes the RHCE worth anything. While it's not a total statement on someone's talent, being able to pass is a strong indicator that they have the basic skills for a systems administration job. If I were making hiring decisions, I wouldn't make the RHCE a requirement, but I would have more confidence in applicants who have it.