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The Linux Professional

Sair Linux and GNU Certification


Welcome to the fourth article of The Linux Professional. In last month's column, I detailed my experience with the Linux Professional Institute Exam 101, their first release. This month I'd like to offer my impressions of the Sair Linux and GNU Certification program and their first exam.

Sair, Inc.

In 1999, Dr. Tobin Maginnis of the University of Mississippi began work on a vendor-neutral Linux certification program under the umbrella of his private company, Sair Inc. Pronounced zair, the company name stands for Software Architecture Implementation and Realization. Sair is offering its exams through Sylvan Prometric testing centers worldwide. Sair has the backing of its parent company, Wave Technologies, and an impressive list of advisors.

Sair defines three Linux certification levels:

For each of these three certification levels, four exams are required, for a total of twelve exams. At a cost of US $99 for each exam, a candidate pursuing all twelve exams will spend nearly US $1200 on exams alone, something to consider if you're planning on paying for your exams personally.

The Sair Linux knowledge matrix

The certification level descriptions listed above may be a little vague, but detail on their content is described in Sair's knowledge matrices, devices used to organize the material for all twelve exams in the series. Three matrices will eventually exist, although only the Level I matrix is currently available. The four exams making up the Level I certification are represented in four rows of the matrix:

The columns of the matrix hold these general topic areas:

Each cell in the matrix represents a major content area for the corresponding certification level. For example, on the first row (which covers the Linux Installation and Configuration exam), the Theory of Operation column contains topics such as the history and nature of free software, the GPL, and other general knowledge items. It also contains basic PC hardware topics (such as interrupts and I/O addresses) and network configuration. In the second row of the matrix (which covers the System Administration exam) a different view of Theory of Operation includes filesystem issues, the Linux Loader (LILO), and others.

Exam preparation

However it is organized, the information being tested in the Sair exams is what you'd expect for a junior level certificate. Concepts are tested in general terms, and detail is kept to a minimum. Based on my experience with the Installation & Configuration exam, an experienced Linux system administrator will have little difficulty with the Level I exams. That said, you'll still want to do some preparation prior to your test.

As an organizational device, the knowledge matrix is okay, but it doesn't help much when it comes to exam preparation. It does offer some references to outside documentation if you drill down into individual topics, but this would be a tedious way to study. To start, you might look at the exam objectives pages provided by Sair. This information, while not completely specific, does provide a general understanding of what's on the exam. However, two additional resources are available that might be more helpful. The first is a series of sample exams. These are short tests prepared to look much like the real exam, and my score on the sample correctly predicted my result on Installation & Configuration (I passed). I recommend that you begin with the sample Installation & Configuration test to gauge your experience and knowledge, and then determine your next step.

If you feel that more detailed preparation materials will improve your chances for success, you may wish to purchase Sair's own manuals. Dr. Maginnis is authoring a separate book for each exam to be published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Currently, the Installation & Configuration book is available with a list price of US $34.99, and it's discounted by some retailers. My impression of the book is positive overall, but it has a significant number of errors and typos. It does contain a sample exam, much more extensive than the on-line sample, which should assist you with your preparation. Additional books are already announced.

Perhaps the best reason to purchase prep books from Sair is their offer of a free exam voucher with proof of purchase, available through September 1, 2000. If you purchase the discounted book for US $28 and get the voucher, you're saving US $71 of the US $99 exam price.

The Level I Installation & Configuration exam

The Sair exams are typical IT certification tests administered at Sylvan Prometric using a PC. The Installation & Configuration exam consisted of fifty questions of these four types:

Of course, the quantities of each type of question could vary from exam to exam. A score of 74% or higher was required to pass. Most of the questions on my exam were basic general knowledge questions, though an occasional command option or configuration-file syntax item was included. In general the complexity of the material was quite low, but still adequate and appropriate for a junior administrator.

I do have a few problems with the exam, however. First, no option was available to provide feedback on specific questions to Sair. I feel that this option is important, particularly at this early stage in exam deployment. Next, I found three questions with wording problems and four that were, in my opinion, ambiguous. Both problems made answering the subject questions difficult and turned the responses into a guessing game. For example, one question on my exam specified a well-known directory in the Linux filesystem and then provided a number of responses describing the directory. Two of the responses could have been considered correct. The first was literally correct in the context of the exam, and the other was generally correct given knowledge of the actual use of the directory in practice. Which is correct for the exam? Questions such as this are unfair and should probably be refined or screened from the exams. Although most of the questions were of good quality, seven out of fifty seems high for wording problems and could cause a borderline examinee to fail.


Based on my experience with this single Sair exam, I feel that the program will provide a credible but expensive certification course. With big-name backing and a well-charted course, Sair is likely to be a significant player in the Linux training and certification industry.

For more on Sair (and LPI as well), I recommend an excellent Linux Certification article by Eileen Cohen, posted at LinuxWorld.

In next month's article, we'll take a look at LPI exam #102.

Jeff Dean is an engineering and IT professional currently writing a Linux certification handbook for O'Reilly Media, Inc..

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