Late last year, I recommended that Linux professionals pursue Red Hat certification. But nine months later, the Linux Professional Institute’s (LPI) Level 1 and Level 2 accreditations are getting all the glory. The LPI Certification took the top spot in the 2002 CRN Certification Study for both surveyed audience groups—small and large solution providers—in the “fastest-rising in importance” category. Red Hat’s Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) accreditation ranked second among large solution providers and fifth among small solution providers in the same category.

Why LPI?
Typically, the vendor that owns a particular market segment also owns certification in that area. Microsoft’s MCSE numbers certainly grow out of the company’s OS dominance, while Cisco’s certifications surely owe a debt to the company’s leadership in the networking equipment segment. Being first to market is usually another significant advantage.

Red Hat’s certification debuted in 1998; LPI’s was released in 2000. Why then, with Red Hat’s market-share dominance among Linux distributions, is LPI outrunning Red Hat?

I think five factors explain LPI’s success.

1. Linux is a different animal
The open source movement emphasizes community participation. The concept of ownership by a single vendor goes against the Linux grain, and several distributions vie for attention. It’s natural, then, that a vendor-independent Linux certification will appeal to members of the open source community. A vendor-independent exam is a natural fit.

2. Vendor-neutral certifications enjoy growing popularity
The debate is growing over whether vendor-independent certifications have more value than accreditations that focus on a single vendor. The 2002 CRN Certification Study suggested that IT professionals are almost evenly split as to whether more vendor-neutral accreditations are needed.

The security arena, in particular, appears to be benefiting from an increased interest in vendor-neutral certifications. Accreditations from CompTIA and such independent organizations as the Security Certified Program and the International Information Systems Security Certifications Consortium are growing in popularity. LPI may well be benefiting, too, from industry-wide interest in vendor-neutral certifications.

3. LPI is doing it right
One way to grow most any business is to build a quality product. LPI has created a respected certification that’s difficult to earn and that recently won Linux Journal’s Editor’s Choice Award in the Training and Certification category.

While Red Hat has built a reputation for testing real-world skills in a hands-on exam, LPI receives credit for creating a certification that tests a broad skill set across a number of different distributions. While the RHCE is often viewed as a top-level Linux certification, the LPIC may be more appropriate for individuals working in shops that run Linux distributions other than Red Hat.

4. LPIC boasts easier access
If you want to earn an RHCE, you need to travel to one of 33 U.S. cities where the certification is offered. IT professionals pursuing LPIC accreditation, though, need go only as far as the closest Virtual University Enterprises (VUE) or Prometric testing center. Since LPI’s exams are standard forms-based tests, there’s no need for specialized testing facilities.

I had originally planned to report that candidates are more likely to pass the LPI exams than Red Hat’s tests, but during my research I came across some interesting statistics. It appears, according to figures published by CRN, that the LPI failure rate is higher than Red Hat’s. CRN reported that LPI has a 54 percent pass rate, while Red Hat has certified approximately 6,000 of 10,500 candidates, or about 57 percent.

Certainly, there are numerous differences between the two certifications and the candidates that pursue them, so it’s not entirely appropriate to compare them in such a manner. I would have bet that Red Hat’s failure rate is significantly higher than LPI’s, since the real-world, hands-on aspect of Red Hat’s exam tends to be the most accurate gauge of an individual’s on-the-job performance capabilities. It may be time to rethink that idea.

5. LPIC is cheaper
Last but not least, the exam fees for LPIC certification are $100 each. Two tests are required at each certification level, so a candidate can receive the LPIC-1 cert for $200. That’s a considerable savings over Red Hat’s RHCE exam fee, which runs $749.

IT departments have been hit hard by the tightening economy. Budgets have been cut, and training dollars are few and far between in many companies. If several staffers are pursuing Linux certification, the LPIC cost savings add up quickly.

Eckel’s take
Having a fast-rising certification doesn’t mean the LPI’s work is done. In fact, no Linux certification placed in the CRN survey’s top 10 most important certifications list, which continues to be dominated by accreditations from Microsoft, Cisco, and Oracle. Instead, Linux certifications were relegated to the “fastest-growing in importance” list. Thus, LPI has plenty of room to grow its certification, but apparently it’s doing many of the right things.

Unfortunately, that may not be enough to launch a Linux certification into the top 10 most important list. Until the Linux community solves the problem of fractionalization and the incompatibilities that competing distributions create, Linux certifications will continue to struggle in comparison to those from Microsoft, Cisco, and Oracle.