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How to prepare for Linux system administrator certification exams

How you can get the most out of your study time as you approach the Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) and Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) exams.
How to prepare for Red Hat certification exams
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Most of my career has been spent as a technical trainer. These days, I'm primarily a technical writer and editor, but my experience as a trainer informs much of what I do. Therefore, I wrote this article to help future Linux sysadmins prepare for Red Hat certifications. There won't be any answers given here. Instead, I'm sharing my strategies that will help prepare you for the unique challenges of Red Hat's exams.

Red Hat certifications command respect because the exams are performance-based, or hands-on. You are given a series of tasks based on the objectives and expected to configure the server to match the tasks. Be ready for this idea. No multiple-choice, fill in the blank, short answer, etc. The exams reflect the real world, where your boss tells you to configure a server with certain requirements. Therefore, practice exams are not really relevant. Instead, use the topics and labs from the courseware to guide you through likely configuration requirements.

I'll focus on Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) and Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) because they are the foundation certifications. A solid command of basic Linux and Anible serves you well regardless of what specialization you may wish to go after.

Choose the appropriate certification

The first step is to identify the certification you are pursuing. Because I am targeting this article on those who are entering Linux-based certification tracks, I'm going to assume you are seeking the RHCSA and RHCE certifications. I suggest that most folks begin with the RHCSA content. To achieve the RHCE, you must hold an RHCSA certification and pass the RHCE exam.

    The RHCSA certification is achieved by passing the EX200 Red Hat Certified System Administrator exam. The RHCE requires that you have passed the RHCSA exam and the EX294 Red Hat Certified Engineer for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8 exam.

    For Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8, the RHCE exam has shifted to a heavy emphasis on server management via Red Hat Ansible.

    Choose the appropriate course

    Courses for the RHCSA

    The course is targeted at system administrators with a non-Linux background or those who need to expand their existing Linux skills. Some concepts are entry-level, while others are more specialized. The content provides a solid foundation.

    The RHCSA topics cover command line basics, storage, service management, fundamental security, SSH, networking, basic scripting, and an introduction to containers. The content is spread out over two weeks, except for the accelerated Fast Track course, which is typically one week.

    Over the years, I had plenty of experienced admins come through my entry-level classes. They typically complained on the first day that they were too knowledgeable to be there. By the end of the week, they usually made at least one of the following observations:

    • I was self-taught, and I didn't realize I had so many gaps in my knowledge.
    • I learned how to do things I already knew faster or more effectively.
    • I learned about topics that are outside of my normal job role.

    Red Hat's RHCSA prep courses include training at a standard pace and an accelerated course. Those with experience should certainly consider the Rapid Track course. It covers the same content in a condensed format.

    RHCSA courses:

    Note: The RH199 course is not appropriate for those new to Linux.

    RHCE course

    This course is targeted at more experienced Linux administrators who have already mastered the content from the RHCSA courses (even if they have not yet achieved the certification). The concepts are more advanced, and there is a focus on Ansible. Here is a link to the exam objectives.

    The RHCE topics cover using Ansible to manage software packages, storage, security, services, users/groups, and more.

    There is only one course to help prepare for the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) exam:

    It builds on topics from the RHCSA prep courses, so be confident that you have a command of those subjects. The course includes information on Red Hat Ansible Engine, automation with playbooks, writing playbooks, using Ansible Vault, and more to manage standard sysadmin tasks. Here is a link to the course outline.

    [ Readers also liked: Sysadmin careers: Is your sysadmin job going away? ]

    Red Hat Skills Assessment Tool

    I recommend that you use the Red Hat Skills Assessment Tool to help evaluate your current level of knowledge on RHEL. There is no point in wasting time or money by ending up in the wrong training course. The assessment asks a series of questions and provides guidance based on your answers. You can find the assessment tool here. It's free—give it a shot after you finish reading this article.

    Prepare for class

    With the COVID-19 pandemic, virtually all training is provided online. I know there are many differing opinions on the effectiveness of online training. I consider online training success to be a function of three things: The instructor, the online classroom, and the student. Obviously, you have the most control over the "student" aspect. Your approach and attitude dictate much of your success. If you are attentive, ask questions, do the labs, and want to learn, you will.

    Here are a few basic tricks to get the most out of your learning opportunity:

    • Avoid distractions. Avoid Facebook, LinkedIn, the news, etc.
    • Use dual monitors if possible. Put the online book on one monitor and the lab/virtual classroom on the other.
    • Print the exam objectives and use them as a guide through the training. If the instructor doesn't cover an objective, ask them about it.
    • The training company should provide a lab environment. The environment may be available after the course concludes. Be sure to do every lab at least once.
    • Don't be afraid to experiment in the lab environment.
    • Pay attention to the hands-on opportunities in class—recall that the Red Hat sysadmin exams are entirely practical.

    There are many ways to get official Red Hat training, so look for options that fit your needs. You can also find information on testing options.

    Exam objectives

    One of my biggest recommendations is to print the exam objectives. I find many exam candidates don't appreciate what a valuable resource the objectives are. It's common sense—the objectives are a list of what will be the exams. What better guide is there?

    One way to use the printed objectives is to color-code topics: Check it off in green if you know the topic, circle it in red if you don't. Now you have a checklist of what to work on.

    Another way to use the objectives is to organize areas of study, such as networking or storage management.

    Here are the two links you need:

    When I decide to pursue a certification, the first thing I do is print the exam objectives. I also use the exam objectives as a way of organizing the outlines for the courses I write.

    Build your own lab

    I've repeated the fact that the RHCSA and RHCE certification exams are performance-based several times. One of the best ways to prepare is to have a home lab environment. Ideally, you would use a local installation of RHEL 8 to host two virtual machines. After all, virtualization is listed in the exam objectives, so creating a virtualized lab environment helps you prepare for the tests. Use this home lab environment to ensure that you can accomplish these tasks. For example, can you configure SSH to match the tasks listed in the objectives?

    In addition, practicing in a home lab environment helps you discover the fastest way to do something. For example, I found that hard disk configurations were easier for me in the GUI, but user and group management was quicker in the CLI. Such knowledge helped me maximize my exam time.

    Consider getting a Red Hat Learning Subscription. There are a great many available resources in the subscription that will increase the effectiveness of your exam prep.

    [ A free course for you: Virtualization and Infrastructure Migration Technical Overview. ]

    Wrap up

    If I had to describe the Red Hat certification exams in one word, it would be practical. That concept should drive your exam preparations. You must know how to do administrative tasks—not describe them or recognize them in a multiple-choice list. Take a look at Ken Hess's article on various certifications that help your career and Tonya Brown's article on learning to be a sysadmin.

    Topics:   Linux   Linux administration   Certification   Homelabs  
    Author’s photo

    Damon Garn

    Damon Garn owns Cogspinner Coaction, LLC, a technical writing, editing, and IT project company based in Colorado Springs, CO. Damon authored many CompTIA Official Instructor and Student Guides (Linux+, Cloud+, Cloud Essentials+, Server+) and developed a broad library of interactive, scored labs. He regularly contributes to Enable Sysadmin, SearchNetworking, and CompTIA article repositories. Damon has 20 years of experience as a technical trainer covering Linux, Windows Server, and security content. He is a former sysadmin for US Figure Skating. He lives in Colorado Springs with his family and is a writer, musician, and amateur genealogist. More about me

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