Beginning to Study for the RHCSA

Yesterday on the train ride from DC to Vermont I was able to complete chapter 1 of the Red Hat System Administration 1 curriculum, minus the end of chapter lab which I will do tomorrow. Today I’ll describe the motivation for pursuing RHCSA and talk about the virtual machine setup I’ll be using to practice for it.

Two of my students successfully became Red Hat Certified System Administrators (RHCSA) this past year, which I judge to be a reasonably successful completion of our first year as a Red Hat Academy. I will be traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina on July 14th to attend a Red Hat Academy Forum Event. The invitation described this as an opportunity to:

  • Collaborate with other instructors
  • Meet and greet with Red Hat leadership
  • Learn from our interactive panel of students and hiring managers
  • Tour the Red Hat headquarters in Raleigh, NC

To make the best use of this opportunity, I want to get as far as I can through the RHCSA curriculum before I go to Raleigh.

Why RHCSA matters and what I’m hoping to get from the Red Hat Academy

As a Virginia Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher, I am under pressure from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to help my students earn an industry certification. As with many goals and mandates in a large bureaucracy like the VDOE, I am sure the motivation behind this requirement was sound, and that just like the road to hell, it was paved with the best intentions. Actually, I should say intentions were probably good for the most part. We have our share of Betsy DeVos fans in the Virginia legislature who would like nothing more than to completely eliminate public education and replace it with church run religious schools. I am fully aware that anything these folks can do to make public schools fail they are eager to do, but I assume that for the most part the industry certification requirement is designed to help students find their way into the job market.

Unfortunately, as currently implemented in our information technology program at least, the requirement to have students take one of the state approved certifications often fails to help students achieve any real pathway to the job market. In fact, by driving teachers to focus on the drill and kill multiple choice questions in certifications like the Brainbench exams, this mandate can be harmful to student growth, by shifting the focus from skills development to exam prep. Even worse, it appears these certifications are of dubious value even if earned.

I work in a building that houses a new academic program, Arlington Tech, built around a project-based learning (PBL). I am a huge believer in PBL and thrilled at the prospect of working in an educational environment committed to a PBL approach to education. Drill and kill exam prep flies directly in the face of this approach. For years I have been dancing around this contradiction looking for a way to both be compliant with the VDOE mandate and to provide my students with the authentic educational experience that I owe them.

The RHCSA provides a way out of this contradiction. It is a hands-on, performance based skills examination, not a multiple choice test. In preparing for the RHCSA, students need to do just what they need to do to prepare to become entry level Linux system administrators, they need to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to administer a live Linux system. Ironically, the RHCSA is not currently on the VDOE approved list, so that is another hurdle that I will have to jump.

Setting up an RHCSA learning environment

All of the computers in my classroom run free software, mostly Linux based systems, and mostly Ubuntu and its derivatives (Xubuntu, Lubuntu, and Peppermint OS) at that. The Linux kernel has built-in support for virtualization through KVM. Using KVM I can create virtual machines (VMs which students can use to perform labs on live CentOS systems to practice the skills they need to acquire for the RHCSA.

Specifically, I will need three VMs:

  1. server1 - a CLI only system.
  2. desktop1 - a graphical system running GNOME 3.
  3. classroom - a graphical Red Hat 7.2 system (not CentOS) with services needed for the RHCSA, such as NFS, LDAP, and Kerberos, running on it. RHCSA students are not required to learn to configure these services, only to configure client machines to connect to them, so students do not need to login to this VM, only connect to it from server1 and desktop1.

I have qcow2 images for all three VMs. On Ubuntu, KVM places virtual machine images in the /var/lib/libvirt/images directory. I made subdirectory named backups inside this directory, and ran:

# cd /var/lib/libvirt/images/
# cp server1.qcow2 backups
# cp desktop1.qcow2 backups

Now I can perform each lab exercise, and run:

# cd /var/lib/libvirt/images/
# cp backups/server1.qcow2 .
# cp backups/desktop1.qcow2 .

to recover the original state of the VMs so that I can do them again.