Scott Alan Miller

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


I have been working on getting myself certified in the IT industry since 1997 and currently hold more than 110 certifications. I take the certification process pretty seriously. I have worked in career path counselling helping other professionals direct their studies and certification paths to help further their careers or to pursue personal goals. During this time I have become familiar with a large number of certification authorities and testing methods. I would like to take this opportunity to talk about the Brainbench assessments and why I feel that they are as important as they are.

The Brainbench assessment system differs from its main competitors in the fact that it is offered online. Traditional certification exams require the student to take the exam at a proctored location which results in exams that are very expensive. It also creatres an exam environment that is very unlike the real world. In the real world, professionals seldom know the answer to every question off of the top of their heads. No, instead in the real world a professional will often rely on a large amount of at hand reference material to provide the resources necessary to accomplish a task. Has anyone ever worked with an IT professional or even an engineer, for that matter, that does not work in an office full of books, magazines, etc. And what professional doesn't do Internet research before answering any question. Professional do, of course, need to possess a large amount of basic knowledge about the jobs that they do. I in no way wish to dispute this. But the real strength of any professional lies not so much in the work that can be done without using additional resources but in the ability to leverage those resources effectively.

The Brainbench exam excels in testing the ability to quickly and effectively research a question. The Brainbench allows a student to use any books, magazines, notes, the Internet or any other resource that the student may have at hand (although human interaction is NOT allowed.) This, I feel, allows the test to show a more complete picture of what a student is able to do in the real world. This testing process is especially beneficial when combined with testing from other assessment organizations such as Microsoft, Novell, CompTIA or Cisco.

The Brainbench, in order to allow for their resource allowments, makes their tests exceedingly difficult covering much material often not tackled by their more pedestrian counterparts. This creates an exam that not just allows but expects the test taker to be looking up information that they could not possibly - or at least not probably - have memorized. This is a good equalizer to help to eliminate passing scores only from people who are well suited to "memorizing test answers" that appear so often out of the competitive testing camps.

Another strength of the Brainbench exams is their scoring and ranking system. While other testing authorities generally steer clear of giving hard scores to test takers, the Brainbench gives scores based on a simple 5 point scale with a 5.0 being perfect. A 2.75 or better is passing. And any score above a 4.0 will grant you a Master's ranking. This system is really nice because it allows for some discernment between those who simply pass the test and those that do exceptionally well. In addition to providing Master's and Non-Master's ranking, Brainbench also supplies a ranking by geographic region to allow test takers to see how they are performing compared to their peers.

Brainbench provides detailed feedback post-examination. This detail includes ranking performance areas where the test taker has excelled and those areas where he or she has performed poorly. This assessment section can help the student to focus on weaknesses to increase overall knowledge and understanding of the material.

One caveat to the Brainbench system is that the certifications expire. Originally set to a one year expiration term, the certifications now last for three years. This system seems to be valuable as it forces test takers to regularly recertify. The downside is that old technologies become less and less useful to certify on and many professionals will choose to let these certifications fall away, which is unfortunate. It is also difficult because with each passing year there are more and more certifications to maintain and new ones to take. When combined with other methods of learning and certification, this can become a significant burden over time. A professional with a wide range of skills may feel the need to regularly maintain thirty or more certifications. This is a tremendous number for most people to manage. Microsoft, as well as other independant assessment organizations, will often allow a professional certified on an old technology remain certified on the old technology and require only that new certifications be taken to be certified on new technologies. But at Brainbench, to maintain a Windows 95 Administrator certification, a professional would have to take that same test every three years to maintain the status. This can also make putting these certs on a resume problematic.

Brainbench has more benefits over traditional testing methods. For one, they are more truly vendor independant than CompTIA and their tests reflect a far better understanding of the material that they test. And they also provide the industry's widest array of test subjects. For many specialists, Brainbench may be the only way to obtain any type of recognition in a highly specialized subject area.

Brainbench also offers "Job Role Certifications." I suggested this to them some years ago and perhaps they implemented this feature based on my recommendation. But more likely not. Job Role Certifications are certs based upon accumulating several other certs to make a single, large cert. This would be analagous to the infamous MCSE which requires approximately seven MCP tests to achieve. Brainbench offers more than 600 Brainbench Certified Professional certifications and approximately 45 Job Role Certifications built out of those 600 BCP's.

Not all Brainbench certifications are IT industry specific. In fact, they offer a number of ceritifactions in management, scientific areas, office skills, etc. There is likely to be a certification appropriate for just about anyone.

Brainbench offers their assessments not only in a traditional "pay by test" format but also through subscriptions. Annual subscription service is the recommended method for IT professionals who will likely want to work extensively with the service year after year. Annual subscriptions start at only $99 and are a very good value. Even if the exams will not be used to enhance the resume, they can be an invaluable learning aid.

In conclusion, I feel that the Brainbench assessment system is one of the most valuable in the IT industry and I hope that other IT professionals will take advantage of it.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Building a SmoothWall Firewall for a Parochial School

Working with the small, private, parochial school that I have been working with, one of our challenges has been to find a firewall product that was really going to significantly meet our needs. Having extensive Linux experience, using Linux throughout the school and having used SmoothWall in the past we decided to use SmoothWall Express which is now on its sixth and about to go to its seventh patch level on version 2.0.

SmoothWall is a decently full featured and very easy to work with firewall product. With an integrated web proxy, IPSec VPN, web interface, DMZ option, SSH interface, etc. it is a good choice for working with small networks that need an easy to manage firewall component. Because of SmoothWall's low requirements, I was able to build the firewall out of an old HP Vectra desktop with a Pentium 200MMX, 32MB and a 2GB hard drive. Performance will not be stellar and we will not be able to do any real amount of web content caching but at this stage that is relatively unimportant. The most important features of the firewall to us at this stage is the simple management and the firewalling features.

Microsoft's Crazy Licensing Schemes

I recently queried Microsoft's anti-piracy group in reference to some questionable behaviour from a claimed "distributor" of their software. The distributor is selling copies of Microsoft software, presumably under their academic licensing program, without providing licenses or certificates of authority (COA's) for the products. Before contacting Microsoft, I went to their anti-piracy webpage to do some research on "how to tell" if the software was legitimate or not. Everything on their website lead me to believe, as I always have, that any properly licensed Microsoft product would come with a license and a COA. We have always used this as a guideline with our customers in helping them to determine when they have been sold or provided with stolen (pirated) software.

I emailed Microsoft with this information to find out more about the situation. This evening I received a reply from Microsoft stating that they offer some volume licensing or open licensing programs that would provide customers with Microsoft products that would not have licenses or COAs. In fact, Microsoft basically told me that we could never know if a product was legitimate or not since the software is being provided as a web download without any need for paperwork, media or anything.

What I want to know is what happens with the BSA (the Business Software Alliance - the organization that operates on behalf of a number of industry giants to protect against software piracy) audits a business or a person and find this "unlicensed" software. Or what if they ever find any software with license or COA. I have always understood that the company must maintain licenses for those products. But now we learn that there are similar situations available for home users. I can only imagine that knowing this fact will make it completely impossible to ever prosecute over pirated Microsoft software which is very infurating to a Microsoft partner company that survives based on Microsoft's efforts to not permit competitors who steal software to underbid us. Microsoft did all legitimate software vendors a real disservice today.

To rub salt into the wounds, Microsoft ended the email by pointing me back to the very websites that they maintain and told me to look there to find out the methods through which software could be sold. I am not sure if they are simply mocking me or if their anti-piracy team actually thinks that I, as a software reseller, should go out and sell products via Microsoft's Open Value program to home users. Could it be done? Of course. Does the license included with the program allow for that? Absolutely not. Imagine the low prices that we could sell every Microsoft product for if the entire world was under a single large volume license. But this is exactly what Microsoft's anti-piracy team was promoting tonight.

I have retained the email so that I would have documentation of this event. It is no wonder that companies are scared of dealing with anything involving Microsoft's licensing plans, even Microsoft can't figure out how to use them.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Foray into Technology Education

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have been working with a local perocial school helping them implement a technology curriculum. When I first starting talking to the school about the project late last year, the school had only a single computer available for student use, a Celeron 333 machine running Windows ME without Internet access located in their consolidated "high school" room. One old Pentium class computer was available for use by one school administrator and one 68000 based Macintosh was being used as the main school computer storing student records and providing for printing needs. The school principle had a single Pentium based Compaq Presario with dial-up Internet access via Juno, the only Internet access in the school. The school handles 55 students in grades K-12 and, as you can see, was in desperate need of a complete computer education system from a hardware and a curricular aspect.

We wanted to get something moving as quickly a possible so that we would be able to catch the seniors who are about to graduate and get them in front of computers before they left the school and we wanted to be sure to get the kindergarten students on the right track as quickly as possible. So, we worked out a plan with the school to begin a program during the last half of this school year. A relatively unused hallway was adapted into a make-shift computer lab, two long desks and two computer desks were placed into the hallway - enough space to accomodate 7-8 desktop computers and a printer or two. Contruction is planned over the summer that is expected to result in the creation of a real computer lab space for next year (the fall semester 2005.) For now, we have to work with the space that we have.

Fortunately, the school managed to find an electrical resource who was able and willing to install much of the needed CAT5 wiring around the school so that we could begin networking the computers together. "The computers" remaining to be defined. Wiring was run to the "computer lab", the "high school" room, the principle's office, the wiring closet, the kindergarten classroom and another closet space. Time Warner Cable gratefully stepped in and voluntarily is providing Road Runner Internet access for us.

We have managed to come up with a total, so far, of thirteen computers that we have either been able to donate to the school or to loan to the school pending our own potential to need them internally - which we don't expect. The computers that we have range from a low end of a Pentium II 233 and a Celeron 333 up to a Pentium III 933. The lowest memory available is 128MB ranging to a high of 512MB with most of the machines in the 192MB to 288MB range. We have installed one desktop in each of the kindergarten classroom, the high school room and the principle's office. Seven computers have been installed into the computer lab space. We are currently short on monitors, keyboards and ethernet wiring necessary to put any additional computers in place. But we expect these resouces to become available soon. At the moment, we are using a simple Netgear RT311 router to separate the internal network from the Internet and an older Netgear 10/100 hub in the wiring closet as the main cabling aggregator which we hope to update soon. Internet access is only available in the principle's office. A desktop Linksys 10/100 switch is in the computer lab connecting the seven computers there to the network.

In the additional closet space, we have a Compaq Proliant 3000 server with dual Pentium II 333 processors, a Compaq SmartArray RAID controller attached to six 4.3GB SCSI 7200RPM hot swappable hard drives configured in RAID 5 for 21.5GB of usable storage, a 12/24 DAT tape device and 1.125GB of RAM. The storage is our current greatest concern, the rest of the specs, we expect, will be adequate for some time with a network this small.

Since we are operating on such an incredibly limited budget (effectively no budget at all) we decided to use an entirely free set of software for everything on the network. For the desktops and the server, we have decided to use Novell's SUSE Linux 9.2 Professional. Having the same operating system across the entire network will make it simpler for us to manage. Students will use both and KOffice productivity suites for learning office basics. The K Desktop Environment (KDE) is installed on all of the desktops to give the students a rich desktop experience similar to what is available from Windows or Macintosh. In time, additional software will be selected to be installed for the students. We are trying to keep as many games as possible off of the machines - we don't want the introduction of computers into the school to turn into a distraction. This is a real possibility since the students have never had computers available to them previously. We will be installing TuxType to help younger students learn to type which is one of our major focusses early on.

The network is setup using NFS to remotely mount the /home partition. Each student has an account on the server and their personal directory is located there. Considering the size of the school, the network traffic should be minimal even with all of the students' files mounted remotely. We will need to push towards an entirely switched network as quickly as possible, however. To manage accounts throughout the school we chose NIS because of its simplicity. Using NIS and NFS together is incredibly simple even if it is not ideal. This is a nice combination since the students get identical desktop experiences at any computer in the entire school. All of their files and all of their settings are available to them anywhere that they may go. Students are able to use any available computer at any time - a significant advantage over many other system designs.

We still have many obstacles to overcome and a lot of technology features that I would like to see added to the network. But we are getting the students started, at this point, and we see a lot of exciting things happening. The most important thing is bringing the infrastructure to this small, rural school so that technology education can begin. My wife has already begun teaching on Fridays to help get the students started down the path to technological comfort. The students are really excited to have these options now and we are trying hard to keep the system improving. We hope that centralized printing will be right around the corner as well as a number of available computers in the "lunch" area so that students will be able to work on computers even when there is a class in the lab.

This coming Friday will be the fourth day of computer classes for the school. All of the students in the 3-12 grade levels has been given an "introduction to the network" class except for the sophomores whom we are going to try to get right away this Friday. The kindergarten students have already done a little bit with the computers in their own class (they are using their own usernames and passwords as well) and we hope to get the first and second grade students started soon - using their regular class teacher instead of sending them to a "computer class" with my wife.

You Have to Start Somewhere

After five years of regular postings on my personal "diary" blog at, I have decided that it was time to try out one of the blog services and see what was going on in the blogoshpere. I have been blogging for so long on my own hand-crafted site that I have lost touch with the community and want to see what I can do to get back to it. I love blogging and don't want to miss out on anything.

My purpose in starting this blog is not to replace SheepGuardingLlama but to, instead, provide a technical outlet for myself so that I do not have to burden my "diary" readers over at SGL with my "boring" technical chatter. So this blog will be dedicated to technical matters - but none in particular.

I would like to take the chance to welcome all of my faithful readers who have come over from SGL to check this site out.