The Cloud, OSCON, and the Future of Systems Administration

by Brian K. Jones

I had a really fantastic time at OSCON this year. When I went to OSCON in 2006, I was a little put off by the fact that there seemed to be very little focus on systems administration, and meanwhile systems administrators are responsible for huge swaths of open source software growth in businesses large and small. I'm happy to report that this year's OSCON had quite a bit of focus on topics of interest to systems folks, including myself. Thanks, ORA!

But on the 5-day flight back to the east coast (ok, maybe it just felt like 5 days), I had a chance to think more about what I had seen and heard. I had a lot of conversations, mostly with developers, about cloud computing initiatives like AppEngine, Amazone Web Services, BigTable, and the like. My take on this is that Amazon and Google are providing developer-centric interfaces to help them solve traditional systems administration problems.... and they appear to be doing it with some success.

So one might ask... "where does this leave the lowly sysadmin?"

It leaves you in an extremely fast-paced, ever-changing technological landscape with a set of needs, tools, and technologies that never stop evolving, and cause a lot of perceived community fragmentation while everyone scrambles to figure out which direction is "the way to go". Sound familiar? It should. It's exactly where you've been for your entire career. Some would say it's the fact that things never seem to stagnate that makes them love system administration in the first place!

What I view as being pretty exciting (and I hope this continues - call me a blasphemer) is that, because of these developer-centric systems interfaces, there's a bit of a forced convergence: developers have no choice but to have some understanding of what's happening under the hood, because they're going to have to write tools to essentially "rope in the cloud" -- to manage all of this stuff. On the other hand, systems administrators would probably do well to take this opportunity to do more interesting stuff with code than the typical pushing out of account information, watchdog scripts, custom log parsers, system tool wrappers, and the like.

It's a great time to pick up a new language, too, if you have an interest. Lots of sysadmins have picked up Ruby and/or Python as a means of broadening their horizons. If you use and like Perl, there's no reason you can't use it, but seeing what the hubbub is about surrounding newer stuff that looks like it's more than a fad by now can't hurt. I personally chose Python as my primary language because I never liked Perl, and Ruby *looks* like Perl to me (though I still dabble with it just to be famiiliar). If you *like* Perl, check out Ruby. If you only use Perl because you have to, give Python a shot! There are client libraries for a lot of these new services available in Ruby, Python, Perl, and PHP.

Dive into the cloud! The water's fine!


Simon Hibbs
2008-07-30 14:56:24
I moved from Perl to Python a few years ago, and I'm loving it. I can't see myself getting seriously into Ruby, but there are some nice Ruby projects out there - Puppet in particular - so I agree it pays to at least be able to read Python and Ruby and be able to code in one of them.

Right now, I think you realy need to be able to read Perl as well, and that's likely to be true for a while. It's turining into the Fortran of the sysadmin world - so widely used at some point in history that we may never be shot of it.