The Elephants in the Room

by Brian K. Jones

There's a lot of good, interesting discussion happening on this blog as of late. The state of system administration tools, in general, is pretty poor. "Taking care of business" is still very dependent on the ingenuity and creativity of the individual administrator. Maybe being able to be creative is one of the things you like about administration, but wouldn't it be nice to solve a problem more interesting than, say, installing emacs on 30 machines without working up a sweat?

And sure, more sysadmins could probably participate (or initiate) more projects, or provide more feedback. And more sysadmins could probably publish more of the bits of code they write than they do. And more of us could probably be more productive if we could find a way to interact with more admins, thereby realizing that we're really *not* the only people who could ever make use of that 20-line piece of perl mastery. I agree on all of these points. However, I think much of this dances around a few large,
multi-colored elephants in the room. Flame if you must, but allow me to point them out for you....


2007-02-12 20:57:04
My job has changed drastically in 10 years. The professions that have changed the most radically are computer related. Think back to the machines you ran 10 years ago.. Boot from floppy! Linux was brand new, NIS was state of the art, Samba was barely a glimmer of a working product, network and event management was a joke.

Now, you can install a new machine or lab of machines or a whole department of machines with System Installer Suite in like 7 minutes flat, enterprise event and network managers with really *good* features like event deduplication, correlation, root cause analysis, SLAs, and service monitors are common place.. Heck, you can actually monitor all your services and know what's going on without too much work. You can graph response times without having to dump it to a file and run gnuplot on it. You can actually predict when the capacity of a server is going to run out by consulting your graphs. You can actually track how much time you spend on things through a ticket system and easily share tickets and workflows with others. (Remember GNAT? eeek!). Do some of the old tools like lsof and strace still exist? Yup, but so does the screwdriver, the electric drill, the level, and the tape measure. Many, many other tools have died a righteous and deserved death of obsolescence or fallen into obsolescence. Remember glimpse? Remember when majordomo was the only game for mail lists? When you had to use adb to debug a kernel? When you had to analyze network protocol dumps by hand? remote support using vnc or rdp? forget it.. PXE boot of intel machines with virtual KVM or console redirect? no way. There was this thing called PC weasel that sort of worked..

The grass isn't always greener out there. Other industries have just as many if not more problems than we have. Look at engineering and the plethora of FPGA, ASIC hardware, materials analysis and other tools that they have that don't tie together well, if at all. Look at all the diagnostic tools that large scale industrial production has that don't tie together. Heck, look at what the business world uses. We know.. We support them! How many business people do you know that still insist on keeping what amounts to a database up to date by passing excel spreadsheets back and forth?

Sysadmin is at the leading edge of these things. We're not in the dark ages, we're leading the way in improving enterprise efficiency. We tell the business community how to do it better and faster without passing spreadsheets back and forth. We improve security. We improve the bottom line through improving efficiency. We are enablers! And, we're starting to gain respect..

10 years ago, how many of your family members knew what a sysadmin was? They didn't even know the term.. "I take care of computers" was about as close as you could get. Today you can even tell other people you socially meet "I'm a System Administrator", and most of the time they know what that means. Either they know somebody else who does it, or they work at a company that has one or more on staff. There are hundreds of thousands of people like us in the Unites States alone. Things have come a long way for this profession and they are only getting better. Be active, support a community, join a user's group. The best way to make things better is to get together with others that share a common experience and make things happen. Carpe diem.

disclosure: I'm a founding member of LOPSA(.org) and we are trying very hard to grow the community and the profession. But we can't do it just by founding an organization. It very much depends on individuals who are dedicated to making a difference. It's entirely volunteer based up to and including the board members.

Ed - 0x1b
2007-02-13 13:32:20
The next LOPSA event is going to be in Philadelphia this Spring - I believe planning is just underway, it sounds like the Admin focused event you are looking for.
Luke Kanies
2007-02-13 15:41:14
Hmm. 10 years ago NIS was just as hated then as it is now, I was investigating replacing NIS+ with LDAP, I had completely automated system installs using Jumpstart, we had Remedy installed for trouble ticketing, I was managing FibreChannel SANs using Veritas software, I was doing performance monitoring (using rstat, which fortunately has been replaced by tools like Ganglia and Cricket), I was debugging network problems with snoop, and process problems with lsof and truss.

If anything, I'd say that maybe the Linux world has finally caught up with the world of the commercial Unix, so I suppose it looks really different if you've been a Linux admin for the last decade, but it looks pretty darn similar to me.