THURSDAY, APRIL 24, 2014
Sunday, 10 November, 2013 20:57

Old School System Admin – A dying breed?

I’ve been involved in some fashion of IT for over thirty years now. Running a FidoNet BBS (The Twilight Zone) in 1986 was my first interaction with a human element and where I first experienced the concept of a System Administrator. Prior to that I was flipping 16 toggle switches to load stb’s, rbr’s and the like and reading the results on 16 LEDs keeping Navy Frigates moving through the water. What fun !

I’ve been in the trenches, racking and stacking, installing the OS and Applications, backing up and restoring, and fixing broken systems and applications. And at a point in time, that was my definition of a System Administrator. It isn’t any longer.

I’m asked “What is the real underlying problem for SysAdmins now that everything is virtual” As I mentioned in my interview with Rick Ramsey at OOW13 elasticity is the biggest challenge for the SysAdmins today. Business process demands are more complex and need to be provisioned faster than ever before. These demands span a large number of technologies and the SysAdmin needs to know them all.

  • A typical real world multi-tiered application may include Oracle Databases, Oracle Weblogic Server, Oracle Fusion Middleware, web servers, security infrastructures, and messaging
  • They also have specific infrastructure requirements like servers, OS, storage, network, and load balancers
  • They may be running on Engineered Systems like Exadata, Exalogic, Big Data Appliance, and ZFS Storage Appliances
  • And they need to be deployed in multiple environments like development, test, user acceptance, and production

The SysAdmin’s must be able to leverage technologies such as Virtualization, Infrastructure as a Service, Database as a Service, Middleware as a Service, Storage/Network provisioning, pooling and consolidation of hardware resources. They need to understand the technologies and how they interact with each other to ensure they can successfully deploy them and once deployed, manage them.

New/improved management tools need to be mastered to be successful. The SysAdmin role has been far too dependent on performing repetitive tasks and working in a reactionary mode attempting to locate and address/repair faults manually. As the complexity of our data centers continue to grow, this model becomes a significant limiting factor. We need to understand tools like Enterprise Manager 12c which allow for applications to be rapidly deployed by the end users like developers/testers themselves through self service, with metering and charge back.

The SysAdmins need to accept the automation that these new tools provide. To shun them will lead to their undoing.

And the knowledge level needed has never been greater. As an example, I expect a SysAdmin to know Dtrace if they are running Solaris or Oracle Linux. I expect them to have some basic understanding of the kernel, system calls, and the like so they understand what Dtrace tells them. I expect a SysAdmin to be comfortable working in a Database and a middleware environment. They need to understand the flow from the various tiers and how to provision those tiers rapidly when there is a business demand.

Basically the System Administrator must grow a much larger skill set to be successful. Don’t grow vertically in one technology, grow horizontally amongst many technologies. Engineer solutions with the specialist teams and know enough of the solutions to have an intelligent conversation. Know enough to assist in the architecture of the solution. Be proactive, not reactive.

So to answer the question “now that all is virtual, what’s the REAL underlying problem for sysadmins? Provisioning strategy?”

I think the complexity of a provisioning strategy is the REAL underlying challenge. Understanding which of the available technologies make sense, where each solution fits into the stack, how to provision and re-provision the solution in the stack, and how to manage it will be the new measure of success or failure in the SysAdmin realm. The tools are there, and for those that embrace the technology and the tools should have a very bright future.

And for those that don’t, a warning. It is coming from the other direction. I interact with DBAs frequently that are managing the entire Exadata appliance. They’ve been to the Solaris or Linux Admin classes, they’ve attended the Exadata class. The “SysAdmin” team isn’t a user, root or otherwise, on the system. The Database group has become system administrators on the majority of those systems. I’ve made similar observations in the Exalogic engineered system as well.

Embrace the technologies and the tools. Reach out and extend yourself. Throw away the old “rules”. Soon no one will really care what is under the hood. It won’t matter if it is Solaris or Oracle Linux, if it is SPARC or x86, what will matter is the IT staff’s ability to deploy the business demands on schedule.