We often marvel and talk about how technology has changed and evolved in the past 20 years, but how often do we stop to think about how the people who maintain and support those technologies have evolved?
System administrators — a catchall term for people who are responsible for the maintenance, configuration and operations of computer equipment— have been on the frontlines of technological changes that have impacted their organizations, as well as the way they do their work.
In honor of SysAdmin Day, the holiday founded by then-IT consultant Ted Kekatos 16 years ago, we spoke with three current and former system administrators to get a sense of of sysadmins’ past, present and future.
One of the most common things we heard is how virtualization has completely revolutionized and transformed the role. Back in 1995, for example, sysadmins were saddled with buying, stacking and racking servers and handling hardware headaches. Not only did the data center hardware infrastructure present a challenge from a maintenance perspective, it also presented organizational scale challenges.
“I think vMotion is one of those features that changed everything,” says Duncan Epping, a former sysadmin who is now chief technologist of storage and availability at VMware. “No more planned downtime for hardware maintenance — just move your workload from host A to host B and do what you need to do. You can even do this in fully automated fashion using maintenance mode. I wish I had that when I was managing hundreds of physical hosts in my early days.”
For Gregory Greenlee, a systems engineer and founder of the Blacks in Technology community, says his time spent handling hardware has become a once-in-a-while affair rather than a daily occurrence.
“I no longer have to order a server if I want to install a new OS and play around with it. Virtualization has pretty much taken care of that,” says Greenlee. “It's funny, the other day I walked into our data center and it seemed kind of foreign to me because I rarely have to touch physical hardware anymore.”
There’s been an ongoing debate in the IT community about whether sysadmins should be generalists or specialists. The answer to that, however, is likely shaped by the size of your organization. In a small business environment, sysadmins are more likely to be generalists since they must wear multiple hats. But in larger enterprises, they can afford to specialize.
For example, Greenlee is more of a generalist, and he likes having knowledge and experience in multiple areas of IT.
“In my role now, I like the fact that I'm not siloed into one specific thing and that I have a breadth of knowledge around a lot of different areas of tech. I am able to touch our servers, storage, networking, virtualization and more,” he says.
But with the increased focus on areas such as cloud computing and cybersecurity, there’s a need for sysadmins to develop highly specialized and specific skill sets, which is a challenge when you’re still tasked with maintaining the overall IT infrastructure.
“A sysadmin is a jack-of-all-trades,” says Herman Haggerty, a junior sysadmin at GHG Corp. “Although I am trying to move into the field of cybersecurity, it is hard for me to do the necessary research to stay updated on the latest attacks because we have to jump from one project to the next constantly.”
Along with IT overall, sysadmins are staring at the beginning of some major shifts in their day-to-day jobs. Between the Internet of Things, Big Data and the software-defined data center, IT is increasingly software driven, distributed and cloud controlled.
“The role will change significantly over the next three to five years, just like it has in the past 10 years. There is less and less logic in hardware, more and more in software and we see layers collapsing, but this also means they can be colliding,” says Epping. “More than ever before, collaboration and communication between different groups is important!”
Another area where sysadmins might play more of a hands-on role than they did before is in software development.
“I think the role will primarily be the same with the exception of having to be better coders. With everything now being offered in software, I think the days of a sysadmin who can’t code are close to over. Networking is moving into software, infrastructure is already there so there will be a need to know coding in order to be able to automate these pieces,” says Greenlee.
This is especially true as integrated development and operations models like DevOps start rising in popularity, says Haggerty.
“As companies move towards the DevOps structure, sysadmins will have to be more development minded rather than an infrastructure person to be able to communicate better with developers to build a scalable and manageable production environments,” he says.