1.5. The profile of the systems administrator

Large companies and organisations rely more and more on their IT resources and on how these are administered and adapted to the required tasks. The huge increase in distributed networks, with server and client machines, has created a large demand for a new job in the marketplace: the so-called systems administrator.

A systems administrator is responsible for a large number of important tasks. The best systems administrators tend to have a fairly general practical and theoretical background. They can perform tasks such as: cabling installations or repairs; installing operating systems or applications software; correcting systems problems and errors with both hardware and software; training users; offering tricks or techniques for improving productivity in areas ranging from word processing applications to complex CAD or simulator systems; financially appraising purchases of hardware and software equipment; automating a large number of shared tasks, and increasing the organisation's overall work performance.

The administrator can be considered the employee who helps the organisation to make the most of the available resources, so that the entire organisation can improve.

The relationship with the organisation's end users can be established in several ways: either through training users or by offering direct assistance if problems should arise. The administrator is the person responsible for ensuring that the technologies employed by users function properly, meaning that the systems satisfy users' expectations and do the tasks they need to fulfil.

Years ago, and even nowadays, many companies and organisations had no clear vision of the system administrator's role. When business computing was in its early days (in the eighties and nineties), the administrator was seen as the person who understood computers (the "guru") responsible for installing machines and monitoring or repairing them in case there were any problems. Normally, the job was filled by a versatile computer technician responsible for solving problems as and when they appeared. There was no clear-cut profile for the job because extensive knowledge was not required, just basic knowledge of a dozen (at most) applications (the word processor, spreadsheet, database etc.), and some basic hardware knowledge was enough for day to day tasks. Therefore, anyone in the know who understood the issue could do the job, meaning that usually administrators were not traditional computer technicians and often knowledge was even communicated orally between an existing or older administrator and a trainee.

This situation reflected to some extent the prehistory of systems administration (although there are still people who think that it is basically the same job). Nowadays, in the age of Internet and distributed servers, a systems administrator is a professional (employed full-time exclusively for this purpose) who offers services in the field of systems software and hardware. The systems administrator has to execute several tasks destined for multiple IT systems, mostly heterogeneous, with a view to making them operative for a number of tasks.

Currently, systems administrators need general knowledge (theoretical and practical) in a diversity of fields, from network technologies, to operating systems, diverse applications, basic programming in a large number of programming languages, extensive hardware knowledge – regarding the computer itself as well as peripherals – Internet technologies, web-page design, database management etc. And normally the profile is sought to correspond to the company's area of work, chemistry, physics, mathematics etc. Therefore, it is no surprise that any medium to large company has turned away from employing the available dogsbody towards employing a small group of professionals with extensive knowledge, most with a university degree, assigned to different tasks within the organisation.

Important

The systems administrator must be capable of mastering a broad range of technologies in order to adapt to a variety of tasks that can arise within an organisation.

Because of the large amount of knowledge required, unsurprisingly there are several sub-profiles for a systems administrator. In a large organisation it is common to find different operating systems administrators (UNIX, Mac, or Windows): database administrator, backup copies administrator, IT security administrator, user help administrators etc.

In a smaller organisation, all or some of the tasks may be allocated to one or a few administrators. The UNIX systems (or GNU/Linux) administrators would be a part of these (unless there is one administrator responsible for all tasks). Normally, the administrator's working platform is UNIX (or GNU/Linux in our case), which requires enough specific elements to make this job unique. UNIX (and its variants) is an open and very powerful operating system and, like any software system, requires a certain level of adaptation, configuration and maintenance in the tasks for which it will be used. Configuring and maintaining an operating system is a serious job, and in the case of UNIX can become quite frustrating.

Some important issues covered include the following:

a) The fact that the system is very powerful also means that there is a lot of potential for adapting it (configuring it) for the tasks we need to do. We will have to evaluate what possibilities it can offer us and which are appropriate for our final objective.

b) A clear example of an open system is GNU/Linux, which will offer us permanent updates, whether to correct system bugs or to incorporate new features. And, obviously, all of this has a considerable direct impact on the maintenance cost of administration tasks.

c) Systems can be used for critical cost tasks, or in critical points of the organisation, where important failures that would slow down or impede the functioning of the organisation cannot be allowed.

d) Networks are currently an important point (if not the most important), but it is also a very critical problems area, due both to its own distributed nature and to the system's complexity for finding, debugging and resolving problems that can arise.

e) In the particular case of UNIX, and our GNU/Linux systems, the abundance of both different versions and distributions, adds more problems to their administration, because it is important to know what problems and differences each version and distribution has.

In particular, system and network administration tasks tend to have different features, and sometimes they are handled separately (or by different administrators). Although we could also look at it as the two sides of the same job, with the system itself (machine and software) on the one hand, and the environment (network environment) where the system coexists, on the other.

Usually, network administration is understood to mean managing the system as part of the network and refers to the nearby services or devices required for the machine to function in a network environment; it does not cover network devices such as switches, bridges or hubs or other network devices, but basic knowledge is essential in order to facilitate administration tasks.

In this course, we will first deal with the local aspects of the system itself and secondly we will look at the tasks of administering a network and its services.

We have already mentioned the problem of determining exactly what a systems administrator is, because in the IT job market it is not very clear. It was common to ask for systems administrators based on categories (established by companies) of programmer or software engineer, which are not entirely appropriate.

A programmer is basically a producer of code; in this case, an administrator would not need to produce much, because it may be necessary for some tasks but not for others. Normally, it is desirable for an administrator to have more or less knowledge depending on the job category:

  1. Some qualification or university degree, preferably in IT, or in a field directly related to the company or organisation.

    The profile of a systems administrator tends to include computer science or enginnering studies or an education related to the organisation's sphere of activity together with proven experience in the field and broad knowledge of heterogeneous systems and network technologies.

  2. It is common to ask for 1 to 3 years of experience as an administrator (unless the job is as an assistant of an already existing administrator). Experience of 3 to 5 years may also be requested.

  3. Familiarity with or broad knowledge of network environments and services. TCP/IP protocols, ftp, telnet, ssh, http, nfs, nis, ldap services etc.

  4. Knowledge of script languages for prototyping tools or rapid task automation (for example, shell scripts, Perl, tcl, Python etc.) and programming experience in a broad range of languages (C, C++, Java, Assembler etc.).

  5. Experience in large applications development in any of these languages may be requested.

  6. Extensive knowledge of the IT market, for both hardware and software, in the event of having to evaluate purchases or install new systems or complete installations.

  7. Experience with more than one version of UNIX (or GNU/Linux systems), such as Solaris, AIX, AT&T System V, BSD etc.

  8. Experience of non-UNIX operating systems, complementary systems that may be found in the organisation: Windows 9x/NT/2000/XP/Vista, Mac OS, VMS, IBM systems etc.

  9. Solid knowledge of UNIX design and implementation, paging mechanisms, exchange, interprocess communication, controllers etc., for example, if administration tasks include optimising systems (tuning).

  10. Knowledge and experience in IT security: construction of firewalls, authentication systems, cryptography applications, file system security, security monitoring tools etc.

  11. Experience with databases, knowledge of SQL etc.

  12. Installation and repair of hardware and/or network cabling and devices.