End of an Era

The hard thing about keeping a job in the technology field is that it is constantly changing. Just this past summer $WORK fired several mainframe workers who could not keep up. They got stuck on one technology that they knew how to operate, and failed to evolve when the field did. Now I think its clear that another sector of the job market is on its way out, the one that I, and thousands of others occupy, the job title of systems administrator.

There are three technologies that I believe will bring a major change to the sysadmin field.

  1. Virtual Appliances. Small, single-purpose virtual machines that provide a simple web interface to configure the hostname and IP address are called virtual appliances. They are normally bundled to provide a specific service, like running a Wordpress install, which requires a web server, php, and a database. Just a few years ago, building a LAMP stack to run this took at least a passing knowledge of the technology, but with a virtual appliance, no knowledge of the underlying applications or operating system is needed. The developers simply build the operating system the way they like and hide the complexity behind some clever web interface. I do not believe it will be long before the application vendors themselves are selling their applications as virtual appliances. IBM could sell DB2 and WebSphere appliances, Oracle could sell their own appliance for their database, maybe a SAP virtual appliance. The idea is that the operating system will no longer be of consequence, thanks to the availability of Linux and other open source tools. If the licensing issues with Linux becomes a problem, there’s always BSD. With Darwin powering everything from hand held phones (iPhone) to powerful super computers with the Xserve, Darwin may well be the base of choice for building commercial virtual appliances. Of course, if neither of those options work out, I’m sure Microsoft would be more than happy to license their OS… for a nominal fee, of course. The point is, the OS will not matter any more.

  2. Amazon EC2. Cloud computing is a big buzz word these days, but I think the smart thing to do is to stay away from the buzz word and take a look at the technology behind it. As it turns out, the virtual appliances I mention above are only half the story. The other half is, and always will be, hardware. If you need hardware, you need someone to take care of the hardware, and therefore, you need a sysadmin. However, with Amazon’s Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2), a small to medium sized business no longer needs to invest thousands in infrastructure to build a world class data center. They simply use Amazon’s data center, and pay for what they use. Amazon has put a lot of thought, time, and money into their data center, more than any but the largest of businesses. What they are building is disruptive technology, and the traditional datacenter is being displaced. I wonder how long it will be before someone starts offering small to medium sized businesses the option to run their entire data center on Amazon EC2, with virtual appliances running in the background supplying the desired services. I also wonder how long after that business starts that it will explode.

  3. Google App Engine. The App Engine is a little different from the combination of EC2 and virtual appliances, but still just as disruptive. Imagine a business offering a particular service over the Internet, they want to be able to scale when needed, and they want very little cost at the beginning. If they write their application in python, they have it made. The App Engine will host the application on Google’s infrastructure, giving it the speed, redundancy, and ability to scale that it needs to compete. With the App Engine, the college student in his dorm has just as much ability to build the next great thing as the multi-billion dollar business investing hundreds of thousands into its own infrastructure. Any web accessible service could be written in the App Engine, and be instantly available to scale as needed. This means that the company only needs programmers… no hardware, no operating systems, no fault tolerant highly available network infrastructure, not even a few web pages to set up IP addresses. No need for a sysadmin at all.

Many of the issues that companies have with the technology mentioned above now has to do with trust. I think that over the course of the next five to ten years, the technology will mature, and the trust will be earned. For a business, hooking up their infrastructure will come as easy as filling out a form online saying what they want. It will come as second nature as hooking up phones and Internet access. I think everything could come as a virtual appliance. From common needs like email and file sharing to more complex needs like Content Management On-Demand, everything could be run from a virtual appliance. The vendor installs the OS, makes sure it is configured just right, installs the application, does the same for it, packages it up, and makes millions.

This makes the career field of systems administrator much smaller, but it also opens up new opportunities in designing these appliances and being a part of the transformation. I see a new field emerging for virtual appliance designers and integrators, a field that could operate more like independent software vendors do now. I’m considering it myself. Of course, I still have a book to write, and possible grad school to go to, and a family to raise, but hey… life is short!