Systems Administrator

From time to time I’m asked by members of my family or friends of mine outside the tech industry what it is that I do for a living. When I respond that I’m a sysadmin, or systems administrator for Linux and UNIX servers, more times than not I get the “deer in the headlights” look that says I may as well be speaking Greek. So, for a while, I’ve taken to saying “I work in IT”, or “I work with computers, really big computers” or even “I’m a computer programmer”, which isn’t exactly accurate. Although I do write scripts, or even some moderate perl, I’m still not officially a programmer. I’m a systems administrator, so, let me try to explain, my dear friends and family, what it is I do in my little box all day.

First, some basics, let’s start at square one. Computers are comprised of two parts, hardware and software. Sort of like the body and soul of a person. Without hardware, software is useless, and vice-versa. The most basic parts of the hardware are the CPU, which is the brain, the RAM, which is the memory, the disk, which is a place to put things, and the network card, which lets you talk to other computers. For each of these pieces of hardware there needs to be some way to tell them how to do what they are intended to do. Software tells the hardware what to do. I forgot two important pieces of hardware: the screen and the keyboard/mouse. They let us interact with the computer, at least until I can just tell it what to do Star Trek style.

Getting all of these pieces of hardware doing the right thing at the right time is complicated, and requires a structured system, along with rules that govern how people can interact with the computer. This system is the Operating System (OS). There are many popular operating systems: Windows, OS X, and Linux are the big three right now. The OS tells the hardware what to do, and allows the user to add other applications (programs) to the computer.

Smaller computers, like your home desktop or laptop have network cards to get on the Internet. The network card will be either wired or wireless, that doesn’t really matter. When you get on the Internet, you can send and receive information to and from other computers. This information could be an email, a web page, music, or lots of other media. Most of the time, you are getting this information from a large computer, or large group of computers that give out information to lots of home computers just like yours. Since these computers “serve” information, they are referred to as Servers.

Large servers are much like your home computer. They have CPU, RAM, disk, etc… They just have more of it. The basics still apply though. Servers have their own operating system, normally either Windows, Linux or UNIX. Some web sites or web services (like email) can live on lots of different servers, each server having its own job to do to make sure that you can load a web page in your browser. To manage, or “administer” these servers is my job. I administer the system that ensures the servers are doing what they are supposed to do. I am a systems administrator. It is my responsibility to make sure that the servers are physically where they are supposed to be (a data center, in a rack), that they have power and networking, that the OS is installed and up to date, and that the OS is properly configured to do its job, whatever that job may be.

I am specifically a UNIX sysadmin, which means that I’ve spent time learning the UNIX interface, which is mostly text typed into a terminal, and it looks a lot like code. This differs from Windows sysadmins, who spend most of their time in an interface that looks similar to a Windows desktop computer. UNIX has evolved into Linux, which is more user friendly and flexible, and also where I spend most of my time.

Being a sysadmin is a good job in a tech driven economy. I’ve got my reservations about its future, but I may be wrong. Even if I’m not, the IT field changes so rapidly that I’m sure what I’m doing now is not what I’ll be doing 5-10 years from now. One of these days, maybe I’ll open a coffee shop or a restaurant, or I’ll finally write a book.