System Administrators are a key element of a sound infrastructure in any IT environment, especially when it comes to network security. Whether working to prevent threats, implementing policies or engaging with technology vendors, it is the system administrator that helps to protect the integrity and security of the IT environment. It's clear the role involves a range of daunting tasks, a constant need to update your knowledge as technology moves forward, not to mention the long hours you have to put in.
However ever since there have been systems administrators, magazines have prognosticated huge shifts in the nature of their job. Now is no exception. Present system administrators should understand industry’s changing requirements. People aspiring to become systems administrators or network engineers should be aware of the training and experience they will need to do well.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 12% growth for network and computer systems administrators up to the year 2020. This represents a growth rate that is average over all the professions BLS tracks. It is interesting that the rate has been adjusted downward from their previous report.
According to IT director Donald Roper, "Several years ago, you could have an MCSA certification and get a job as a systems administrator. In today's world, you have to be a master of everything you touch."
Any good SA has always been a jack-of-all-trades. SAs are constantly learning new technology. The difference nowadays is the pervasiveness of IT; it has become a critical service. Networks will continue to grow and IT, in general, will become more complex. Thankfully, training is more available than ever from vendor websites as well as from entities such as Udemy. Social networking and IT forums make it easier to keep in touch with colleagues and to tap them for their expertise.
There are conflicting reports about the value of certifications in obtaining or keeping a SA position. Realize, it’s in the best interest of the certification industry to tout how important certs are. If you do not have on-the-job experience in particular technology, a pertinent cert can at least get your resume past the automated word-checking stage. However, experience always trumps certification. In any case, it makes sense to become certified if you know the technology anyway.
Which are the important technologies?
SAs and aspiring SAs should become familiar with the following technologies that are sweeping the IT world:
1. Automation of SA tasks
2. The cloud and software as a service (includes archiving, spam filtering, CRM and much more)
4. Voice over IP (VoIP)
Automation allows fewer SAs and network engineers to shepherd larger and more complex networks. Imagine combing through system messages for a network of 1000 devices without having centralized logging! However, in one important way, automation makes the SA’s job more difficult. Consider the red X on a device in your network management dashboard. It could indicate a problem with any of the following:
1. The network management software itself
2. The device hosting the dashboard
3. The discovery protocol
5. The cable connecting the device to the network
6. The device with the red X
Automation has introduced three additional levels of abstraction (the first three above) between you and the possible problem device, requiring training on more technology and making troubleshooting harder on a daily basis. Does this mean automation is bad? No, but you (and your management) should realize that it entails hidden costs.
Automation also encompasses scripting such as Windows Powershell and Python, among others. These can truly help a SAs’ productivity. The ideal time to learn your first scripting language is before you become a SA. It is easier to learn additional languages once you are familiar with the underlying concepts.
Backup and archiving using the cloud has significantly cut personnel-intensive routine data operations. Utilizing the cloud and Xaas can free the SA from many server-centered tasks. On the other hand, it introduces a different type of administration involving hardware and software provisioning and the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).
Philip Kizer, president of the League of Professional Systems Administrators (LOPSA), believes that cloud computing actually makes a SA more valuable. The SA can advocate for the business and serve to screen outside services that do not meet requirements. Kizer believes that without an experienced SA, companies "are at the mercy of providers' sales literature and sales staff." Of course, this presupposes that the SA understands not only the technology but also the business.
Virtualization adds levels of abstraction and creates a tangle of virtual networks. This means that a SA should know routing and switching at a more advanced level than previously. Understanding the dynamics of network load is critical for successful implementation of and VoIP. Keep in mind that users are not tolerant of downtime for Voice over IP; they are accustomed to the “five 9’s” availability of the phone companies (99.999% uptime).
So far, we have discussed technologies. What about other skills and qualities? According to “IS 2010 Curriculum Guidelines”, a joint study by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Association for Information Systems (AIS), success in IT requires the following “foundational knowledge and skills”:
• Leadership and collaboration
• Analytical and critical thinking and creativity
No longer can a SA sit alone at his desk all day pouring over manuals. He/she must understand the business and be collaborative. Colleges and universities can provide training in communication and mathematics. The other skills are developed largely with experience.
Catch 22? This helps explain why many tech companies are recruiting apprentices. Before offshoring and introduction of the four technologies described above, there were plenty of entry-level positions. A SA could start as a backup operator, for example, learning the ropes and working his/ her way up the ladder. Those days are gone. Look at the SA job listings now; most require 3 to 5 years experience as a SA. If this sounds like a Catch 22, you are right.
It is crucial to look at your profession as an opportunity for life-long learning. If you do then the possibilities are endless. Take advantage of free online training, expand your social network. Above all, hone your communication and collaboration skills. Oh, I almost forgot, continually learn critical technologies.
We would like to make life a bit easier for the overworked system administrator by providing a convenient list of tools for diagnosing common problems. This toolbox is a go-to location for system admins, containing lots of resources that will come in handy if you're ever hit with a security incident or breach. These tools guide you through preparing for a disaster and recovering from one.
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