Do SysAdmins Grow on Trees?

In a recent discussion, a person was complaining about the ignorance of recent graduates. They do not even know how to configure a web server or a firewall. I wanted to defend the students but decided against it. The next obvious question would be – who should do it if not the computer science/engineering students.

In our education, we seem to be missing out on this one particular need altogether. Even private teaching institutions do not focus on this need, except for the certification exams of MNC's like Microsoft, Sun, Redhat. This job profile goes under the category of system administration or SysAdmin for short.

We can understand how this situation has come about. A decade or two ago, SysAdmins were needed by large organisations and they were trained by the hardware vendors. The training required for IBM, Unisys or DEC mainframes and supermini's was quite different. Even Unix and Netware servers were expensive and, hence, the vendor threw in training as a part of installation services.

Today, the situation is much more complex and computers are everywhere. We are also evolving to the stage where a small organisation will be using standard or purchased applications or may move to outsourced web services as Internet costs come down. Larger organisations will distinguish between administration functions and development functions. In order to appreciate the need for a separate course on system administration, just consider what is expected from him.

A SysAdmin should be able to install OS – any version of Windows, any distribution of Linux, and may be, several flavours of Unix. He should be able to configure users, their permissions, their quotas, etc. He should be able to monitor the performance of the systems under his control. He should be able to configure the local network with various types of access to Internet, mail servers and devices, including thin clients. Last but not least, he needs to be able to implement security policies, e.g. by using firewall, user access controls in various servers like ftp, web server, file servers. The list can go on.

Each of these activities requires practice and more practice. The crucial need is that the person should know how to do a task and not make a mistake. Often, experimentation on live servers is unthinkable.

Basic needs of each of these operations will be similar regardless of the platform. The manner in which they are implemented will differ from one environment to another. This can easily be learnt once the basics are clear.

The type of skills required for SysAdmin are different from those required for programming. One can even use the analogy of a aircraft pilot and an aircraft engineer. System administration is very suitable for the vocational training institutions. In the post diploma courses, the project could even be specialising in some platform so that the student after his graduation can even seek a certification for that platform. Certification can be immensely useful for getting a better job, especially in places like Mumbai and Bangalore.

Any organisation which has computers needs SysAdmins. We need to ensure that suitably skilled people are available as that is crucial for the spread of IT in India. An amusing incident illustrates the problems of using inappropriate people. Two decades ago, a colleague went to a customer site to train the engineers on maintenance of tape drives. The students were highly qualified engineers. During the theory of operations course, the students went into a design discussion and concluded that the design of the tape drives was very poor and that the tape drive couldn't possibly work!