About System Administration

Like all truly satisfying pursuits, system administration requires both breadth and depth of expertise. I'll invoke a popular metaphor and say that successful system administration involves more than wearing a lot of different hats; you also need to know which one to wear to perform a particular task or solve a particular problem and, equally important, what else you will need to get the job done right. Whatever challenges and frustrations the tremendous variety inherent in system administration may bring, it also keeps the workday interesting.

First-rate system administrators bring three kinds of strengths to their job:

Technical expertise

This includes both a knowledge of the tools and procedures required to keep the system and network operating efficiently and a detailed-enough understanding of how the system's various components work to address the problems that will arise.

While Windows NT is frequently marketed as an operating system that requires little or no system administration, this is an ideal honored more in the breach than in reality. Well designed system administration tools can go a long way toward making Windows NT systems management easy and painless under normal circumstances--and some of the Windows NT tools come reasonably close to this goal--but realistically, you can expect the unexpected to occur all too frequently.

The bottom line is that someone has to know how things really work: it should be you.

Problem solving skills

System administrators are distinguished from ordinary users, power users, and operators in that they know what to do when things go wrong. While all these classes of users are comfortable using the system under normal circumstances, only system administrators have to know what to do when things are anything but normal. This doesn't mean you have to know the solution instantly for every problem you encounter. Sometimes you will, but more often what you bring to the situation is a strategy for figuring out what has gone wrong and the tools for fixing it once you have done so.

Ordinary users of Windows NT systems and their associated networks are like ordinary automobile drivers; they know how to start and operate the car, how to add gasoline and when to take it in for periodic preventive maintenance. Power users also know how to change their own oil and spark plugs, when to add water to the radiator, and what to do if the battery dies or a tire goes flat. Operators are like automotive technicians who can carry out a variety of standard procedures--changing the oil and lubricating the engine, checking and replacing the brake pads, and the like--as well as diagnosing and repairing simple problems (e.g., the car won't start because the alternator has failed and needs to be replaced). System administrators are like master mechanics--the only ones who can perform complex operations and diagnose and repair major problems; they can trace the car's tendency to die in cold weather to a carburetor that needs to be rebuilt, and they can go on to rebuild it themselves. They are capable of doing so because they understand how the car's engine works at a deep enough level to track down the specific points of trouble when a problem arises.

If the automotive metaphor doesn't resonate with you, consider this one. Ordinary users are like cooks who can use a bread machine to make a loaf of fresh bread. Power users can use the machine to make several different varie-ties of bread, and they know how to use the machine to prepare dough for later baking in a normal oven. Operators can also make exotic kinds of bread, including ones requiring significant variations to the standard method of using the machine, and they can adapt recipes to it using the instructions provided with the appliance as a guide. System administrators are like the people who design the procedures for using the bread machine. Because they know what baking bread involves in detail, not only can they create recipes that work well in the bread machine, but they can devise procedures for adapting arbitrary bread recipes for use in the machine, and they can formulate troubleshooting strategies for use when the machine's final product doesn't turn out perfectly.

People skills

Successful system administrators are continually aware that computers are used by people and organizations and that managing them cannot be extricated from this social context. System administration often involves a tension between authority and responsibility on the one hand and service and cooperation on the other. The extremes seem easier to maintain than any middle ground; fascistic dictators who rule "their network" with an iron hand, unhindered by the needs of users, find their opposite in the harried system managers who jump from one user request to the next, in continual interrupt mode.

The trick is to find a balance between being accessible to users and their needs, and sometimes even their mere wants, while maintaining your authority and sticking to the policies put into place for the overall system welfare. The goal is to provide an environment where users can get what they need to do done, in as easy and efficient a manner as possible, given the constraints of security, other users' needs, the inherent capabilities of the system, and the realities and constraints of the human community in which all of them are located.

To put it more concretely, the key to successful, productive system administration is knowing when to address a shortage of disk space on a file server with a command that deletes the 500+ MB of scratch files created in several random directories by one of the system's users and when to walk over to her desk and talk with her face-to-face. The first approach displays technical finesse as well as administrative brute force, and both are certainly appropriate--even vital--at times. At other times, a simpler, less aggressive approach will work better to resolve your system's disk shortage problems as well as the user's confusion. It's also important to remember that there are some problems no Windows NT command can address.

This book provides the information you need in all three of these areas. Even if you're not a full-time system administrator, you'll find that developing these three areas will also serve you well in whatever your primary area of endeavor may be.


The System Administrator's Job

Sometimes it seems that there are as many system administrator job descriptions as there are people doing the job. Although things aren't really quite that random, I find it most helpful to describe system administration in terms of broad, general areas of responsibility: