Duties of System Administrators: What Are They?
In our highly technological era, there are lots of jobs that are critical to success and reliability of daily work processes. One of such occupations is system administration with sysadmins who are always on guard over the tense tech issues. Odds are you probably see these guys every day at the office. Or at least aware of their existence. Who are exactly system administrators? Let’s talk about what particular admins do at their job day by day.
In this blog post, we’ll talk about system administrator daily duties and critical tasks. Read about what makes sysadmins superheroes and what knowledge helps them battle with tech challenges. And win every single time!
Who are system administrators?
Generally, a system administrator is responsible for providing continued and uninterrupted access to a service or services. For example, sysadmins provide users with access to shared resources, storage, websites, etc. They are the ones who set up and maintain servers, workstations, install office programs, set up instant communication via chat messaging, and process data.
System administrators spend a fair number of working hours figuring out how to solve tech puzzles and building effective solutions around them. The system administrator’s job not only involves trivial maintenance but also empowering more sophisticated processes.
Moreover, most sysadmins have to do lots of explaining, deal with power struggles between stakeholders, deal with negotiations and conflict resolution. A huge chunk of a system administrator’s duties revolves around in-house corporate policies like working around obsolete policies, attending meetings, and doing lots of non-tech reporting that involves documentation. You should keep this in mind.
When it comes down to tech aspects of the job, system administrators do things like add new users, change passwords, install new programs. A sysadmin’s primary purpose would be attending to details and interactions, so that “normal” users don’t have to deal with all this stuff. For instance, elementary chores like backups or security checking, installing updates or new hardware/software.
However, the real value of sysadmin comes up when things break or don’t function properly. In those cases, a sysadmin must “grok in its fullness” all aspects of the system in order to understand interactions. Thus, infer the causes of a problem including testing programs or benchmarks. Someone has to be able to reason about a problem and find the root causes. And then fix everything that got broken. That’s the sysadmin.
What does systems administrator do on a typical day?
A systems administrator manages the systems, while a systems engineer has more power over the system’s design. Typically, a sysadmin has everything already set up and just needs to troubleshoot, fix, update, monitor, and maintain.
On a typical day:
- Read lots of emails that range from notifications to reports (scheduled jobs, performance stats) or minor incidents before bumping into an interesting issue that could use some attention, at which point depending on how critical it is and the info you’ve got at hand.
- Going through more email and reply to queries while trying to clean up the incidents queue in our ticketing system. Tend to items left pending yesterday.
- Resolving the high-priority issue and then moving to the lower priority queues.
- Giving out technical recommendations.
- Gathering evidence of an issue that is way over-escalated and is likely caused by the application or data (and not the OS).
- Sharing the collected data with the service owner.
- Taking care of the most recent requests/emails.
- Collecting error-related data for root cause analysis on an issue or predictive sizing.
- Correcting or extending a procedure in the internal Wiki.
- Reporting security issues (if there are any).
- Dealing with offenders. Compiling reports, if necessary.
- Executing planned config or functional changes.
Atypical days may include:
- Resolving massive system meltdowns that bring down operations and may take hours to figure out. This can be an outcome of either a minimal overlook or serious infrastructure design flaws.
- Performing vendor phone support in case of hardware failure. Providing all the necessary assistance in regards to it.
- When it comes down to potential disasters: notifying and offering a solution like a simple unobtrusive fix, planning, and implementing it.
- Doing the non-trivial fix of an issue that has been there forever due to a previous ad-hoc fix, bad design, or poor business decisions from someone who decided that fixing it is currently not a business priority.
So, in order to prevent the thing from blowing up anytime between a day and half a year from its exposure, sysadmin hacks a fix on the spot. Then he plans for a permanent fix.
Typical issues and requests:
- Service down, fixed with a service restart.
- Threshold exceeded, fixed with a cleanup or minor info gathering to pass on to the service owner to do their own cleanup.
- User or folder permissions, file transfers, minor config changes, straightforward package installs.
- Service crashes continually, probably due to an environmental change or issue.
- Massive failure across systems, requires quick analysis, research, forensics, and knowledge of the environment to fix.
- Degraded performance requires in-depth analysis and timely actions.
- Requests to change configurations, patch, etc.
- Add functionality with potential impact across the environment or on critical systems.
- Environment builds (provision, install, configure).
- Infrastructure service builds or revamps.
- Root-cause analysis.
- Solutions design and implementation.
- Forensic analysis.
- Security-related matters (urgent patching, hardening, analyzing suspicious activity).
- Performance tuning.
- Building in-team infrastructure.
- Writing or revising procedures.
A system administration job can even be compared to a detective job where you get all your cues and clues together to find the cause of the problem. Other days might end up being rather hectic. So, you’d be banging your head while trying to get things done. And then call it a day. Overall, a sysadmin job is interesting and involves more human interactions than you might think.
How long does it take to become a sysadmin?
If you want to become a sysadmin just on a basic level, then learn how to install a computer and do basic troubleshooting. And all this can be learned in one week to a month. If you’re going after a more advanced level, learn Linux, Unix, as well as all the ins and outs of Windows OS like architecture, etc. Learn about how networks work.
You can get a grasp on each of these skills in about half a year. But in reality, experience is what really matters and most important. But even after getting the job as sysadmin, be ready to learn all kinds of new stuff constantly. So, if you want to become a standard junior sysadmin, you need at least 2 years of learning depending on your current skill and your own motivations.
Some important qualities you need to have or obtain:
Broad tech knowledge. This includes networking, software, hardware, etc. Installing server hardware and software (usually with expert help who needs to be instructed and managed).
- A quick list of some sysadmin duties:
- Installing workstation hardware.
- Installing and configuring operating systems on all hardware.
- Installing and configuring network appliances, such as routers and switches.
- Working with VoIP vendors for phone systems.
- Installing productivity software.
- Procuring and configuring email systems.
- Procuring the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS).
- Documenting Standard Operating Procedures for IT processes.
- Monitoring all of the above.
- Troubleshooting problems at any point in the network.
- Develop and test backups, disaster recovery strategies, and redundancies.
- Write scripts to automate things.
- Communicate to non-IT people regarding operations and needs.
- Work with vendors/clients to set up their systems to interact with yours.
Political skills. The ability to support your decisions with facts and figures and always make sure that you’ve got a backup to your backup. And most importantly, a problem solving skill to be able to handle complaints properly. This means having a fair amount of patience. If you don’t have the patience, travel no further, odds are you won’t make it.
Strong work ethic. You need to be fully aware that a sysadmin job may mean working at night, during weekends, or even on holidays. Since good sysadmins are sort of gatekeepers, they shouldn’t give rise to a sort of malignancy of the IT department becoming the department of “No”.
Good troubleshooting skills. System administrators often need to solve complex problems, and determine the root cause of each problem in order to ensure it doesn’t happen again. It goes beyond simply figuring out what the problem is and fixing it each time. You need to be able to trace through the systems involved and know why it’s happened, not just what has happened.
Desire to learn new stuff and upgrade knowledge. Systems change. New technologies come out all the time. Be ready to work with new hardware types, new software versions, new protocols, and new standards. So, be willing to learn them to the absolute best of your ability. Also, a willingness to learn how to read and write code in a variety of scripting languages. And being able to figure out new things fast and efficiently will take you far in this area of IT!
Here is some advice form the field’s experts to those who wants to get a foot in the door of systems development jobs:
- Spent enough time in databases to be a DBA.
- Spend enough time in network configuration to be Cisco certified and try a full time job doing WAN design audit.
- Learn more operating systems. Many UNIX or Linux sysadmins stick to one OS but the fact is sysadmin should know enough Windows to do that full time.
- Learn how to help clients through UNIX to Windows data migrations. The same could be done with Apple. And the migrations can go from those to Linux as well. Learn how ro migrate the data using assorted utilities then switch to mentoring and training to teach the internal staff their new operating system.
- Learn project management starting with Scrum master.
- Learn about GDPR and understand how to apply all the concepts.
What is the future of a sysadmin job?
The future of sysadmins looks even brighter now. Although, like anything else with IT, things change all the time and skills need a constant update, system administrators are in great demand by every company on the planet.
A big buzz happening now is the move back to on premise resources. Not entirely but something known as the Hybrid Cloud. Basically, Cloud technologies can turn out to be rather costly. Yes, they might look easily affordable at first sight. But if you’re taking advantage of managed services rather than just using VMs, the price racks up fast. That’s the reason why so many businesses are moving their less complex pieces back on premise to offset the cost.
And since lots of businesses moved to Cloud technologies, companies experience the need for specialists in AWS and Azure. For instance, some companies are looking to be able to have some sort of virtual networks on their provider to further isolate their resources from the rest of the provider. Therefore, sysadmins need to know how to set it up and maintain it. But also, be able to create the same environment across providers.
Plus, the need for failover is there too. Again, a system administrator needs to be able to maintain this and set up communication between the on premise and Cloud resources. So, the demand for sysadmins is definitely there!
In a corporate environment, system administrators are usually responsible for servers and applications. While other specialists like security analyst, DevOps engineer, virtualization engineer, release engineer, Cloud engineer, database administrators, etc., manage various aspects of the larger environment. But system administrators are the bedrock bottom that everything builds on.
Learn ins and outs of system administrator work with online courses offered by the industry experts on the Grinfer e-learning platform!