Systems Administrators Changing Roles

by Ostatic Staff - Jul. 28, 2010

It's a sad truth that advancements in technology often make jobs obsolete, usually sooner than most people are ready. The more savvy workers learn to keep up with the times, and adapt their skills to make the best use of their experience, without becoming redundant themselves. The role of Systems Administrator may soon be one of these changing jobs, simultaneously much less, and much more, than what it is today.

A few years ago, if you were going to start a web based business, you needed to think about things like who's going to take care of your IT infrastructure, who's going to manage your servers, and where to put your hardware. These days, it is almost ridiculously easy to outsource what used to be your Windows servers to Google docs, and bring up a virtual web hosting environment in Amazon EC2, or host your new Facebook app on Joyent. The companies that are starting small now are going to be the mid-sized businesses in a few years, the kind of business that used to employ a handful of systems administrators whose job was to ensure that the hardware and operating systems of the servers stayed up and running. With the new businesses outsourcing all of their IT functions from the get-go, where does that leave the age-old (well, 30 years or so) craft of systems administration? Ready to evolve.

Systems administration is not going to go away completly, but I do see a future where there are less of these positions available. Consolidation of equipment isn't just something that's happening in your data center, it's happening across the entire spectrum of IT related fields. The sysadmin of tomorrow will most likely have to handle hundreds or thousands of nodes (as many do today) that provide services to thousands of customers. As hardware becomes more reliable, and virtualization technology also becomes more reliable, the need for dedicated systems administrators for managing the operating system and physical servers decreases. As more and more software vendors start packaging their applications as virtual appliances, the skills needed to adequately manage these packages shifts from the operating system to the application.

Managing applications, and how these applications work together is going to be the bread and butter of systems administrators. Building scalable web services, database farms, and searchable, indexed file servers are a few of the skills that the new sysadmin is going to need. Just as open source has pushed the complexity of managing servers down; it has also pushed the complexity of managing the applications down as well. The systems administrator of tomorrow may never see the hardware his applications are running on. It’s even possible, and I hate to say this, that he might not have to open a terminal. Possible, but not desirable. Well, not by me anyway.

There are always going to be edge cases where outsourcing of the datacenter won't make sense. When a company gets to a certain size, and I don't know what that size is exactly, it might make more sense for them to build their own data center. Twitter is doing this, so it might be that the size and volume of traffic required might be pretty big. Another situation might be credit card processing or anything to do with banking or storing sensitive customer information. Regulations and inspections may require in-house hosting. I'm not saying that the move is going to be across the board, what I am saying is that the winds are already blowing.

The hardware and operating system have never been a concern to the people who pay the bills, only the services that they provide. To stay relevant in tomorrow’s world, systems administrators are going to have to become application administrators, engineers, and system builders, not just administrators.