This page describes the roles, fundamental principles and daily tasks of a system administrator. What good practice of system and network administration means.

What is the definition of a system administrator?

The general definition of a system administrator is a professional, who takes care of computer, server and network systems on behalf of an employer and/or clients.

System administrators discuss information technology at the Open Source Days 2011 IT conference in Copenhagen.

The main task of a system administrator is problem solving – and with a high degree of responsibility. When a system goes down, software crashes or hardware fails, then the system administrator will be notified, whatever time of day or night, identify the cause of the problem and work hard to find the best solution. This require a general understanding of information technology, a wide range of technical skills and good communication skills on all levels.

Other names for a system administrator are sysadmin, network administrator, database administrator (DBA), Windows administrator, UNIX administrator, Linux administrator, IT administrator, system manager, system architect and system engineer.

What educational background does a system administrator have?

A system administrator will often have an educational background from a university in electronics engineering or information technology. A system administrator, that is employed in larger companies, will often also be industry certified in specific systems and/or certified by law enforcement or governments to process top confidential data.

There are also a few self-tought system administrators. These typically found a deep interest in specific topics of system administration in which they, thanks to the increasing amount of freely accessable open source software and documentation, taught themselves, how to master these.

System administrators are typically very social, curious and helpful. They often meet up for social events with other system administrators, and friends of these, where they discuss solutions, share knowledge and gets introduced to new technologies and contacts. Such social events falls into widely spread categories, such as sports events, local area network multi-player gaming parties (LAN parties) and camping with open talks, computers, servers and data networks.

Though most employers will expect system administrators to have an educational background, they are often willing to disregard educational requirements, if the system administrator is able to demonstrate valuable knowledge and has a record of succesful projects. This is often seen in fields with high demand, such as software development and data security.

How does a system administrator stay updated?

A system administrator is often an active member of communities and system related user groups and forums, where system administrators seek out for advice and discuss solutions for complex problems with operating systems, networks and software development. System administrators will often seek to attend conferences, where they demonstrate new technology, discuss solutions and network with vendors, employers and other system administrators. Such conferences will often have a number of concurrent tracks of speakers, that gives short talks on announced topics.

Storage related threads in The FreeBSD Forums, where system administrators seek advice for solutions to complex problems, related to the FreeBSD operating system.

The fundamental principles of system administration.

In order to find the best solutions to problems, a good system administrator will practice system and network administration with great attention to the fundamental principles of good system administration. These are:

  • Simplicity: The smallest solution, that solves the entire problem, is often the best solution. This ensures, that the systems remains easy to understand.
  • Clarity: Solutions should be self-explaining straightforward, so they can easily be explained, maintained and changed. It is better to write 5 lines of understandable programming code, than 1 complex line, that is incomprehensible.
  • Generality: Solutions should be compatible, scalable and supported. It is better to use vendor-independent open source standards, than going for a solution, that is limited to a specific case of a problem.
  • Automation: Solutions should use scripts and software, that improve repeatability and scalability to ease the burden of system administration tasks and other repetative human effort.
  • Communication: Solutions should solve the right problems. This means taking initiative to ask the right questions to find the true cause of the problem. Solutions should also be well documented, so they can easily be maintained and used. All this require good skills in communication and documentation.
  • Basics first: Basic problems should be identified and solved before solving advanced ones. This makes services and infrastructure robust and makes adding advanced features easier.
A speaker gives a lecture about automation of FreeBSD security patching at Open Source Days 2011 IT conference in Copenhagen.

What are the daily tasks of a system administrator?

The daily tasks of a system administrator include:

  • Planning, buying and creating IT infrastructure equipment.
  • Installing, updating and maintaining computers, servers, operating systems and internet services. Some degree of scripting and programming.
  • Designing and maintaining physical and virtual data networks.
  • Maintaining namespaces for machines, users and services.
  • Writing and maintaining checklists and documentation for all systems.
  • Ensuring data integrety and disaster recovery.
  • Ensuring IT security, such as authentication schemes, intrusion detection and hacking prevention.
  • Helping colleges and clients by supporting their needs and working with customer care departments.
  • Understanding change processes, such as incident management, change management, maintenance windows and project management.
  • Centralization and decentralization.
  • Installing and maintaining service monitoring.
  • Maintaining data storage and file systems.
  • Running and maintaining backup and restore tasks of the different file systems, that is in use.
  • Installing and configuring internet services, such as domain name service (DNS servers), web service (web servers), databases (database servers) and email service (mail servers).
  • Understanding business models and organizational structures. This includes attending meetings with management and board of directors.
  • Writing policies. Complying to GDPR privacy regulations.
  • Reporting to management and clients.
  • Staying updated with security related issues, developments in information technology and society in general.
  • Staying calm, service minded, solution oriented and happy. This includes maintaining a healthy body and mind.
System administrators test and demonstrate the ZFS file system at Open Source Days 2011 IT conference in Copenhagen.

Which professions are related to system administrators?

Related to system administrators are software developers, devops, security analysts, security engineers, security administrators, cryptographers, security consultants, penetration testers, ethical white hat hackers, incident managers, IT supporters, search engine optimization (SEO) specialists, online marketing specialists, IT auditors, IT consultants, data center electricians, information managers and chief technology officers (CTOs).

More about system administration.