System administration is the field of work in which someone manages one or more systems, be they software, hardware, servers or workstations. Its goal is ensuring the systems are running efficiently and effectively.
System administration is typically done by information technology experts for or within an organization. Their job is to ensure that all related computer systems and services keep working (e.g. a website).
A system administrator, or sysadmin, is a person responsible to maintain and operate a computer system or network for a company or other organization. System administrators are often members of an information technology department.
The duties of a system administrator are wide-ranging, and vary from one organization to another. Sysadmins are usually charged with installing, supporting, and maintaining servers or other computer systems, and planning for and responding to service outages and other problems. Other duties may include scripting or light programming, project management for systems-related projects, supervising or training computer operators, and being the equivalent of a handyman for computer problems beyond the knowledge of technical support staff.
It is common for systems administrators and systems analysts charged with developing and maintaining computer processes to identify operational and developmental systems. This is done to provide maximum reliability and availability on mission-critical systems used within the organization's processes by generic users to accomplish routine work while providing developmental resources to computer process development or research teams augmenting existing or developing new processes for the organization.
Many organizations staff other jobs related to systems administration. In a larger company, these may all be separate positions within a computer support or Information Services (IS) department. In a smaller group they may be shared by a few sysadmins, or even a single person.
In some organizations, a person may begin as a member of technical support staff or a computer operator, then gain experience on the job to be promoted to a sysadmin position and afterwards an IT Manager.
A system administrator's responsibilities typically include:
In larger organizations, some tasks listed above may be divided among different system administrators or members of different organizational groups. For example, a dedicated individual may apply all system upgrades, a Quality Assurance (QA) team may perform testing and validation, and one or more technical writers may be responsible for all technical documentation written for a company.
In smaller organizations, the system administrator can also perform any number of duties elsewhere associated with other fields:
System administrators, in larger organizations, also tend not to be system architects, system engineers, or system designers, however, like many roles in this field, demarcations between systems administration and these other roles are often not well defined in smaller organizations. However, even in larger organizations, senior systems administrators often have skills in these other areas as a result of their working experience.
In smaller organizations, IT/computing specialties are less often discerned in detail, and the term "system administrator" is used in a rather generic way -- they are the people who know how the computer systems work and can respond when something fails.
The primary goal of being a system administrator is to be as lazy as possible. Not lazy in the sense that you do no work, but lazy in that you get the computer to do the hard and repetitive jobs, and you do the thinking jobs.
The next goal of system administration is customer satisfaction. While "having a warm and fuzzy feeling" is a laudable goal, we want to fulfill measurable goals. Measuring things like server availability, time to problem resolution, network availability and error rates will help to measure satisfaction.
Remember there are at least two customer types in any sys admins job -- other employees, who are consuming the computer/server/network services, and the management (one of whom is the sys admins boss), who are paying the system administrator to steer their computer resources in a reliable and trouble free direction. Balancing and satisfying both customers is important in the long term. Most important, of course, is consistently providing product to end-users.
A large part of a sys admins job involve troubleshooting and problem solving. Many problems are user driven, and different users have different levels of competency and understanding of technology. Users are often frustrated over the problem, and sometimes need to vent. But the user is often the best source of information on the cause of an issue.
While there isn't a simple guide to every situation, there are a few steps which can help.
Establish a routine and try to stick to it. If you schedule deliveries of new computer equipment only on Tuesday, then you don't have to worry about matching equipment to orders while trying to get the mail server that failed over the weekend back up. Estimate how long tasks will take and measure how long they actually do. (Document them both in terms of "hours of actual work" and "clock time". It might take only 20 minutes to get a new machine set up in terms of "actual work", but it may take the better part of a day for all of the hardware and software to get installed.)
People want to know when they are going to see results, so try and think in terms of what your clients are seeing. If the server will arrive in 5 days, but it will take 2 days of setup and 2 days of testing, that is approx. 2 weeks of work, if all goes according to schedule. Don't say "it'll be here in a week", because your client will expect it to be working in 1 week and 1 day then.
Don't tell people what you think they want to hear. Be realistic and honest in your estimates, but underpromise and overdeliver. There are always a couple of things that are unforseen, and underpromising allows you real time to work on those items. Overdelivering means either be dead on, or early in completing tasks. If you are early, make sure you explain that you had some good luck (and avoided those couple unforeseen issues) and were able to deliver faster than you expected.
There are always a few projects that will take either most of a day or even a few days, but they need concentration and few interruptions to complete in the best way possible. What do you do if your job is to answer end-user questions when they happen, and they usually happen a few times an hour? The best way is to block your time. Most sys admins work in teams, and this is the best way to block your time. Simply ask your team mate to take over all of the interruption type questions you usually deal with for the time you need, and you will do the same for him/her when they need to do a larger project.
Many companies have support hotlines and e-mail areas where users can get support for their questions. Often, however, sys admins complain that users ask them questions in person or call them directly to get around these processes. If you have a formal system, first make sure it's integrated. That means that any question, be it e-mail, phone or in person has to be "entered" into the system. No one should get answers without a ticket number, which should be used by both your users and your sys admins to refer to a request. Each request should be triaged, and the requestor should get an estimated time to resolve.
The system shouldn't build a moat around the sys-admins, though. The idea is that formal questions go through a formal process, and if this is stuck to, then all users should recieve a consistent answer in a timely manner. It should also dissuade "queue jumpers" from phoning certain people direct to work around the process.
These types of processes exist in guidelines such as ITIL. It can be difficult, especially in smaller companies, to convince end users of the benefits of calling a hotline, when they have to wait for the actual sysadmins to respond, instead of calling them directly.
In real estate, it's location location location. In system administration, it's important to create a documentation trail so you know what was done, when, and by whom. This can be something as simple as short log entries (date-time/username/action), or formal guides. It is especially critical when you are debugging or doing emergency troubleshooting to keep these entries, as changes can affect security, stability or availability of resources.
The best system is one that collects configuration changes made into a central location. Often a version tracking tool, such as CVS or SVN can be used to accomplish this, with the added benefit that you get automatic backups of any such configuration.
Both the client and server software that a system administrator uses is very important for every system administrator. Proper software can save a system administrator lots of time and money. It can also be a huge benefit if the source code is available for the software, in the event that a bug is found and the provider is too expensive/slow to fix it and/or come up with workarounds.
See also: Data recovery
Different models of computers have different key combinations for entering the BIOS. They can be very handy to use if you need to guide a non-technical user over the phone.
The majority of computers use F2 or Del to enter the BIOS on boot-up but other keys are sometimes used, including alphanumeric keys.
Other options on boot-up include F12 to show the boot order and F8 (on Windows) to open the boot menu. Safe-mode can be booted from this menu.
Award Modular BIOS' use Del to enter setup.
IBM BIOS' ("300" series PCs) use F1 to enter setup. If you get a restricted menu, you'll have to switch off and on.
Some servers come installed with two SCSI BIOS.
IBM eSeries (P3s) Ctrl-A for Adaptec, Ctrl-I for IBM.
Dell PERC Controllers Ctrl-M up to 4 series or Ctrl-C for 5 and later
Most Dell computers - F2 for setup, F12 for boot order
Some HP computers use F1 to both enter boot order and BIOS setup.
Older IBM computers (P2s and P3s of the "300" series) - F1 for setup
A few may require power Off and On, otherwise you'll get a minimal BIOS menu.
On some IBM computers, press the blue ThinkVantage button to get a menu where you can select the BIOS, which device to boot from, etc. You can also press F12 for the boot menu.
RM notebooks use F2 to enter BIOS
Samsung notebooks use F2 to enter BIOS
Stone Computers notebooks and desktop machines use F2 to enter BIOS
VMWare guests use F2 to enter setup, F12 for network boot and ESC for boot menu
See this guide from "the SBS team".
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