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Life as a Linux system administrator

If you're thinking about becoming a system administrator or continuing your career as one, you should read this excerpt from one system administrator's experience.
Life as a system administrator
"V" by tacosdelaluna is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Linux system administration is a job. It can be fun, frustrating, mentally challenging, tedious, and often a great source of accomplishment and an equally great source of burnout. That is to say, it's a job like any other with good days and with bad. Like most system administrators, I have found a balance that works for me. I perform my regular duties with varying levels of automation and manual manipulation and I also do a fair amount of research, which usually ends up as articles. There are two questions I'm going to answer for you in this article. The first is, "How does one become a system administrator?," and second, "What does a Linux system administrator do?".

Becoming a system administrator

Since there's no Linux system administrator college major and no real learning track for Linux system administrators, how does one become a Linux system administrator? Most Linux system administrators (SAs) entered the field by accident. No, seriously. Just ask one. Some SAs took up Linux as a sideline, to their duties as Unix SAs, as interest and adoption grew in the late 1990s. As Linux became a data center standard and the various Unix "flavors" waned in popularity, those who'd dabbled in it were converted to Linux administrators out of need.

For new Linux administrators, many enter the job from their interests as home enthusiasts, gamers, or clandestine administrators of college servers. This is how it happened for me. As soon as I saw Linux for the first time in 1995, I was hooked. By January of 1996, I had started the local Linux User's Group (LUG) here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, much to the chagrin of the Unix Special Interest Group (Unix SIG). 

My beginnings with Linux were rocky. I first ran across Linux in a magazine where I could purchase a 2 CD set in early 1995 when I worked at WorldCom (Yes, that WorldCom). I installed a group FTP/download server for my desktop support group coworkers. A few weeks later, I was told by one of the "gurus" in another group, "We don't allow Lye-nix on our network." I wasn't convinced of course that it mattered what was allowed and what was not, so I kept the server but installed Samba on it and changed daemon header information to make it look like my little system was a Windows server.

After I left the Desktop support group, I moved on to Windows domain administration. I installed a Red Hat Linux 4.0 system that I also hid under my desk from prying eyes. I also installed Samba on it to fool network probes and my annoying team leader who once asked, "What is that Linux server doing for us?" My answer was, "It isn't doing anything for us, but it's doing a lot for me. I use it for research." I kept the Red Hat Linux system until I moved to a different group. Linux was still not allowed on the network. I still didn't care. Yes, I was defiant and terrible but I was also not going to sit around messing with Windows 3.11 and Windows 95 while the rest of the world embraced Linux.

Even getting the LUG started was difficult. I had only about eight people who were interested and it was very frustrating. After almost a year of being too frustrated to continue, I passed the LUG torch to another group member. The Tulsa Linux User's Group is still going today and meets once a month on the University of Tulsa campus. They still have install fests and lots of activities. And, believe it or not, Linux is now the major *nix operating system in that chilly data center that once didn't allow it. It's no longer WorldCom but some iteration of Verizon. The same people work there and none have ever apologized for their behavior nor have they said, "Hey, Ken, you were right about Linux." I'm not going to hold my breath waiting either.

Other than sneaking into Linux system administration by some circuitous path, the more direct and recommended route is to still learn on your own but take some formalized Linux classes to prove your learning milestones. Being self-taught is great, but you'll always just be an enthusiast or hobbyist unless you can formalize your knowledge with certifications or some other proof of knowledge. Self-education is commendable but you'll have significant gaps in your learning. You should set certification knowledge as your goal, whether you become certified or choose not to do so. For a good start, check out Professor Messer's videos on YouTube.

Also, use free resources such as and Enable Sysadmin to enhance your knowledge and to expand your network of learning opportunities.

What a Linux System Administrator does

A Linux system administrator wears many hats and the smaller your environment, the more hats you will wear. Linux administration covers backups, file restores, disaster recovery, new system builds, hardware maintenance, automation, user maintenance, filesystem housekeeping, application installation and configuration, system security management, and storage management. System administration covers just about every aspect of hardware and software management for both physical and virtual systems.

Oddly enough, you also need a broad knowledge base of network configuration, virtualization, interoperability, and yes, even Windows operating systems. A Linux system administrator needs to have some technical knowledge of network security, firewalls, databases, and all aspects of a working network. The reason is that, while you're primarily a Linux SA, you're also part of a larger support team that often must work together to solve complex problems. Security, in some form or another, is often at the root of issues confronting a support team. A user might not have proper access or too much access. A daemon might not have the correct permissions to write to a log directory. A firewall exception hasn't been saved into the running configuration of a network appliance. There are hundreds of fail points in a network and your job is to help locate and resolve failures.

Linux system administration also requires that you stay on top of best practices, learn new software, maintain patches, read and comply with security notifications, and apply hardware updates. An SA's day is very full. In fact, you never really finish, but you have to pick a point in time to abandon your activities. Being an SA is a 24x7x365 job, which does take its toll on you physically and mentally. You'll hear a lot about burnout in this field. We, at Enable Sysadmin, have written several articles on the topic.

The hardest part of the job

Doing the technical stuff is relatively easy. It's dealing with people that makes the job really hard. That sounds terrible but it's true. On one side, you deal with your management, which is not always easy. You are the person who gets blamed when things go wrong and when things go right, it's "just part of your job." It's a tough place to be. 

Coworkers don't seem to make life better for the SA. They should, but they often don't. You'll deal with lazy, unmotivated coworkers so often that you'll feel that you're carrying all the weight of the job yourself. Not all coworkers are bad. Some are helpful, diligent, proactive types and I've never had the pleasure of working with too many of them. It's hard to do your work and then take on the dubious responsibility of making sure everyone else does theirs as well.

And then there are users. Oh the bane of every SA's life, the end user. An SA friend of mine once said, "You know, this would be a great job if I just didn't have to interface with users." Agreed. But then again, with no users, there's probably also not a job. Dealing with computers is easy. Dealing with people is hard. Learn to breathe, smile, and comply if you want to survive and maintain your sanity.

Wrapping up

 Being a Linux system administrator is a rewarding job. It carries with it a great deal of responsibility. It is sometimes unpleasant. It is sometimes really fun. It's a job. Linux SAs come from a variety of backgrounds. They are among IT's most creative and interesting people as well. I've known SAs who were visual artists, chefs, brewers, filmmakers, writers, furniture makers, sword fighters, martial artists, and a dozen other oddball hobbies. System administration isn't easy nor is it for the thin-skinned. It's for those who want to solve complex problems and improve the computing experience for everyone on their network. It's a good job and a good career. Explore it.

Topics:   Career  
Author’s photo

Ken Hess

Ken has used Red Hat Linux since 1996 and has written ebooks, whitepapers, actual books, thousands of exam review questions, and hundreds of articles on open source and other topics. Ken also has 20+ years of experience as an enterprise sysadmin with Unix, Linux, Windows, and Virtualization. More about me

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