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My Linux sysadmin survival kit

Every Linux system administrator is different, and we all have our own survival kits and secrets of survival in this job. Here's mine.
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Linux sysadmin survival kit
"Aircrew Survival Kit" by crudmucosa is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Linux sysadmins are an enterprising lot. We work long hours. We typically see few people during our workdays. And, we're collectors of tools, techniques, scripts, websites, physical tools, and other goodies that help us in our jobs. This article describes my own personal sysadmin survival kit that consists of all of the above, plus one that you might not have considered.

Webmin

Yes, I've mentioned Webmin before, but it's a standard tool that I use to manage Linux systems. I don't use every aspect of it, but it certainly comes in handy for those sysadmins, like myself, who must manage multiple complex systems by ourselves. It's no fun being a lone wolf (it might sound romantic to be one, but it isn't). Good tools like Webmin make it tolerable. Webmin is top-notch for most management tasks, but I wouldn't trust it to be accessible from the internet, so I only use it inside a private network and with https turned on.

Pulseway

Pulseway picks up where Webmin leaves off, as a remote management tool. You can access Pulseway via a web page or a mobile app. Communications to and from your systems are encrypted, so there's no need for an extra VPN, although using a VPN is always recommended. The Pulseway interface allows you to view files, issue commands, apply patches, reboot, check performance, kill processes, and much more for a variety of operating systems.

Man pages

I'm always shocked at system administrators who don't install man pages. Man pages are the best available online help system. They require no internet access and they remove the need to search through forums, comments, and other online weirdness to find an answer to an important question. Man pages are an essential item in every sysadmin's survival kit. Don't forget them.

Computer toolkit

Although I've used everything from the US$ 5 toolkits you pick up at flea markets to a "professional toolset" supplied by a local hosting company, my most favorite is the iFixit Pro toolkit. Sure, it's US$ 70, but it's the best and most extensive toolkit that I've ever used. It comes with an interchangeable screwdriver-like handle and 64 bits that fit everything I've ever needed to use on a computer or peripheral. The kit also comes with removal tools for cases, keyboards, chips, cards, and so on. You'll never look for another tool again if you have this toolkit with you. 

Diet Dr. Pepper

Yeah, I know this is weird but I need what I need. Diet Dr. Pepper used to be the drink of choice for a lot of US-based sysadmins during work hours. I used to laugh as I plodded through the cubicle farm at the local branch of a large, multi-national technology company (OK, it was HP) and noted how many system administrators had at least one can of Diet Dr. Pepper on their desks. It seems that Diet D.P. has been usurped by the upstart, LaCroix. For some strange reason, sysadmins seem to love it, although I'm not sure why. But, whatever your drink of choice is, it's all about staying hydrated (and caffeinated) folks.

The internet

I know it seems ridiculous to add the one tool that we all use all day long, every day, but the internet is an essential tool for sysadmins. Think about it. Could you do your job as well without access to the vast information available there? I couldn't. Sure, people managed just fine before the internet, but they also had the advantage of having a much simpler existence. Back then, you only had to provide access to local users and used modems for the remote ones. (Ask Google if you don't know what a modem is.) I can't say that it was easier to be a system administrator back then because I don't have first-hand experience with it, but my guess is that tons of printed documentation wasn't as pleasant or as quick to use as the internet. These are the better old days.

Personal items

Believe it or not, our personal items ground us. They give us a connection to our hobbies, our passions, or our favorite things. Toys, pictures, stickers, and even a few personal accessories help you to remain sane and connected to the human world when you're hip-deep into a priority one incident. Bring a few items from home to make you feel better, but don't go overboard because your coworkers will appreciate some restraint on your part. Keep a little mystery about yourself and your personal life.

Books

Kicking it old school with dead tree versions of your favorite books can help you maintain a connection with tech knowledge that you can actually touch. And like Captain Picard said, "There's something about the feel of a book in your hands." I'm not sure if that's an exact quote, but you get the idea. Books are handy to have. They're accessible, physical, and you can relax in a different chair while reading one. There's something distancing about a screen. I feel closer to books and enjoy reading them because of that physical connection. 

Flashlight

If you don't have a good flashlight, you can't live a full life. OK, that's stretching it a bit, but you certainly can't enjoy life inside a datacenter, under a desk (for repairs, hiding from management, and locating a hot Ethernet drop), or when searching for the screw that just dropped onto the floor. A good flashlight is one of those tools that you don't think about until you don't have one with you. Sure, your phone can act as a flashlight, but your phone is awkward to use in a server rack (I've tried). There's no substitute for a flashlight with a magnetic patch so that you can attach it to the rack to act as that third hand that you desperately need but don't have.

Allies

This is the surprise one. Allies, especially those in non-technical roles, can be helpful in your career path, and just for navigating the everyday issues with any job. For example, an ally in the accounting department can guide you in making better choices for your 401k investments. But, since most of your coworkers will be in the IT department, you'll need to gain allies there as well. It pays to befriend, even on a professional basis, the people within your own department. Allies can help you get things done faster and with fewer roadblocks. If people don't like you, they can make your work life miserable and prevent you from being successful.

I'm not saying that you have to win popularity contests, but you do need to work amicably with other people in and outside of your small circle of coworkers. Personally, I've never met a sysadmin I didn't like. OK, full transparency here: That's not true. It sounded better in my head.

Wrap up

These ten items are what occupy my Linux sysadmin survival kit. Remember that being a Linux system administrator isn't just a job: It's a weird adventure that someone pays you to do.

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Topics:   Linux  
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Ken Hess

Ken Hess is an Enable SysAdmin Community Manager and an Enable SysAdmin contributor. 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. More about me

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