Photo of man fixing large network hard drive

The Thankless, Complex Role of System Administrator

24 Jun 2016 by Teresa Meek

July 29th is System Administrator Appreciation Day, and you really owe your sysadmin a big hug.

Also, cake and ice cream are suggested, and maybe some pizza for later on, when you’re ready to go home but the sysadmin will stay for hours installing new software so that you’ll have it first thing tomorrow morning.

We tend to take our sysadmins for granted, blaming them for problems, but not recognizing their heroic fortitude in solving them, as these humorous videos illustrate. Where would we be without them? Forget your password, and you’d have to leave the company. Viruses would spread like the 1918 influenza pandemic. Printer problems? Like the song says, the sysadmin is “the only one in the office who knows what PC load letter means.”

So what, exactly, do sysadmins do?

They install and maintain servers, computer equipment and networks. They take care of phone systems. They make sure you can access your work on your smartphone or tablet. They set up secure email, install and configure work stations, allocate storage space and basically keep your office running like clockwork.

Shift to the cloud.

As businesses move to the cloud, the role of the system administrator is changing. Popular applications like Microsoft Office 365 and Salesforce manage service and storage without the need for on-site help. Virtualized servers also mean less contact with physical equipment.

Sysadmins no longer need to consider which disk array to purchase, or how large the storage needs to be. On-premise data centers that were once their province are disappearing, and many of those that remain function in concert with cloud-based apps in a hybrid model.

Of course, someone has to do the heavy lifting to move to the cloud or set up the virtual servers. That person is the sysadmin — or in enterprises, the sysadmin team.

Rather than wearing a headlamp and connecting wires in a server room, system administrators will integrate new software with legacy systems and train staff to use it.

But then what? What is left for the sysadmin to do on a day-to-day basis if there are no more servers, and cloud providers handle service and maintenance for all their apps?

Many in the IT industry are raising these questions, and the prevailing view seems to be that the sysadmin role is not going away, just changing.

Their new role will be more strategic. They will be heavily involved in developing systems, part of a DevOps team that looks ahead to plan the long-term evolution and lifecycle of products. The sysadmin’s role will be to calculate growth rate and make sure appropriate infrastructure is in place. Instead of putting out fires, sysadmins will work with the CIO to figure out where the business needs to invest for the future.

One critical role they will keep is managing security. Though cloud providers have their own firewalls and virus protection, company email systems and in-house data are vulnerable, and hackers grow more sophisticated every year. The sysadmin has a vital role to play in keeping office systems safe. Some may also transition to data analytics, a field where demand is great.

We need them.

And let’s face it, there will always be office workers who need basic IT help. When Gizmodo asked sysadmins for war stories, hundreds chimed in. Here are just a few true-life situations that under-appreciated sysadmins have had to deal with:

  • A movie director said the color of the footage on his editing screen didn’t match what he saw during filming, and insisted that the on-site equivalent of a sysadmin fix it. After sweltering in a light-proof tent on set, installing new hardware, recalibrating monitors and working with another company in a vain attempt to find the problem, he talked to the director, who said, “Do you think it has anything to do with the fact that I’m wearing sunglasses on set when I look at the monitor?”

  • An office worker had problems inputting a password, so the sysadmin told her to try it again, but take Caps Lock off. She went to her office, then returned and said, “That was a nightmare — I had to use a pair of pliers to get it off.”

  • A sysadmin found a new job and left his company, but they called him to come back without pay on a Saturday to move an email server to a new location. He declined. Three weeks later, they called in a panic, saying they’d pay him anything to get the job done.

Their role may be changing, but we still need our sysadmins. For all they put up with, honoring them with cake and ice cream once a year is the least we can do.