Linux in Government: Linux System Administrators

If you're looking to hire a Linux sysadmin, you might need to rethink your hiring guidelines and practices.
System Administrators

According to traditional definitions, such as the one on the Sage Web site, you can find what many people believe fits a Linux system administrator:

system administrator n. a system administrator is one who, as a primary job function, manages computer and network systems on behalf of another, such as an employer or client.

Another page on that site provides classic definitions of UNIX system administrators. Sage divides them into Novice, Junior, Intermediate/Advanced and Senior. You should visit the Sage Web site if you want to look at these definitions.

Fortunately, we do not have to agree with the delineation used by Sage. Instead, we can see Linux administrators as specialists in a variety of areas. For example, a Linux person could be senior in administration of Web sites, networking, interoperability, kernel management, e-mail, network storage or maintaining a development environment. At a minimum, Linux system administrators should know user management, hardware and software maintenance and network administration. From there, a Linux guy probably specializes, as Linux now can be found in so many different areas of information technology, including embedded devices and virtual machines.

Is a Linux system administrator any less proficient if he deals with content management or streaming media servers instead of file and print servers? Undoubtedly, we would have to say no. In the world of Linux 2005, the old rules do not necessarily apply.

Finding and Using a Linux System Administrator

If you are looking for someone to manage Linux computer and network systems on behalf of another, such as an employer or client, be prepared. You may discover that the vast majority of Linux system administrators learned their trade on their own networks. Once they gained the knowledge they needed, they may have offered their services for hire.

When you find an appropriate Linux systems administration candidate, recognize that he probably does not fit your mold. But, if you use his skills correctly, he will empower your organization and make everyone around him better. If your are not getting that from your Linux guy, you could be facing one of two issues: your people have closed their minds to what Linux brings or you have the wrong person. You can correct them both.

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant with Hiser+Adelstein, headquartered in New York City. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop and author of an upcoming book on Linux system administration, to be published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has been writing articles and books about Linux since early 1999.

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Linux Systems Administrator vacancies

Louise Luxford's picture

I currently have x2 vacancies for Linux Systems Administrators and was wondering if anyone would be interested to know more.

Its to work within the Fixed Income business who are implementing Linux for the first time. They are migrating applications from UNIX to Linux (Red hat).

Environment: 338 Solaris servers, top end SUN kit, 8 x 15k frames and they aim to have 150+ Linux servers by the end of the year.

The 2 individuals will need to have 3-5 years Unix systems Administration experience in Linux and Solaris in production support. They will be training the rest of the team quickly and shaping the use of Linux potentially across the other businesss areas.

If you are interested or know of anyone thats interested I would really appreciate it if you could let know my telephone number is 020 8301 5566. Thanks

Reg : Linux Systems Administrator vacancies

Nagappan. L's picture

I am enclosing my CV in response to your requirement.

As you will see I have recently graduated from the Redhat with an RHCE in Linux.

My CV outlining my experience to date and key skill areas which I believe are relevant to this position.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,
L. Nagappan

WOW - Is this a new revelation?

Bernie B's picture

I guess I must be an inigma. I am thoroughly successful (a step above competent, if you trust the chart) at administering all Windows OS, Unix OS, Linux OS, MVS/OS390 (running native not just Linux shells).

I do agree that self-starting, out-of-the-box thinking, "do-it-yourself" types tend to be more successfull at task accomplishment. But I don't believe that it is just the guys who have home networks with multi-OS platforms, who become proficient on the "free" OS. Some of us highly degreed, certified and long experienced types have the same attributes.

Into the shark tank

Billy G. Jr.'s picture

I'm going to be the first admittantly MS admin to respond to this article: how is this useful? Granted, Linux - as free software - tends to be sparse on the technical support and thus is generally limited to do-it-yourselfers and geeks. However, I fail to see how this makes Linux admins so much more gifted than others. At my company we use Unix for the important data, MS for the office grunts, and Mac for the sales guys. Unfortunately when communication problems arise many of the admins spend more time bickering over who's platform is at fault than actually solving the problem. This article appears to achieve a similar result. Allow me to demonstrate:

Few information technology professionals can appreciate the skill, knowledge and experience required to administer Microsoft servers and workstations. The lack of appreciation reflects less on Microsoft professionals than on the people who should hire them. Regardless, CIO's need to understand better what a Microsoft system administrator brings to an organization, understand better the Microsoft skill set and learn how to evaluate qualified Microsoft technicians.

I have observed a particular problem related to Microsoft deployments in technology shops around the country. Most shops try to convert UNIX system administrators and/or Linux System administrator into Microsoft administrators. They send people to courses thinking that if a person can master Red Hat 9.0 or Solaris, they should have the ability to pick up knowledge of running a Microsoft operating system too.

Converting Linux and UNIX system administrators to Microsfot, however, fails more often than not. Microsfot system administrators typify a different segment of the population and culture than most trained IT professionals.

Does that sound silly to you? Or, perhaps, make you wonder WTF makes that MS admin think he's supperior simply because he's an MS admin? Imagine how the original article sounds to non-Linux professionals. And not just MS admins, see the first responder to the article to see what I mean.

Now, I will grant you this point: When comparing % of populations, Do-it-yourself types dominate much more in the Linux/Unix world. This does not mean that there are a great # of the types using Linux/Unix however. For proof, do a simple search looking for free alternatives to many for-pay applications in MS. They are varied and some are very good. Another reason there is such a large difference in percentages between the two (or three) communities is because of technical support. Many managers figure they can pull Suzy from accounting, show her how to use google and support.microsoft.com and figure she'll be almost as good as those highly paid professionals. Given time, she might, but not 'right out of the box.'

All this to make one simple point: I do not believe that admins of one system or another are inherently better/more intelligent/superior to any other. I ask that the author uses a less condesending/superior tone in the future less the meat(informative / though proviking remarks) of his articles be missed for the dessert(getting to rip on MS guys! What's more fun or easy?)

Just a few thoughts:
-Nick Dadabo
Network Admin
No official certs -
1 home network
6 years of experience
Time finding a job in MS environment-3 mo.
Time finding a job in a Linux environment-still looking.
1 Family to feed - thankyou MS for making a product that needs support.

_x admins converting to _y

Paul Blair's picture

Your reversal - taking the article and swapping Linux with Windows is actually a reality that plays out very often. I work with a guy who had worked with HP/IBM mainframes his whole life, and has had a really hard time transitioning to HPUX. With Windows you can forget it - he jsut doesn't get how Windows works *at all*. It's not that he's dumb. People just get stuck in their ways as they get older. It human nature. I'm sure I'll be the same when I get old and crusty.

Ok I'll come out of the closet too.

Paul Blair's picture

I'm primarily a Windows admin too ... but I also work with Unix (HPUX, FreeBSD). All of this collective back patting done amongst Linux advocates is amusing to me. Smart people do tend to gravitate towards Linux/Unix, but that doesn't make Linux the right answer for everything.

Q: How do Linux programmers sharpen pencils?

A: They bore out the leads and press in a new ones. Then they all get together and argue about how the best way to do it was, take turns patting each other on the back, and mock the Windows users for having to use a hand crank.

I agree.

isildur's picture

I would also like to express my thanks to MS for giving me Job Security.

This article is silly

Paul Blair's picture

This article basically describes intelligent people who are good at solving problems, and tries to pin "Linux" as the common thread that binds them all together.

The opening quote is the absolute kicker:

"Few information technology professionals can appreciate the skill, knowledge and experience required to administer Linux servers and workstations."

Yes, because we all know that administering Linux requires more skill, knowledge, and experience than any other platform.

It's funny how the author trys to seperates Linux from other Unices, as if they are completely different animals.

Thanks for the laugh.

This article is silly

Paul Blair's picture

This article basically describes intelligent people who are good at solving problems, and tries to pin "Linux" as the common thread that binds them all together.

The opening quote is the absolute kicker:

"Few information technology professionals can appreciate the skill, knowledge and experience required to administer Linux servers and workstations."

Yes, because we all know that administering Linux requires more skill, knowledge, and experience than any other platform.

It's funny how the author trys to seperates Linux from other Unices, as if they are completely different animals.

Thanks for the laugh.

Confusion and perception

Anonymous's picture

The lumping of two distinct roles under the same title of System Administrator quickly brings into doubt the authors veracity in writing this piece. (See the very well stated comment concerning System Deployment and System Management.)
Both Unix and "Unix like" System Administrators and System Architects have great ease in adding Linux into their skill set. Each Unix/BSD/Solaris/HP-UX/AIX/Linux etc has its own GUI flavor and a few unique CLI commands that require some period of learning and mastery.
System Architecting is more of the same, though some of the clustering and HA add-ons require careful study and trials for suitability.
Each generation of people always believe that how they think about something is unique. 'The culture of the Linux community breeds people who know how to identify a problem and solve it by "doing it themselves".' This is precisely what the Unix community has been saying about itself for 40 years.
The issue of "conscious knowledge and competence" is an aspect of person’s personality, not one of their chosen professions. Given a large enough sample of people this would be self evident even to you.
Most major server installations were and are Unix or Unix like, as they keep running. Linux is not unique, no matter how much you want it to be. It is essentially another Unix (especially since IBM has had hundreds of engineers putting Unix technology into it), which is not quite mature and has far too many versions available.

What linux really is.

Anonymous's picture

I have found myself in this conversation many times. Sure linux is an operating system, but what makes linux "linux" is the kernel. Sure there are many different vendors out there packaging free and comercial software with the linux kernel, and some even make modifications to the kernel, but the core of the vendors distribution is still the linux kernel. So what worth do the various vendors bring to the market? Stability, scalability, security, availability, reliability? Some, all of these, and some none. Now what makes linux distributions similar, the use of GNU software. OSX ships with GNU software, Sun packages it for Solaris on a supplemental CD, and of course you can download, compile and install it for pretty much any operating system available today.

System Deployment Vs System Management

David Mohring's picture

The problem I have with this article is that, like many other articles, lumps two distinct roles, System Deployment and System Management, under the same title of System Administrator.

Designing, configuring and deploying a combination of services, servers and networks is an entirely different task to day to day management and even troubleshooting the resulting combination of services, servers and networks.

System Deployment with Linux can require a lot of skills and aptitude that Tom decribes in the article. Doing research, googling, asking around, and even using a few desktop PC hooked together as a temporary test lab can deliver big dividends. Previous Unix experience in performing the same role can be almost directly translated to similar Linux deployments. Older Unix system administrators, or those who do not rely only on administrating through third party GUI interfaces, will find the command line accessibility very useful. Most modern commercial Linux distributions feature GUI based administration interfaces, but it is often the ability to bypass and/or extend the GUI limited "standard" methords to deliver better solutions for larger deployments.

However, for a little extra effort on the part of those implementing the deployment, the resulting Linux combination need not be any more difficult to manage on a day to day basis. Installing and customizing a front end interface, such as the cross platform web based Webmin, can deliver an interface which is even easier to manage. Previous NT/200X experience, with an robust understanding of the NT/200x terminology, can be very easily translated to managing Linux using interfaces such as Webmin. Any reasonable NT/200x administrator can be up to speed within a couple of weeks after the shift. Documentation is a key factor. Start out with a generalized manual, and then maintain internal documentation that mirrors each chapter in the manual, on the options used for the actual deployment.

The difficult task of trouble shooting, identifying and tracking down issues to services from symptoms and logs, which requires specialist knowledge, is a skill that can be quickly acquired, as long as the people managing the system have access to the people who deployed it.

The real advantage with a good Linux based deployment is that, once its up and running, it stays running. Often the skills needed to deploy a Linux based solution are not needed inside the organization until the next round of upgrading or expantion is required.

This means that a lot personal with Linux Deployment experience and skills are often under utilized once each deployment is completed. Instead of having this knowledge base siting idle, why not share it around? The more interaction your own Linux deployment staff have with other Linux based deployments will dramatically increase the skill base your own IT department has access to. Often this can be taken to the point where in some cases it is a good idea for two or more non-competing organizations to share some of their IT staff for the design and implementation of Linux deployments -- don't out-source, re-source!

For smaller scale deployments, suitable for smaller business, appliance like devices, built on Linux, are far easier to deploy and manage than any equivalent generalized Linux,Solaris or Windows NT/200x. A lot more of these appliance like devices and dedicated role Linux distributions are comming on the market. Some of these turnkey solutions are becoming more suitable for mid to large sized organizations.

Linux Guru Resumes

Andrew Latham's picture

I have seen a trend of Linux Gurus that start in strange fields. A mechanical engineer that plays and manages systems in his/her own time can have great skills in administration. The skills needed by most engineers mix well with IT. Artist also handle the management of IT well as they understand that unseen values may exist to deepen a choice or direction with their work.

it's interesting that you men

shawn's picture

it's interesting that you mention that, andrew. i started out as a student in industrial design and drafting. i studied art and architectural design in university...but i'm currently a sr. systems/network administrator.

i seem to have a natural affinity for computer science. i worked tech support for my high school isp (linux). i worked part time in the web development office at the university (linux servers, html, javascript, etc)...now, 9 years later i manage a medium size network.

10 years ago, i thought i would be an architect. now, i'm a linux admin and programmer.

and, like the article says, most of my skill is derived from my hacker like nature and in the field experience; either on my home network or in the trenches of corporate offices.

i agree...we certainly are a different breed.

Follow-up article?

David Harris's picture

Hey, I'd love to send this to my boss, but I think it's a bit on the elementary side. Myself, I'm (going by the SAGE definitions, which are obviously out of date) an Intermediate/Advanced sysadmin, probably Senior but too young. I've just started a job at the smallest site I've yet done - 45 computers or so (20 of which are servers) - and I'm having a real tough time working things out with my boss(es). I definitely don't fit their mould, and the last sysadmin really screwed them over. (Two separate issues, admittedly.)

If you'd be willing to write a follow-up article, expanding on 'Finding and Using a Linux System Administrator', particularly the latter bit, I'd very much appreciate it. Feel free to email me if you'd like my own perspectives on the matter.

Unix and Linux require very similar skills

Dan Razzell's picture

System administration is, or anyway can be, as deep an inquiry as you'd care to make it. It tends to be both technical and political, and it potentially covers everything from requirements analysis, architecture, design, security policy and practices, performance measurement, planning, expectations management, supply management, software development, hardware design, and system integration, to staffing, operations, and user support.

Therefore, I can only agree that a competent system administrator is a critical asset to any organization that depends on its computing environment.

I think it's also fair to say that, as in any profession, you can find large variations in expertise among individual system administrators. Someone who has experience managing a small number of isolated systems will not be exposed to the same challenges as someone who has been responsible for the infrastructure of a large organization spread across multiple sites.

One can be competent but inexpert, having an appreciation for knowledge and abilities yet to be developed. All expert system administrators have to pass through this stage. Those who do, in my experience, don't find themselves making much of a technical distinction between Unix and Linux. Once you've managed a few different variants, they become conceptually interchangeable, especially in view of all the other factors of system management that deserve attention. So, a contrast between Unix and Linux system administration is, in my view, not characteristic of the art and science of system administration.

The real contrast among system administrators, if I may say so, is one of conceptual ability. People with this ability have either developed a particular competence, or "know that they don't know" and therefore tend to get along well with those who do. That, in my experience, is what really counts in terms of delivering a reliable computing infrastructure.

Indeed, someone who knows Solaris should find it easy to pick up Linux and vice versa. That's the easy part of system administration, knowing which buttons to push. The hard part is envisioning where an organization is going to be in five years, and laying the track to get there sustainably.

If there is a cultural difference between Unix and Linux practitioners of similar ability -- and frankly, I haven't seen much evidence of it -- it might be that the Unix people tend to be conservative about system changes, whereas the Linux folks might tend to just try something and see what happens. But that difference would not be due to the operating system, it would be a result of working in environments with very different standards for performance and stability.

I must agree that making a tr

Anonymous's picture

I must agree that making a transition from Unix to Linux is simple for the Unix guys, for the reasons stated in the preceeding response. The Microsoft guy has a struggle, first to learn the commands of the Unix/Linux world, and second to overcome the bias imposed by the Microsoft world, and their inevitable conclusion that the Microsoft solution is always the best and brightest one. They must unlearn that knee jerk reaction, and de-program themselves. A very tough thing for the indoctrinated to do, from all of my experience with MSCEs and their ilk.

limiting yourself to Linux guys = missing great candidates

Carla Schroder's picture

Expanding your options to include women Linux admins is also an effective way to expand your talent pool.

"linux guys"

Anonymous's picture

I did not take "Linux guy" to exclude women, but I think "Linux people" would have been better.

Recently I attended a Linux even at which "model types" were standing next to a car, handing out CD's. I thought such a thing had no place in a setting where people want to look professional. They could have had some sort of display where interested people could pick up CD's, or instead of a model type, someone in a penguin suit could have handed out the CD's. If there were more women Linux sysadmins, I don't think we would see models and cars at Linux shows. I think it is a reason to try to get more girls (in elementary schools) interested in science and technology.

I'm sure Tom meant women as well.

Taran's picture

There's always an issue of highlighting women in this field, but in my experience it has always been the women of worth who have served as the best highlights.

Yet to hear of many tech peop

Anonymous's picture

Yet to hear of many tech people who don't welcome competent women to the field quite happily.

Besides which explicitly stating women also is a neo-feminist PC thing and more often than not insisted upon in a discriminatory fashion when the original authorship was perfectly liberal. Certain usages are intended as a gender-neutral wideband reference to anyone and everyone, mankind predates linguistic references to male and female and only lately was there an attempt by females to shade it as being male-centric. Revisionism by people who care less about history, truth, and actual equality - and more about getting what they want at anyone else's expense.

try paying attention

Lori Bryce's picture

re: "Yet to hear of many tech peop"

I'm sure you would feel the exactly the same way if feminine pronouns were dominant, instead of masculine. (That's sarcasm, in case you couldn't tell.)

You have not been paying attention if you really believe that the tech world is a great big happy egalitarian universe, where only ability and merit matter. In fact this very point is the main focus of the article- it's not that way at all.

There is nothing gender-neutral about the entire article, it's a completely masculine tone, unambiguously portraying the savvy, adaptable Linux sysadmin as a man. Denying that is delusional. How much it matters is up to the reader- I've read several of Mr Adelstein's articles, and he is always thought-provoking. I would prefer to see more inclusive language, but that's up to him.

gender-neutral?

MikeFM's picture

At least when I was in school the rule we were taught was that male pronouns could include both males and females while female pronouns included only females. I guess you could see this is meaning that men were special because their pronouns were every where. I on the other hand saw this is a sign that women are special. Men have to use a generic term while women get to have a specific term. :)

There is some truth that men are uncomfortable with women in IT but my experience has been that it's usually not the men that know what they're doing. It's the men that are uncomfortable with any competition, not just competition from women.

Most of the men I know are eager for more women to be involved in IT. If anything they are overly eager and may come off as horny geek boys. This is less because they are perverts than because in their profession they are limited to the number of female peers they can work with. It's a very different experience to be around women that are challenging and interesting than those that are bored with our geeky interests and whom we find boring in turn. These men might be polite enough (or to shy) not to openly make advances but they may still act oddly (most of them aren't exactly smooth operators). So, these guys may come off weird but it's not because they don't want you there.

I've known some very savvy female admins and programmers. I have noticed that women tend to lean towards hands-on skills such as building networks or PCs rather than the more metaphysical skills such as programming. I don't think this is based on any lack of ability but instead is an indication that women like something substantial to work with. Not all women fit that leaning though. Some are very good at programming and configuring systems.

“I am distressed to find th

Anonymous's picture

“I am distressed to find that some women friends (fortunately not many) treat the use of the impersonal masculine pronoun as if it showed intention to exclude them. If there were any excluding to be done (happily there isn’t) I think I would sooner exclude men, but when I once tentatively tried referring to my abstract reader as ‘she’, a feminist denounced me for patronizing condescension: I ought to say ‘he-or-she’, and ‘his-or-her’. That is easy to do if you don’t care about language, but then if you don’t care about language you don’t deserve readers of either sex. Here, I have returned to the normal conventions of English pronouns. I may refer to the ‘reader’ as ‘he’, but I no more think of my readers as specifically male than a French speaker thinks of a table as female. As a matter of fact, I believe I do, more often than not, think of my readers as female, but that is my personal affair and I’d hate to think that such considerations impinged on how I use my native language.

Lol

RobC's picture

You should tell your feminist friend they should learn french (or any other language with gender for every damn noun). It would drive her crazy.

"Smart" and "Gets things done"

Anonymous's picture

"Joel on Software" has a good article about hiring.

Joel Spolsky is an idiot

Paul Bain's picture

Joel Spolsky is an idiot. He knows nothing of Linux or the open source Revolution. Also, see this.

proprietary software CEO != idiot

Anonymous's picture

He did write the best explanation of open source economics ever. Just because he doesn't do open source doesn't mean he doesn't understand open source.

Management of Linux Geeks

Mike Sweeney's picture

Excellent article and I would add as an ex-manager of some Unix/Linux and OSX geeks, that running a shop with folks like these (and myself) requires more effort than traditional employees. Since they tend to be hands on, they have a very, very hard delegating or trusting who they just delegated to. They also have troubles focusing on a task they are not motivated to do (not a cool technology or process, like documentation). But, if you know this walking into it and are willing to put in the extra effort, they can be outstanding employees. ALso keep in mind that while they may be able to talk to machines and make them dance, they may not who you want presenting the project to Sr. management. Sounds like I'm sterotyping but I can give far more examples of social situtations that I had to defuse because of the lack of knowledge on the part of the Geek (or they didnt care)

Management of Linux Geeks

tadelste's picture

Mike,

I'm sure we can compare war stories on this subject. I had similar problems with coat and tie technologists before the PC became prevalent.

But, I also had some very disciplined Linux system administrators who I turned into sales engineers and sent on client calls. So, sterotyping Geeks does get a little funny.

In a sense, this article could be viewed as stereotyping as it paints issues with a very broad brush. That said, sociological meta models do exist and Linux does produce a cultural model that's worth examining.

-TA

Agreement

Mike Sweeney's picture

Precisely why I added the caveat about my response sounding like sterotyping. I've had both and in truth, I've have been both types :) Sometimes it can take while to see both sides of the fence and that a suit does not always mean "enemy".

You are correct that there is a certain "type" of person that gravitates towards Linux or other like products. THis type of person will have certain traits many times and these traits can be a great strength for a group. They just need to be effectively managed. One of my ex-guys who was a hotshot engineer is now in his first year of being a manager and it's funny to hear his stories now :)

Like I said, good job on the article.

MikeS

Re: Management of Linux Geeks

Vance's picture

You might be interested in this http://www.thomhartmann.com/hunterfarmer.shtml and related writings. I think you are somewhat off the mark here - there is a dichotomy, but it isn't Linux vs. UNIX. As others have pointed out, a good UNIX admin can become a good Linux admin without much difficulty.

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