LISA 2010: Where have the sys admins gone? Oh wait, outsourcing, GUIs

Here at LISA 2010, there's a frightening void in young systems administrators. Where did all the young sys admins go? Right out the door with outsourced jobs and the influx of GUI-ified management tools.

By Michael J. Martin, Fast Packet Blogger

It could be argued that the real Large Installation System Administration (LISA) events occur more "at the tables" than in the conference room training sessions. Over the last two days the big conversation topics at these lounge tables have been plans to dump Oracle and Sun, and the question: Where will the system administrators of tomorrow come from?

It's been 10 years since I attended LISA; and one of the first things I noticed was all of the faces that were missing. There was a time you could chat with Perl creator Larry Wall or C developer Dennis Ritchie just by sitting down at these tables.

But beyond the missing star power (after all, it's possible tomorrow's stars are lurking among us here this week), LISA attendees seem older than they used to be. The crowd is the same mixture of university, ISP/SP, enterprise and government folks adorned with crazy hats, long hair and interesting tee-shirts, but the change in average age speaks loudly to the troubling question of where the next generation of system admins will come from. The short answer is: not from anywhere around here.

The overwhelming trend in outsourcing – especially among first and second level support – is lending itself to this void in young system admins, and everyone I talked to here this weekend had some kind of outsourcing horror story.

If companies and organizations are all trying to outsource base-level jobs, who will take the place of all these LISA folks when they retire? The commoditization of support will result in a loss of historical technology knowledge among other major problems.

In addition to outsourcing, the trend toward administration and testing tools that have become GUI-ified or "point-and-click" will also play its role in the young system admin black hole. There was a time when system and network administration teams were comprised of junior and senior members. Junior admins were mentored and trained. Now with tools doing the job of configuration and management, they do little more than upgrade an RPM and swap out a card or a disk – if they have jobs at all.

I am concerned with this lack of mentorship and where LISA will be in another ten years when outsourcing and easy-to-use tools have replaced the human sys admin development cycle.

About the author: Michael J. Martin has been working in the information technology field as a network and Unix system admin for nearly 20 years. His early experiences designing, implementing, and supporting MIS infrastructures for research and ISPs give him a unique perspective on his current pursuits in large-scale internetworking and security architecture. As a network architect, he has designed high-speed/high-availability LAN/MAN networks for companies such as ANS/AOL, Philips, and the Edgix Corporation, and has provided network consulting for a number of businesses and regional ISPs. Michael also writes and provides training on networking and security related issues. His book Understanding The Network: A Practical Guide to Computer Networking has been translated into Russian and Chinese.

This was first published in November 2010

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