Cloud Computing

The rise of the cloud administrator

by Lawrence Garvin, Network Computing, July 22, 2014

With the roles of the sysadmin and network admin merging as cloud infrastructure grows, what toolsets will prevail?

One of the significant developments emerging as a result of cloud computing and software-defined infrastructures is a blending of the system administrator and network administrator roles. With this convergence in mind, I can't help but wonder what the future holds in store for the toolsets that IT pros in each of these traditional roles have come to rely on.

Before we explore this issue further, though, let's set the stage by taking a closer look at the demise of the distinction between sysadmins and network admins.

Historically, the demarcation between the two happened at the RJ-45 socket on the NIC. Anything that involved the cable, switches, routers, etc. was not the concern of sysadmins. Likewise, if the light was blinking on the NIC, anything happening inside the box was not the problem of network admins.

I'm not saying this is necessarily a sane way to run a data center, but it is the reality of how life has been up until now. It's also true that sysadmins who have an understanding of how networks work, including DHCP, DNS, and IP routing, usually have a much easier time diagnosing server and application problems. Likewise, network admins who have an appreciation for the nature of the application traffic flowing across the wires and through the switches typically enjoy much better behaved networks.

With that in mind, consider how much more applications are critically dependent on network performance and reliability than ever before. It's not just about the end user being able to save a file on a server. Now entire application infrastructures absolutely rely on optimal network operation.

Sysadmins, particularly application administrators, must now be cognizant of network technologies and operations. Network administrators who want to keep networks in top shape must now have an awareness of what application traffic is flowing across the network and how to design and implement networks to support those needs.

These days, living in a silo is simply not a functional choice, at least not for IT pros who expect to be gainfully employed in the industry for the next dozen years or more. The roles are merging, and quite likely at some point in the near future we'll all just be known as "cloud administrators," with no real distinction between systems and networks.

With that foundation, let's now revisit the future of the traditional sysadmin and network admin toolsets, which seems a bit juxtaposed to our new world of crossing interests and merging duties.

Back in the day, the operating system of a computer required a sysadmin to be adept at using a command line. Whether it was CICS, VMS, Unix, or even as recent as MSDOS in the early 1990s, the command line was king. But then Windows introduced -- some would say forced upon us -- the concept of the graphical user interface (GUI) for administrative activities, and for the past 20 years, that's pretty much how sysadmins have interacted with their Windows-based servers.

For network admins, though, the command line has survived much longer. With the exception of just a few products that provide web-based administration tools, many network admins still live and breathe at the command line.

Recently, though, there's been a shift in both environments. PowerShell revived the idea of system administration using the command line, and now Windows admins everywhere talk about how to administer systems using PowerShell and scripting. And in the network space, with the advent of software-defined infrastructures and cloud management tools, the GUI has finally made its appearance in the realm of network administration.

So, here's the question: With the accepted reality that the roles of sysadmins and network admins are merging, which toolset approach will prevail? Will the new GUI-based cloud administration tools continue to rule that roost and be integrated with server and application administration tools? Or will the rise of PowerShell engender a call for cloud administration tools to also support PowerShell interfaces, and will the command line will once again reign supreme? Then again, maybe both will continue to coexist.

What do you think? Use the comment space below to add your opinion.

Lawrence Garvin, head geek and technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds, wrote his first computer program, in RPG-II, in 1974, to calculate quadratic equations.

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