System administration: How to start?


Today, a good friend of mine Nikolai Dyumin, a seasoned PhD in mathematics, asked me of a recommended book on the Unix system administration topic.

Immediately I recalled of the “Unix System Administration Handbook” by Evi Nemeth “and kids” paper back sample of the 2nd edition I have had and praised a lot since my early student years. It is a Russian translation (one of the best technical book translations I have ever read), pretty used already, nevertheless offering a good deal of timeless Unix philosophy inside.

While the book is still relevant in the terms of general administrator’s job approaches and concepts, a large part of it has become hopelessly obsolete over the past couple of decades of me owning it. Indeed, who still remembers the RS-232 cables or who does add user accounts directly on the host without any intermediary configuration management system or a centralized directory these days?

In an attempt to refine my book recommendation I went ahead and browsed a bit, and lo and behold! the 5th(!) edition of the book, modernly re-titled “UNIX and Linux System Administration Handbook”, just popped up on my screen.

Looking inside the new edition made me realize just how much time has passed!

The book starts by telling us Evi Nemeth, the most renowned SysAdmin ever who is also a sailor, is no longer with us.

One of the Evi’s mottoes listed in preface states “Be conservative in what you send and liberal in what you receive” truly summarizes the essence of the SysAdmin’s character. Think of it. Probably half of the rest of the Evi’s tenets are largely variations on this one. Take for example “Be liberal in who you hire, but fire early” – that’s the same thing, basically!

And then there was the 1st chapter. A few quotes warrant bringing up.

your response to these [stupid] issues [like “I spilled coffee on my keyboard! Should I pour water on it to wash it out?”] affects your perceived value as an administrator far more than does any actual technical skill you might possess. You can either howl at the injustice of it all, or you can delight in the fact that a single well-handled trouble ticket scores more brownie points than five hours of midnight debugging.

– indeed, a system administrator is a psychologist first. Most administrator’s customers just need someone to understand their problem, regardless of the problem’s nature.

Use it [the nano editor] discreetly; professional administrators may be visibly distressed if they witness a peer running nano.

– looks so familiar!

Gartner found that AWS is ten times the size of all competitors combined

Have you ever thought AWS is that large? I haven’t. Doesn’t it qualify AWS as a monopoly?

As a system administrator, it’s in your best interest to befriend data center technicians and bribe them with coffee, caffeinated soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages.

– interesting, why the authors take the hardware specialists for confirmed drunkards? Is the hand work considered easier than the scripting or security testing while drunk? Or is this type of work more depressing?

Anyway, having recommended such a profound book of about 1300 pages to someone who is a scientist, I thought why wouldn’t I read the new edition myself? If nothing else, this’ll:

  • make my Unix philosophy freshly organized,
  • update me on the current technology trends in a good systematic manner,
  • help me grow professionally by learning from great professionals,
  • entertain me once again with the cool writing style.

It just occurred to me that:

  • today is the 1st of the month,
  • the month has 31 days, and
  • this 5th edition of the book happens to have precisely 31 chapters, conveniently and sequentially numbered through the four book parts.

So what am I still waiting for?! I’m starting on the quest of “A chapter a day” today with this fine book!

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