Site Reliability Team Lead at News UK

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14 May 2011

Why A Sysadmin

by Mike

I never intended to become a system administrator out of choice, it just kinda happened. What follows is a rough account of my history of computers since around 1995. I omit mentions of specific companies I worked for and with and any systems I owned prior to 1995 (of which there were many, but no PC compatibles). This isn’t a perfect recount, some details are lost in the mists of time, but I hope it gives you the gist of it all.

I started out as most people do - I acquired a computer. It wasn’t much, a Pentium 90 with 8Meg of RAM, 2Meg Diamond Stealth DRAM Graphics card and 1Gig Maxtor hard-drive, but in 1995 it was pretty high spec. I started with DOS and Windows 3.11 originally on that machine but soon upgraded to Windows 95. I was happy. It allowed me to play games, to run Turbo Pascal and some other development tools and I learnt a lot about computers.

About 2 years later I bought a Pentium 233MMX laptop (233Mhz (Desktop) CPU, 2.1Gig hard-drive, 800x600 display) and while it wasn’t perfect, it helped me along the path. This was around the time when PC World and PC Plus started putting the odd Linux distro on their cover disks. I tried a couple including slackware and could install them easily, but could never get X to work on my laptop.

About a year later and I had had acquired a couple more computers and a 3com rackmount hub. I played with networking and learnt a lot, but it wasn’t enough…

I bought my first full Linux distro from Staples in Leicester, it was only luck that they had a single copy of SuSE Linux 6.3 in the store. I brought it home and installed it on a system. Even then, it seemed to just work out of the box (at least on my hardware) and the only thing I couldn’t get working was my ISDN adaptor. I worked around it by using Sygate on my windows box to share internet from my Windows 98 machine to the Linux box. It worked well (besides the odd random crash on the windows machine), but my mother decided she liked mahjong on the Linux server and sat there hours playing it…

I was fairly happy with SuSE for a couple of years, upgrading from version to version until moved into Leicester. I switched to FreeBSD 4.7 and got an always on connection. This was a massive change and even over the next couple of years as I had more and more powerful systems to hand from decommissioned systems from business I worked with, I still used my 300Mhz FreeBSD box for IM, IRC and basic web access.

Problems with FreeBSD 5 on my hardware meant I switched over to Fedora Core 2 (after trying SuSE and a couple of others from friends at university) and liked what I saw in the time since I had been away from Linux. It wasn’t polished, but it was community driven and was evolving fast. I stayed with Fedora for a while and managed some dedicated servers in Germany running Fedora - this is what would lead me away from Fedora…

While Fedora is very good, the short lifespan of a particular version means that it can go from release to end-of-life in around 18 months. This makes using it for business a PITA. Business systems are not expected to need to be reinstalled often and doing so often is painful and problematic, especially when that also means upgrading to a new OS version. We found this out the hard way…

We had a couple of Asterisk (version 1.0 came out around this time) servers hosted on these servers and due to business constraints weren’t willing to take them offline to do a full reinstall (we had found issues with doing a version update before). When FC4 hit end of life, we limped along and manually recompiled our own packages for what we deemed were critical fixes. This became unsustainable very quickly. Hats off to any distro maintainer, it is a very hard job and I don’t envy you.

We moved onto Debian and CentOS shortly after this. This would be around 2005 I think. Debian was chosen since I was now using it at home and CentOS for the familiar Redhat and RPM structure which made our scripts simpler to port to the new platform. I was comfortable with both and still continue to use both (and Ubuntu) on a daily basis for different servers.

As with most sysadmins, I never intended to become a sysadmin as a primary goal. I just acquired the skills as I developed solutions to the problems of the companies I worked with. I have been a PHP Programmer, VoIP Engineer, Cable Monkey, Installation Engineer and Network Engineer among other things. All of them have given me valuable skills that have made me the person I am today and with wearing so many hats I have gained a better understanding of the systems I maintain.