System administrator guide to the contra-admin approach

A system administrator can benefit by adopting a contrarian approach to system administration. Learn how to use contra-admin effectively as a sysadmin.

The realm of infrastructure technology administration is affected by paramount expectations, simple assumptions and unrealistic turnaround times. From our experience with clients ranging from startups to Fortune 500 enterprises, it has been established that busting certain myths in early stages of the engagement life-cycle can help young system administrators deliver more value on a consistent basis. The “contra-admin approach” encourages the system administrator to take the less trodden path towards day-to-day administration, which leads to sustained success based on “context-aware” definitions.

Listed below are some common practices and beliefs wherein a contrarian’s approach can deliver better results in system administration.

1. We follow standard operating procedure (SOP):

It’s time you thought outside the box. True, SOP is a good guideline, and it is human tendency to align tasks at hand to similar ones performed earlier. However, we often tend to overlook the situation around us when there is SOP. Remember that SOP written in the past for a particular situation may not be suitable for every current situation. While the command set from the procedures can be reused, it might need to be customized to address the task at hand. Once completed, this paves way for the creation of “unique operating procedure” (UOP) that needs to be documented. It also gives a sense of shared perfection to the system administrators.

2. We have a process in place:

It is worthwhile to remember the old saying, “Do what is documented and document what you do”. In a typical system administrator’s day filled with routine tasks, ad hoc requests and project execution, the second aspect is often forgotten. We invariably follow the documented process even though its relevance might be at stake. Each process has a definite lifespan and will require a periodic “technology refresh” for sustained relevance. Constantly reminding ourselves to find ways to improve an existing process brings a great feeling of ownership and accountability. Such accomplishments help system administrators zoom up in their career path.

3. We have backups:

Any backup is useful only if it can restore and restart business applications from a particular point in time. But often, the backups for a given system do not necessarily restore the application. It is important to understand what is backed up and correlate the pieces of the puzzle that help to collectively restart the applications that run on the infrastructure. For a system administrator, a better administrative practice would be to ensure there are reliable backups to restore the complete application and not just discrete systems.

4. ‘Same old thing – different day’ syndrome:

We often find ourselves caught in routine tasks, until a system goes down and hits us by surprise. There is nothing routine in administrative life.  Each system/server goes through various changes from the application load perspective by the minute. This is usually missed from an administrative eye. Looking at the system performance trend and correlating with application changes will help a system administrator to be proactive and take preventive action before things go wrong.

5. I am a good guy:

There is no such thing as getting recognized for intentions. Only outcomes matter in business. Often times, system administrators tend to type-in little commands that will run unnoticed and help fulfill urgent requests from business leaders. While it is essential to be proactive, do not deviate from laid down processes, including formal approvals.  Following up the right processes at all times is essential for robust operations.  

6. Change control is for implementing a change:

Change management is a service management process followed across the IT industry. Most changes have a series of steps outside the actual change, which need to be executed before and after. Faltering here could create additional work for other support groups or lead to missed business results. For a system administrator, consciously remembering to run through all steps for every change helps in the success of the process. Based on our experience, the top savers are listed below:

  • Notify the respective monitoring teams before and after change to prevent a false alarm.
  • Validate change success with synthetic transactions from the customer perspective.
  • Save the back-out plans such as split disk and configuration files as long as required after change.
  • Disable/manage the automation scripts in place that could potentially play spoilsport with change implementation plans.

To summarize, a system administrator needs to be aware of emerging threats and opportunities, rather than sticking with the traditional way of looking at some of the basic principles around system administration and operations. Applying the learning shared in this article can help the sysadmin community enhance effectiveness in delivering business results.


About the author: Srinivasan Dakshinamurthy works as practice leader at Syntel, providing infrastructure solutions to banking, insurance and healthcare customers. He has 18 years’ experience in infrastructure management, with roles spanning system administration, system integration, solutions, consulting and service delivery. He holds an electronics engineering degree and has multiple industry accreditations including PMP, ITIL, SNIA FCP, RHCE, VERITAS Certified Professional, SCSA and CCNA.

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