• 07/11/2014
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The Rise Of The Cloud Administrator

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.


Cloud, GUIs, and networking

Lawrence, thanks for this insightful piece. I do believe the lines between silos are diminishing rapidly and that more and more IT pros will soon be identifies as a "cloud" admin/engineer/architect. 

I hadn't before thought about Windows admins "reverting" to command line, compared to the opposite going on in networking. My instinct tells me that the GUI would win out over time, in the effort to simplify managment and "Apple-ize" all of our tools. But I wonder about the trend now for networking pros to learn code and be able to program the network. Will we have a small population of network uber-engineers, and then everytone else will be swallowed by the cloud?

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

I am little curious to understand how smoothly this transformation will go on, from Network admin to Cloud admin and what will be the added KRA's to profile. How different or i should say how similar this new rpofile will be for network admin or sys admin.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking
Aditya, I think it will be quite a messy process for most IT departments as they figure out what resources are needed and who the best people are for the jobs at hand. It will definitely depend on how quickly an organization is adopting virtualization and moves toward a model that's more centralized and cloud-based, I think.
Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

I agree that it will be a messy process, and also one with a lot of potential for discord if an organization doesn't go about it carefully.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking
Aditya, I think it will be quite a messy process for most IT departments as they figure out what resources are needed and who the best people are for the jobs at hand. It will definitely depend on how quickly an organization is adopting virtualization and moves toward a model that's more centralized and cloud-based, I think.
Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

I was watching a video couple of days back and a some top level guy shared his analysis saying, we are not worried of deploying virtulization but yes we are little afraid of skilled manpower availability in market.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

A survey released earlier this year by Science Logic showed that while organizations are investing heavily in virtualization and cloud, a lot of IT pros feel they need more skills to help in cloud initiatives.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

Thank You @Marcia, survey inspires me to work hard towards my learning. What do you suggest company should devote in order to make their employees cloud ready.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

Hi @aditshar1, that's a good question. I'm not sure I have a specific recommendation, but there is a lot of cloud computing training available, including free courses from Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure training, and VMware. The Cloud Security Alliance also offers training. 

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

What i believe is that these trainings can help you gain awareness on system but they might not yield results when working on system.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

I think I understrand what you mean -- that they don't provide much help in terms of practical expertise. I wonder if readers know of other resources for providing good cloud preparation.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

I suspect that the GUI will also continue to reign supreme. I think one of the reasons that SDN is now using GUI-based tools is because the complexity of the environment has exceeded the simplicity that can be addressed by the CLI. It's one thing to be working within the configuration of a single firewall, switch, or core router, but it's entirely a different thing to be managing a complex connection of multiple such devices (or functions).

As for PowerShell, it provides some very unique capabilities, and will likely continue to be a niche tool in the server administration space, but I can't help but get the feeling that the actual use of PowerShell is a bit less than might actually be the perception.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

Certainly a good piece. Many of the brighter people I talk to see the world of networks mirroring the world at large with a relatively small but skilled subset doing very well for themselves while those with fewer skills and less education will be increasingly marginalized and will see longer downtime between gigs and more gigs paying less or part time etc. Things like SDN and more programmable networks are probably going to result in a situation where the people who are not only network people but can also do some Python etc will do well. A coder can always do CLI and a CLI guy can always do GUI, but a GUI guy may not be able to code and may even struggle with CLI.

Re: Cloud, GUIs, and networking

Jason, I think that's a great observation. I am starting to see already a division of "expert" level engineers and architects who are learning all of this new stuff, and then the folks who can barely keep the lights on in their environments. I have a feeling thoe second category will eventually outsource all their IT operations. And in the first category, many of the technologists will eventually go work at cloud providers themselves.

"The Rise Of The Cloud Administrator" Article

There's still a place for Sys Admins and Network Admins even in cloud platforms like AWS. Same thing with security admins. Small companies though still have multi-purpose admins though who have to do everything (systems, networks, security).

For me the big change in cloud platforms is the introduction of automated infratructures using tools like Chef, Puppet and CloudFormation. Environments can be created easily, torn down (or not) and management (costs, patching, security, control) is much more complicated.

Re: "The Rise Of The Cloud Administrator" Article

@mprest, that's an interesting point. It seems the automated infrastructures are supposed to make things easier, but actually create more complications.