The systems administrator’s job is Nonstop
As a lead systems administrator with Rimini Street, Dustin Jaeger, is part of an infrastructure team that serves internal customers almost exclusively. Its job is to ensure business continuity every second of every day, especially in case of a disaster. The team’s buzzword is “high availability” as represented by “six nines”— or 99.9999% availability of vital IT infrastructure at all times.
“When we promise our clients that we’re going to have a five-minute turnaround time, we have to depend on the fact that all the infrastructure necessary is there,” Jaeger says. “All the hard drives, and the services, and the things that are spinning in data centers, as well as cloud infrastructure.”
Several types of system administrators may be staffed depending on company size. Examples of job titles that are often tasked with system administrator responsibilities include — but are not limited to — systems engineer, database administrator, data center administrator, system operator, server administrator, and application support engineer.
A key part of the typical system administrator job duties is building redundancies into the infrastructure. For example, the company’s production servers are virtual servers sitting on physical hardware, so Jaeger’s team must be able to reboot those servers on new hardware almost instantaneously in the case of a hardware crash.
“When that event happens, it’s up in 20 seconds,” he says. “You can’t promise 100%, but you can promise six-nines. We do things behind the scenes so that every time you open up your email or whatever you need, it’s there no matter what.”
Behind the scenes
That “behind the scenes” work that characterizes a lead systems administrator job duties involves tasks such as running investigations and reports against file servers to locate missing files. Other types of systems administrators focus on the details. For example, an administrator who focuses on applications might migrate the company’s data to a new a file server in a way that maximizes availability of needed information to business teams at the right times. A systems engineer may implement collaboration tools that allow teams around the world to work together seamlessly.
In global companies where workers are located around the world and often work from home, a systems administrator helps determine how to run cloud infrastructure so that it can effectively serve a single, home-based employee. “This takes place often at Rimini Street” says Jaeger, noting that the company operates in Japan, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, the United States, Canada, Singapore, and many other countries.
“We got pushed into the cloud really fast by being so geographically diverse, and we’re expanding all the time,” says Jaeger. “We’re trying to come up with solutions that will support needs as we expand globally.”
Maintaining a solid foundation
A key element of success in a systems administrator role is taking responsibility for “things that no one typically knows to ask for,” says Jaeger. His team’s fundamental role is making sure the foundation of the company’s tech is solid and reliable. “Everybody else wants whatever they want — the new shiny thing. Nobody is going to submit a ticket to ask us to make sure that the infrastructure is there.”
Taking responsibility for the company’s technology requires constant care and feeding of the system, as well as the ability to pivot and change as circumstances and needs evolve. That includes letting some things go or lapse in a way that maintains the necessary functionality of everything else. For example, Jaeger may work on automating a certain workflow within the tech stack, which must be done without disrupting the services the business divisions are depending on.
“We deal with puzzles, things that have to be written out on a white board and dissected,” says Jaeger. “That’s what I love about my job.”
Advice for aspiring systems administrators
Jaeger recommends that anyone interested in the field start by tinkering with tech tools and learning how things work. Use open source and freeware resources and look for free student-level accounts from the major cloud providers. Get advice and input from YouTube and Discord servers.
The next step is majoring in computer science, followed by a job in the field. Any branch of computer science can provide an opportunity to learn general troubleshooting skills and exposure to systems architecture.
“One of the things we appreciate is a little bit of specialization but also a lot of understanding of many applications and integrations,” says Jaeger. “In a world where everything talks to everything, it’s a detriment to be in a silo.”
In a way, working as a systems administrator is the opposite of specialization, but it’s also a specialized undertaking of its own that the business relies upon to succeed and grow.