Monday, March 15, 2010

“Remember when every business had their own SysAdmin(s)?”

I.Fix.it.cropped

Do you think that sentence will ever be uttered? If so, do you think you’ll hear it in your lifetime? In your career?

According to a recent CIO article titled “Cloud and the Death of the Sysadmin”, the answer to each of those questions may very well be “yes” (unless you plan on retiring in the next few months). The cloud is the reason.

In the article, sysadmins are analogized with car mechanics of old. Back before cars didn’t need software updates and laughed in the face of a potential EMP “event”.

There was a personal touch and much lore and insight that mechanics had. A bit like Systems Administrators today. Journeyman programs prepared young grease monkeys to become arch mechanics much like Jr. Admins (or PFYs if you prefer) are ideally mentored by an experience admin in the nuances of administration.

Fast forward to today. According to the CIO article, the average high-end car has more lines of code than the Windows 7 and that codebase is distributed over more computers than a small office has.

Mechanics can no longer turn a wrench or replace a hose to fix many problems. They resort to rip-and-replace tactics for various microcomputer components (called Electronic Control Units or ECUs) because they don’t know what else to do. Half of all replaced ECUs show no signs of errors.

Apparently automobiles are now so complex, that remote support technicians will soon be who mechanics turn to for diagnostics. It is intelligently hypothesized that cars will be connected to a network and remotely diagnosed by highly skilled and specialized technicians. Those techs will then tell the mechanic what parts to replace.

A ever increasing disparity in skill will exist between the highly specialized remote worker and the local “mechanic” which will become little more than the hands for the remote tech. Maybe a few local mechanics will be kept on to do physical tasks like changing oil or rotating tires. At least, until that’s automated with arms that are similar to those seen on factory floors.

The generalist mechanic will become a relic. Any current-day specialist skills will become obsolete. We may no longer need a transmission specialist any more than we need switchboard operators today. Those displaced mechanics may find satisfaction in restoring those old cars that served their career so well, but they will no longer have a job working on a modern fleet of vehicles.

Change the story to focus on SysAdmins. The older automobiles change to private server room. The new autos to the cloud. The applications and services to the increasingly complex individual components or ECUs.

According to the CIO article, application complexity is increasing and troubleshooting is becoming harder. Specialized skills are needed for each service that an IT department is required to render and maintain.

The article continues the conjecture and considers a future where finely honed specialists for each service will be centralized and will service the applications that are being delivered. Onsite personnel are now only there to handle physical tasks for the service’s required onsite hardware.

Visions of a Googler walking through a non-descript server isle with a shopping pulling out bits of failed hardware from servers comes to mind. Even that scenario is old fashioned when you take into consideration the new datacenter pods that are never opened by humans, but simply get replaced wholesale when a certain percentage of hardware failure is reached.

The jack-of-all-trades (and if he’s especially amazing, master-of-some) SysAdmin has gone the way of Car Hops and Lamplighters. Maybe they’re needed in third world countries or in a themed Old Tyme amusement park, but not in the Real World.

To further drive home the point, the author reminds us that skilled workmen once filled factories. Now those same factory floors have had the lighbulbs removed and are filled with robotic appendages working at threatening speeds, eerily aping human motions that our grandfathers once did. The few workers that are still employed are the ones with the highest specialization… in robotic repair, efficiency analysis and various factory systems.

Essentially, information workers.

Is this true? Will SysAdmins be a fabled creature, spoken of in the same sentence as American Wild West cowboys? Vestiges of a time before more efficient, predictable and civilized ways of handling things was implemented?

In my opinion, probably to a large extent that scenario is true. I believe that the role of the Systems Administrator will change drastically in the next 10 years due to SaaS and cloud-ifying applications. How and why that happens is a question I’m still trying to answer.

The article only mentions application complexity as a reason for the move highly specialized positions. I disagree. I think it’s a simple matter of sheer scale.

SaaS is in many ways cheaper. It is also much more reliable. Cheap and reliable… who could resist? More services will be moved offsite from a private datacenter to a cloud service. Cloud services develop and grow at an exponential rate. More and more people will be needed to run those datacenters and the individual application ecosystems on them which will be massive in scale.

The drive for specialized skills will primarily be born from positions that must manage services on a massive scale. The complexity comes as a result of scale. Not, as I believe the article is implying, that the applications themselves are becoming more complex.

Maybe I’m drawing a blurry line. However, the important part to take away is that needed skills will change both their nature and their location. Skills will become specialized and will be moved from the onsite datacenter to massive, centralized datacenters. To what degree is in question.

The article’s emphasis on the increasing gulf between those that are specialists in one thing and those with lower, generalist skills seems accurate to a point.

However, I doubt that most business will offsite a majority of their services in the near future. Maybe non-trivial amounts of it… say, 30%. I do believe that there will be a tipping point. For example, once say 50% offsiting is achieved, it seems that the remaining percentage will be easier to achieve than the first 50%.

Nonetheless, the SysAdmin’s role is changing. That change is happening now. That change is unavoidable. Instead of fighting it, we ought to intelligently prepare ourselves for it today.

When the day comes that we have to decide to become datacenter infrastructure specialists or cloud applications specialists versus being relegated to SMBs that are too suspicious or remote to support their workflows being sent to the cloud… we ought to make that decision based on rationality rather than stubbornly sticking to old ways.

"I observe that old men seldom have any advantage of new discoveries, because they are beside a way of thinking, they have been so long used to.”

--Jonathan Edwards

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