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Jul 29

A Stitch in Time Saves Nine, and Other Reasons Systems Administration is Essential

Posted on July 29, 2016 at 8:25 AM by Jeff Hixon

- Cort Buffington, Executive Director, KanREN

I was recently talking with Jeff Hixon about some business (he is a long-time KanREN board member) when he asked me if I would consider a blog post for SysAdmin day. “Of course”, I said. After all, I’d worked as a SysAdmin in the past — including the job I had when I joined KanREN in 1999. We talked a bit more about it, and Jeff gave me some things to think about as considered my message:
            · Why is good system administration important to libraries of all types?
            · Why and how does it affect libraries that don’t have onsite administration?
            · How can good system administration improve the quality and reliability of online library services?
When I read these items, my first thought was, “heck, there’s nothing unique about these ideas regarding libraries — it’s the same for everyone.” But then as I thought about it more completely, I realized that there’s nothing here that’s really unique; for Systems Administration! Everything that I could say about the importance of systems administration could be said about taking care of your car, or house…. maybe even your relationships. That is when I came to the fundamental truth: If you want a thing, any thing, to work well, give good performance, be there when you need it, you have to take care of it. It’s easy to get complacent -- especially when things just work. it’s also easy to get behind the 8-ball and get used to fighting fires, forgetting how to be proactive.
Of course there are differences though. Information Technology is unique. The tools are rather complicated, and often delicate — my 1” box-end wrench is a little more forgiving than my laptop. There are also a lot of similarities between a “home computer” and a “public access computer” at the local library, yet a number of differences as well. Public access computers serve a lot more users than the typical home computer. You can’t just let people use them however they want. They need to be carefully patched, updated, locked down… in a word: Managed. If they’re not, they won’t last long. About now I’m reminded of my father’s frustration when, as a kid, I’d been using his tools, and realized, yeah… I was the child-in-the-garage version of that patron library tech staff dread! But it’s not just the public access machines. Servers that are running behind the machines, and the staff equipment are also really important. In all cases more people are adversely affected by an outage, and less understandable than you have to be with yourself after you make that mistake and brick your iPad.
Want to watch a sysadmin get uncomfortable? Make a comparison like this, “But I did this at home and (finish it however you like, as long as you imply his or her job is easy)” There are a lot of misconceptions about the differences between hooking up your own home networks and computers and doing the same in an “enterprise” environment (really, even a small library is one). Those library machines can’t be run as loosely as the home PC. They can’t be tricked out just for that app one person wants, and chances are, they have to be at least somewhat standardized to make the inevitable recovery/repair reasonable. And this is where we get back to the importance of good systems administration.
I like to tell people I’m really inherently lazy. So lazy in fact that I fear the outcome of procrastination. That procrastination, which is really deferred maintenance, is always going to cause me a bigger headache down the road than if I could just have dealt with the issue in a timely manner. And that’s why it’s so important in our libraries. With a mother who was a librarian and an educator, I think I always knew about the funding challenges of libraries and K12s. When it comes to maintaining complicated systems like PCs and computer networks, the one thing you can least afford to do is NOT maintain them — no matter how large or small the organization.
No matter the size of the enterprise, good systems administration will improve uptime. When things like updates are applied correctly and timely, failures are avoided. When machines are kept clean (physically and logically), they work better and fail less. If you don’t have on-site staff to do this, then you have to really make the most of the time you get from visiting and/or remote techs. Usually good administration involves some things some people aren’t going to like. Software should only be installed that’s been vetted and inventoried. External flash drives may be easy, but you know, you really need to have them scanned for viruses first (if allowed at all). There are some rules that come with it. It also costs money. Good sysadmins can be miracle workers, but they need the tools to do their jobs as well. Creativity can help — listen to those sysadmins, some of their ideas may seem weird, like, “why would I virtualize a single computer with a single VM?”, but they usually know what they’re talking about.
Taking care of your PC, networks and servers is just like taking care of anything else. They work better and last longer if taken care of. Power supplies with clean fans don’t overheat. Cleaned up hard disks that are optimized will last longer. Operating systems that are patched are less vulnerable. it’s a simple equation, but always a challenge, but I’m convinced that taking care of these things ultimately costs less than neglecting them.