Top 10 System Administrator Truths
I figure with enough time and effort, anyone could be a System Administrator. Really, it's not hard, it just takes practice, methodology, and trial and error. A lot of trial and error. These truths will certainly get you on your way. Let;s get started.
#1 - Users Lie
Oh yes, they do. Don't think you're immune either. Have you ever been on a tech support call, convinced that you know the problem and the guy on the phone says something like "Would you put in the recovery CD, restart, and scan your memory?" "Oh, I've tried that," you say with eyes rolling. Believe it or not, sometimes we crazy admin peeps suggest these fixes because they work. When a user is protesting my assessment, the best is to politely insist them to do what was asked until the doing is done.
#2 - Email is the Lifeblood of Non-Techies
I love my non-techie bretheren--I mean, how else would I know what happened on the OC and Gilmore Girls? But at the end of the day, email is #1 in their book. Now a lot of it is business related, and certainly that shouldn't be taken lightly, but most likely they were waiting on a warm, fuzzy message from their daughter or sister and really needed their email back up ASAP ("I'm waiting on a proposal!" they screech -- see #1)
#3 - Printers Suck
Ever had to clean a laser or, God forbid, an inkjet printer? It's like stabbing yourself in the eye. It's not just the grime either it's the fallacy that a little chunk of ink could make the machine just stop working. 90% of the time (or better), this isn't the case (instead, check the fuser/print heads). In terms of network troubles, HPs Jetdirect cards have a pretty solid reputation of failing every few years, so expect to shell out $200+ for those on a semi-regular basis, depending on what kind of printers you run in your office. For those with network cards integrated into the printer mainboard what were you thinking?
#4 - Cleanliness is Godliness
Ever open up a PC and see the Ghost Of Dust Bunny's Past in there? It's scary stuff, I tell you. I've seen some PCs begin to lock up for absolutely no reason while the innards tell you different. Sure Peggy in Accounting wasn't stuffing her machine full of cloth, but that blanket she keeps at her feet will slowly shed and the PC fans suck that stuff right up. When you're completely stumped, make sure there isn't something inside gunking up the works.
#5 - Backups are Crucial
This needs to be said. I've been caught with my pants down on this one a few times myself. Backup, Backup, Backup! Nothing (and I mean nothing) will bite you in the ass like a piss-poor backup schema. If your server dies right now as you read this post, what are you going to do about it? Do you know where the install discs are, do you have a configuration backup, do you know who to contact regarding tech support on that box? If not, you need to get your act together before you have a disaster and a lot of excuses and apologies following it. I use Retrospect at my job and consider it better than Backup Exec. It has amazing Macintosh support and is cheaper too.
#6 - Switches and Hubs (Usually) Die One Port At A Time
You can spend hours tracking down a bad network card or cable just to figure out that a port in a switch has died. You're pinging and pinging and looking, the lights are on but there's nobody home. The trick here is to know that a single port doesn't spell the end of the hardware, quite the contrary. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. If a port does go out, that hub or switch may work for years without another outage, but do be sure to stuff an RJ45 connector in that bad port so you don't forget (and chase down phantom problems) in the future.
#7 - No One Ever Got Fired For Buying Microsoft
So sad but so true. This old saying used to reference IBM, but oh how times have changed. Linux may be powerful, but the command prompt and configuration files and filesystem obscurity will just as soon get you a pink slip if something goes wrong and no one knows how to fix it but yourself. Even so, with as much stupid crap as we admins have to put up with on a daily basis, configuring some of the 'high end' Microsoft software is enough to drive you insane. Ever tried installing Exchange Server or, worse, installing Exchange Server and migrating a 5.5 install to Exchange 2000? I feel your pain, oh how I feel your pain.
#8 - Politeness is greater than Brevity
You can come up with all sorts of analogies for this one. You'll get more bees with honey, a spoonful of sugar, etc. But generally, you probably have very little day-to-day contact with end users. This means that when you do finally get to speak to one of those souls fortunate enough to login to your domain (both figuratively and literally), you should be sure to be as polite as possible about it. Even if the network is down. Even if the server is having weird, irrational problems. Use please, thank you, I'm sorry, and don't be too proud to apologize or 'make nice' with those who may ultimately influence your career path down the line. The peon you insult today with a "I sent an email about this, do you not check your own email?" could very well climb the corporate ladder and let your rude ass go in a few years. Mind your manners, peeps.
# 9 - Know Your Needs
This one could also be called 'Learn Linux.' Many admins get wooed into the idea that 'managed solutions' are always the correct ones. A web interface on a switch is cute, but rarely useful. A huge Cisco router may not always be necessary, sometimes a 'lo-fi' approach is best. When you want a spam solution, before looking at $5,000 servers and huge licensing fees for Windows Server software take a look at one of those old 'junk' PCs you have in the closet, download your favorite distro of Linux, and install procmail and spamassassin. You (and your budget) will thank me later.
#10 - The Holy Grail of Tech Support
...is the reboot. Rebooting can cure ailments of all sorts, can stop network troubles, crashing computers, find missing documents, and rescue cats in trees. System admins all over the world have, by and large, trained their users to reboot before even calling support. I mean, when's the last time you didn't reboot to see if it cured a problem? If you're not, then you're either stubborn or you're an admin who knows better. Rebooting doesn't cure all ailments, but it cures so many of them it's hard to not throw out a "Can you reboot for me?" to the end user when they call with some off-the-wall issue. Use and abuse as necessary.
I hope we all learned something.
Thanks for reading, I'll speak with you wonderful peeps Monday.Update 12/13/05 - Wow, I've been slashdotted!
Update 12/05/05 - I've been farked! Welcome everyone!
Update: For those who like this, check out Flipside: 8 End-User Troubleshooting Tips.
May I also take this time to mention to such a huge, intelligent audience that I help develop new content for a great video game called Star Chamber. It's a fantastic strategy game that is relaunching with a brand new client and publisher. Those out there who enjoy (and empathize) with this list will love it. You can download a demo and try it for yourself.
Update 6/10/06: Fixed the horrid formatting.