System or Systems Administrator...Is there really a difference?

During my very first job as a computer administrator, my vice president asked me what was the correct form of my title:  system administrator or systems administrator?  Being a brand new administrator, I honestly told him that I didn’t know, but would find out.

Having had all of two weeks of training before getting this administrator job, I went back to my office and called my technical support company.  My primary support contact was a retired Navy senior chief.  He had been one of my trainers and was tough on me. He always insisted that I learn what I needed to know.  He demanded that I do things the right way.  I was confident in his ability to explain this in a way I could easily understand it, I was not expecting him to give me a choice that would forever change the way I approached computers. 

I explained the reason for my call and asked him, “What should my job title be:  system administrator or systems administrator?  What is the difference?  Is one better than the other?”    He told me, “Yes, there is a difference, but one is not better than the other. What your title should be depends on what kind of administrator you want to be.” Then he went on to explain the difference.

A system administrator is someone who knows one platform (operating system) very well.  They know every little quirk, every obscure command, and every included utility for that platform.  They are the subject matter expert for that operating system.  No one coming to that computer shop will be anywhere close in ability to administer that well as that system administrator. They are worth every dime they are paid.

A systems administrator, on the  other hand, does not know any one operating system as well as their counterpart, the system administrator.  But…they are special people in their own right,  

A systems administrator knows how computer operating systems work.  They know what is going on when you hit the power button or turn the IPL key (initial program load).  They know what is happening when the screen clears and line after line of output messages start appearing so fast that you are unable to read them as they scroll off the screen.

A systems administrator knows that a very small program, called a bootstrap program, is the first thing to load,  It has just enough code to start the system, and a pointer to where the next part of the operating system can be loaded,  They know when a system is shutdown, what steps are necessary to achieve an orderly power-off.  

A systems administrator will most likely never know how any one operating system works as well as the system administrator,  But they can step into any data shop, and keep it running.while they learn the higher level skills to keep that shop running and functional.  They know how applications and databases work with an operating system and the stresses they create.  Because they know how computer operating systems and applications work, a systems administrator is an excellent troubleshooter when needed.

I thought for a moment or two, and decided.  I wanted to be a systems administrator. 

I have had many times that I was sure that I had bitten off more than I could chew.  I had a lot to learn.  And why I needed to know some things were not always obvious. 

Why should I have to learn to pin-out ethernet or printer cables?  If you do not know how that is done, how do you tell if an application problem has something to do with with the way the program was coded, the fact that the cat chewed the ethernet cable, or due to a wireless keyboard finally assuming the “dead roach position”?

Why should I have to learn to be a database administrator?  I wanted to be a systems administrator. But, if you have never worked with databases, how do you know if a conflict is due to a bug introduced by the latest operating system patch or because you didn’t write a Structured Query Language (SQL) query very well?

Today, most large companies compartmentalize various parts of system administration for security reasons, or because there are various areas that require special skills and/or training. They have more system administrators because they need specialists.

User access is controlled by a group that verifies exactly what access each person has to have to do their job. 

Storage tasks are no longer simply how many disks you have in a server.  There are storage devices including Network Attached Storage (NAS) and Storage Area Network (SAN), with both found on multiple hardware devices.  

Cloud service specialties include Puppet and OpenStack configuration tools, and many more.  Network functions, for a server or system administrator are limited to getting the network interface card’s  initial settings correct.  

Anything beyond the server’s network interface card (NIC) connection is under the purview of a network operations group that counts all of the firewalls, load balancers, switches, routers and much more under their area of responsibility.  

Domain Name System (DNS) servers are most often under the control of a group that does nothing else.

Aa an administrator for a development group or a small company, you are much more likely  to get involved in all areas of system administration, because there isn’t a large staff of technology experts to assist in troubleshooting a new application or system upgrade.

Now, many years removed from that fateful day, I look back at that question.  Did I make the right choice?  Is a system administrator better than a systems administrator?

Both have their place and both are absolutely necessary.  

For a systems administrator— generally good in troubleshooting—to succeed, they have to be able to work with one or more system administrators.  A systems administrator often does not have the in-depth knowledge needed to research an intermittent, recurring application issue. On the other hand, a system administrator does not have the breadth of knowledge required to isolate the root cause of such a problem.  

As for me? If I were asked the same question, knowing everything I have learned over the years, I would give the same answer. 

Now I am a systems administrator.