Cloud and The Death of the Sysadmin

As software becomes more complex, and demands the scalability of the cloud, IT's auto mechanic of today, the sysadmin, will disappear. Tomorrow's sysadmin will be more like a physician, says's Bernard Golden.

By Bernard Golden
Wed, March 10, 2010

CIO — For as long as there have been computer systems, there have been system administrators. These hardy souls are the glue of data centers, provisioning and managing systems: a mix of hardware, storage, OS, middleware, and application software. The best system administrators are like human Swiss Army Knives, armed with every skill needed to keep a system up and humming. In some respects, system administrators function like auto mechanics, needing keen diagnostic skills and repair capabilities to keep a complex mixture of disparate systems operating as a whole.

Of course, data centers have become far more complex over the past decade as systems have been deconstructed into functional components that are segregated into centralized groupings. For example, storage has, in many organizations, been migrated to centralized storage like a SAN or NAS. This has inevitably meant that personnel become more specialized in their tasks and skills. However, for every organization that has a separate storage group, there's another in which the arrival of centralized storage has just meant a new set of tasks heaped upon the sysadmin group.

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Even in those IT organizations in which functions like networking and storage have been separated from system management functions, sysadmins still monitor, manage, and repair the software stack. IT organizations still rely on human insight, skill, and experience, to keep apps up and running.

I just read an IEEE article, though, that caused me to reconsider the future of sysadmins. The article, surprisingly, did not address developments in IT, but instead looked at the developments in automobiles; specifically, how autos are now rolling data centers in and of themselves. It notes that today's high-end cars (meaning, the low-end cars five to 10 years from now) have around 100 million lines of code in them distributed among 70 to 100 Electronic Control Units (ECU)—essentially, special purpose computers devoted to tasks like lighting, engine management, and yes (as Toyota is now grappling with), braking. Today's low-end cars have around 30 to 60 ECUs. In the near future, the article quotes research firm Frost and Sullivan, cars will contain 200 to 300 million lines of code.

As evidence of what cars have turned into, the author notes that his recent car came with a 500 page manual, along with a supplemental 200 page document describing the car's entertainment and GPS function. Clearly, this is not your father's Oldsmobile—and probably not even your Oldsmobile (or Honda, Ford (F), Audi, or whatever). Cars are becoming staggeringly complex admixtures of materials and software designed to move us safely, efficiently, and attractively around the earth.

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