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Brien Posey

Network Administrators Past, Present, and Future

11 July 2011

Anyone who has ever been a network administrator can tell you just how challenging a job it can be. Certainly, any network admin will mention the reels of technical material they need to memorize, or the myriad of day to day headaches. What about explaining why you shaped all of the network traffic to cause the switches to blink in rhythm to Beethoven's Ninth? That's tough too (but not impossible, trust me). However, the one thing above all others that makes being a network administrator so tough is that the job constantly evolves.

I have been a network administrator in at least some capacity since I was a teenager, and it's been a wild ride. As such, I thought that it might be fun to take a look back at what it was like being a network administrator twenty years ago, and to also take a look forward at what might be expected of network administrators in the future.

Being a Network Administrator in the 80s

Being a network administrator was, unsurprisingly, very different in the 1980s than it is today. At that time (at least where I lived) nobody went to school with the goal of one day becoming a network administrator. Back then, getting a job as a network administrator was a lot like the pool at a proverbial frat party. You either actively stayed away from it, or you got thrown in. In fact, that is exactly what happened to me (the network administrator part, not the frat party).

The Initiation

In the late 1980s, I was still in high school. My father was in charge of production control for a major corporation, and someone made the decision to begin automating the operations at his office, so the company purchased several PCs and had someone network them together. PCs being the magical, self-sustaining, universal problem solvers that they are, they certainly didn't need anyone to steward their operation.

*ahem*

That wide-eyed notion was erased rather abruptly when, as a result of nobody in the office knowing how to maintain or fix the PCs, the situation frequently went sneakers up. You think things can get snarled nowadays? Back then, when the technology was still in its infancy, things could get more tangled up than headphones in the spin cycle.

Since I was studying computer science in school, my father would occasionally have me come into the office after school and on the weekends to help out with various support and maintenance issues. One thing led to another and I got thrown into the proverbial frat house pool; that is to say, I had become a network administrator.

"One thing led to
another and I got
thrown into the
proverbial frat
house pool; that
is to say, I had
become a network
administrator."

My story isn't unique though; I have many friends who had similar experiences. After high school for example, I ended up going to work as a network administrator for a large insurance company. My boss at that company ended up becoming a network administrator in almost exactly the same way that I did.

The company had been running mainframes in its datacenter, but one day someone decided to buy a few PCs. My boss was the only person in the company who knew how to operate a PC, so the company threw her in the pool. She was then in charge of maintaining all PCs. Over time, the organization grew, and she eventually found herself managing a network of thousands of desktops.

An Untamed Wilderness

The late 1980s and early 1990s were kind of like the Wild West for PC networks. PC networks were still just greenhorns that hadn't even broken in their saddles yet. There were few controls in place beyond password requirements, and pretty much anything went. I had several network administration jobs through the early to mid-1990s, and at the time almost every user that I can think of had unauthorized applications running on their desktops (mostly video games, so nothing much has really changed), and became more PC savvy.

Even though such things seem absurd by today's standards (at least, I hope those things are absurd based on your experience), things were a lot different back then. The thinnet, thicknet and token ring broncos were a long way from being saddle broken. The Windows OS was yet to be shackled and was still kicking at the fence gate. The network buckaroos stayed so busy just trying to keep things running that policies and controls were the last thing on anyone's minds.

The First Hint of The Modern SysAdmin

By the mid-1990s things had started to change a little bit. PC networks started becoming more reliable, and more organizations began running mission critical applications on them. Of course, this also meant that organizations had to have a qualified support staff to manage those applications and the underlying infrastructure. As such, many IT professionals began working toward the newly available IT professional certifications.

"[...] Sadly, that made
the late night Doom
deathmatches with
the accounting
department a thing
of the past.
...but I digress."

Organizations also began to place more and more controls on their desktops to prevent users from installing unauthorized software or making configuration changes. Sadly, that made the late night Doom deathmatches with the accounting department a thing of the past, but I digress. These additional controls were driven by several different factors, such as an organization's need to protect itself against software audits, and the desire to decrease the number of helpdesk calls (“I can't unpack the latest .wad file”).

Desktop controls were also put in place as a way of reducing the spread of viruses. In the late 1990s, viral infections were rampant. The fact that more and more PCs were being connected to the Internet meant that desktops were exposed to more risks than ever before. Widespread infections eventually led to the global use of desktop antivirus software and Internet gateway filtering software. Antivirus software existed long before the late 1990s, but I didn't really notice organizations starting to use it as a part of their standard desktop configuration until around 1998.

Network Administrators of the Present

The job of being a network administrator has changed tremendously over the last couple of decades. Today's network administrators must deal with day to day challenges that would have been unimaginable fifteen years ago.

One such challenge involves complying with Service Level Agreements (SLAs). Today almost every PC network hosts mission critical applications, and the organizations that use those applications must ensure that they remain available at all times. As such, organizations have implemented service level agreements which mandate application availability. This has led IT pros to focus heavily on fault tolerance, high availability and the preternatural skill of making reasonable SLAs with ample wiggle room, especially given the organization's budget (or lack thereof).

New Dangers

The need for fault tolerance and high availability has also been driven by the popularity of server virtualization. Some host servers contain dozens of virtual servers. If such a host were to fail, it would bring all of the virtual machines down with it, resulting in a major outage. Fault tolerant mechanisms such as failover clustering are essential to preventing these types of outages.

"[...] acronyms which
 can spell premature
hair loss to those
charged with
implementing them."

Additionally, today's network administrators must meet various challenges associated with numerous federal regulations such as SOX, HIPAA, PCI-DSS, GLBA, FISMA, DPA and other acronyms which can spell premature hair loss to those charged with implementing them. Administrators who work for organizations within regulated industries are finding that much of their time is spent ensuring that the network is managed in a way that complies with such regulations. What a change from that Wild West of the early 1990's.

The IT industry's transition toward hosting data and applications in the cloud has also proved to be a challenge to today's network administrators, and I believe that cloud computing will be the driving force that shapes the role of the network administrator over the next decade.

Future of Network Administration

So what does the future hold for network administration? Well, even though nobody really knows for sure, I can certainly make some educated guesses. My prediction is that cloud computing will become the norm and that organizations will employ far fewer IT professional than they do today. In fact, for another good post about the future of systems administration, take a look at Wesley David's “Staying a SysAdmin Might Mean Changing Employers (and Your Paradigm)

Because applications (and eventually even desktop operating systems) will be running in the cloud, network administrators will not be configuring or maintaining operating systems and applications. Instead, the few remaining administrators will have to take on very different roles from what they are performing today.

New Skills

One of the most important administrative tasks will be managing Internet bandwidth and connectivity. If everything is running in the cloud, then a saturated Internet connection could prove to be catastrophic. As such, I expect traffic shaping and prioritization to become an important skill for IT pros. Of course, if you practiced shaping traffic to the rhythm of Beethoven's Ninth, then you're already well on your way to success.

IT pros will still have to be concerned about security as well. Even though practically everything will be running remotely, security administrators will still be needed for things like establishing corporate security policies and preventing denial of service attacks against the organization's Internet connection.

"I also think that
any remaining IT
pros will be more
involved in planning
an organization's
business strategy."

I expect regulatory compliance to become an even bigger part of an administrator's job than it is now. In The United States, network administrators must deal with numerous federal regulations such as SOX, HIPAA, PCI, and FISMA, and all indications point toward the government imposing even more regulations. IT pros will be needed to ensure that organizations comply with such regulations.

I also think that any remaining IT pros will be more involved in planning an organization's business strategy. Administrators will likely be responsible for figuring out which hosted applications can best help the organization to accomplish its goals, and as an organization's needs evolve, administrators may also have to determine the best way to migrate data from one application to another.

What's Comes Next?

So what about the distant future beyond the year 2020? While I look for cloud computing to become the norm over the next decade, I also believe that many organizations will find it difficult to operate in public clouds because of regulatory issues. As such, my guess is that ten years from now only smaller organizations will be operating within the public cloud, and that larger organizations will be forced to create private clouds.

The range riding network administrator will still be around, of course. Maybe on a new mount and maybe herding in different pastures, but network admins willing to flex and learn slightly different skills will always have their place. Of course, the base skills of a good admin are timeless and perfectly fit into any position that he may find himself in. The finer points that continue to change? That's a simple matter of reading up on and experimenting with the latest developments in networking. Of course, those are the kinds of things that are prerequisites for network admins anyway, so it shouldn't be at all disruptive.

Fear not, fellow admins! Stewarding bandwidth, negotiating cloud SLAs, building internal clouds, bridging different service providers' offerings; all of those things and more will safeguard the network admin from having to pack up and lope off into the lonely sunset. Just make sure you're not a one-trick pony and keep yourself nimble.

Brien Posey

Author profile:

Brien Posey is a freelance technical writer, and a five time Microsoft MVP. Over the last thirteen years, Brien has published literally thousands of technical articles and whitepapers, and written or contributed to dozens of books. Prior to becoming a freelance writer, Brien served as CIO for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox, and for some of the nation’s largest insurance companies.

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