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Linux System Administration Skills are Changing

Walter HeckWhen was the last time you compiled a kernel? For many of the latest generation of Linux admins, the answer is really simple: never. I am one of those, provided we don't count a few times I tried it just for fun, then couldn't see why I would need a custom kernel and went back to my out-of-the-box kernel. 

For many of the longer-time Linux admins and engineers this may seem laughable, but it is a reality: As Linux adoption grows in the enterprise, a new generation of Linux admins is created that has extremely good technical skills, but lacks these 'simple' low level skills seen by many as fundamental to being a good Linux admin. We can build a high performance, highly available web infrastructure that uses the latest of the latest techniques, but don't ask us to fix a non-booting Linux machine: our advice will be to ditch it and set up a new vm.
Over the past decade or so, we have seen some interesting trends. Linux became a commodity in the enterprise, and as that happened the various distributions became powerful yet flexible enough to remove the need for the average admin to ever have to do low level things like compiling a kernel. 
Next, we welcomed virtual machine technology as a commodity, which added another layer of abstraction. Users of clouds like amazon or VPS providers will possibly never have to deal with deploying Linux on bare metal. As hybrid and private clouds are becoming common as well, many enterprise admins will also not have to deal with this kind of thing anymore, they will just log into a web interface and spin up 5 more apache vm's.
The newest two trends add even more abstraction: configuration management and the seemingly brand new (yet not new at all) containerization with tools like docker. Whenever a client asks us at OlinData to configure a Linux machine, our first action will be to set up Puppet. With our trusted library of well-functioning Puppet modules, that is very easy and will cost me less time then doing this manually.
For example with Puppet, I can install Apache on a new machine as simple as this:
  include apache
  apache::vhost{ '':
    docroot => '/var/www/olindata'
Depending on the environment, I don't even have to log into the machine anymore. Deploying this code through Continuous Deployment tools like Jenkins will allow me to deploy my infrastructure code automatically as it passes the tests I set up.

SysAdmin skills move up the stack

Even as we move toward higher levels of abstraction, ongoing Linux training is still highly valuable and desirable for admins today and will be well into the future. Knowing the fundamentals is key but as abstraction removes some of the old tasks, this requires sysadmins to move up further in the stack and enhance their skills in the higher level tools and practices. It is critical for a sysadmin to become familiar with the tools that enable these higher levels of abstraction. It pushes them to become more skilled in things like coding so that they can do more with these "new" tools. 
Will the need for low(er) level linux skills ever go away completely? Of course not. We still have many other uses for Linux then just the commodity server deployments. Also, people will still benefit hugely from knowing how to do lower level operations in their everyday work. On top of that, with demonstrable Linux skills on your resume, I (and many other employers with me) will always prefer you over candidates that don't have them. You never know when you need those low-level skills!
Walter Heck is CEO and Founder of OlinData, an authorized Linux Foundation training partner. Here's a list of scheduled official Linux Foundation courses by OlinData. 


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  • Joe Said:

    Well, it would be a good article, if it wasn't a bad one. See what I did there? This is basically what you did, Walter. You have discovered that not everything that can be learned also needs to be learned and that standing still is bad. You have created an article to share your valuable and fascinating experience only to tell us that you have discovered what is common knowledge. Well done, Captain Obvious!

  • McWolf_B Said:

    Interesting article, is good to know that skills are changing, but need to keep the fundamentals in mind. That reminds me, the last time i recompiled a kernel was like 10 years ago, when the 2.x kernel was out there. I think i will compile the new kernel, just to refresh memory ...

  • dbmuse Said:

    going bait further, I am noticing more problems with physical servers that data center support is not handling very well. I think this is due to virtual servers taking over the data center so the support team is getting rusty at handling physical servers.

  • Tomas Said:

    Linux admins no longer use Gentoo? What the hell happened?

  • Sven Said:

    I beg to differ. yes, I also tend to use Distro Kernels on many Servers, but there are quite a lot of reasons a new kernel with the latest and greatest features would be actually needed. My number one reason for a custom kernel in the last 2 years was better SSD support (trim, md+trim).

  • Mike Tarkowski Said:

    I think you touched on a change that is taking place in the Linux world. I was a technical PM up until about 4 years ago where I fell into managing cloud vendors, which turned me into a Linux system admin of sorts. The hosting support team handles the setup at the physical level and I handle most everything above that. The amount of knowledge I have learned about web servers, application servers, OS patching, caching, databases, server monitoring, etc. What I have noticed is the old-time Linux people are who I go to for any low level issues and they do a great job. But for all of the support above the physical servers it seems like the Linux world is passing the old timers by. Linux is exploding with new ideas and it's a little scary even to me.

  • Wy Said:

    IMO, what you don't know about Linux, and can't DO with Linux can, in the long run, hurt you a lot! I understand the fundamental reason for this article, but, frankly, I would be reluctant to hire a Linux admin that didn't know and hadn't done the basics! Bring on the Uber Admins!

  • davidtooke Said:

    I tend to use Centos or Ubuntu distrobution so compiling a kernel is no longer needed. I spend more time installing applications and writing scripts to automate deployments and monitoring.

  • archuser Said:

    I know nothing and do nothing and i will be nothing .

  • Jorge Said:

    I know I arrive way late to the party, but I think knowing lower level stuff is a good thing. Knowing more things in general is always a good idea, but let me explain why this in particular. You talk about logging in a web interface and spin new vm webservers. I sure hope you have your webserver image optimized for the application they'll be serving. For example, removing unnecessary modules from Apache, tuning the mpm (if you can) and its settings according to the process size and available ram, and so on. Then perhaps instead of using 50 vm webservers you could use way less servers or smaller vms (and they might even respond faster), both of these things means money, and money saved each month amounts to big numbers at the end of the year. At the end I think you're on the right track, I think that sysadmins (all levels) need to learn new things in these days. The first one is to separate tasks in layers of independent machines and the second one is to automate deployment (and management!) for this fleet. Just wanted to note that ignoring basic skills and optimization means lots of money in the long run.

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