April 5, 2010

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Being a System Admin, I Learned from Superman

A few days ago, a copy of Action Comics No. 1 sold for about $1.5 million. What makes a 72-year old comic worth seven figures? More importantly, what can system administrators learn from a guy who's been wearing tights and a cape for more than seventy years?

It's easy to mock Superman, but few characters have had as much cultural impact as Superman. If you doubt the cultural impact of Superman over other superheroes, consider that the Man of Steel has an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, while Batman and others do not. Not to mention more than seven decades of comics, radio series, books, films, and TV shows.

In all that mythos, some things have remained constant and the core character has remained largely unchanged. Supes is the archetypical modern superhero, and even though Clark Kent isn't part of the Daily Planet admin staff, our hero has a lot of lessons for the system admin set.

Watch Out for Kryptonite

As everybody knows, Superman has one major weakness: Kryptonite. A radioactive hunk of green rock will reduce the Man of Steel to a Man of Kleenex.

How does this translate for system administrators? A good rule of thumb would be to avoid radioactive materials in the workplace, as a start. But, more practically, know your weak spots. That means doing penetration testing and system scans proactively and finding the vulnerabilities that can be dealt with and those that need to be worked around.

Super admins are ever vigilant for any threat that can bring systems down or expose them to attack. They're not as obvious as a glowing green rock, but a good admin is always aware of their vulnerabilities and constantly scanning for problems.

Use Your Super Senses

A couple of Superman's more subtle, but really useful, abilities are his X-ray vision and super hearing. Supes can see through just about anything, so long as it's not lead-lined, and his hearing can pick up Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen's cries for help across Metropolis. It must be a real pain in the posterior to plan a surprise party for Clark Kent...

Admins have super-senses as well, though a bit less fantastic than our man from Krypton. Logfiles, strace, and other system monitoring tools give server room heroes plenty of super senses.

One of the frequent failings of greenhorn admins is the failure to make use of the standard system tools and utilities -- or to wait until there's a system failure to start using diagnostic tools. Successful admins are monitoring logs and proficient with diagnostic utilities ahead of system failures and performance problems to establish baselines and proficiency with their toolkit before there's an emergency.

Be Ready for Anything

Superman started out in the Thirties fighting standard thugs and bad guys. The world was a simpler place, and Superman's worst enemy was a hail of bullets and maybe a bit of explosive. Superman's powers were much less impressive then, as well. He really did start out with the power to "leap over tall buildings in a single bound," but flying around the world wasn't in his repertoire.

Baddies got tougher, and so did Superman. Leaping a tall building isn't worth diddly when you're fighting Braniac or some other cosmic superfoe.

Likewise, admins need to be forever polishing their skillsets and learning new tools and technologies to keep up. Admins also need to be ready for anything that can go wrong in the server room. As Murphy's Law postulates, if it can go wrong, it will.

Always Have a Backup

Just because Superman was the most powerful hero around, it didn't mean he flew solo (so to speak) all the time. Superman has teamed up with plenty of other superpowered types to protect the world from evil and save his bacon when Lex Luthor pops out the Kryptonite ring. In other words, Supes has backup.

Naturally, a good admin has all crucial data backed up and a bulletproof (ahem) recovery plan. Off-site backups for particularly crucial data, and the ability to restore those backups in a hurry.

Beyond that, a great admin — a true server room superhero — also has backup in the sense of other people empowered to step in when they're on vacation or otherwise unavailable. This means having run books with procedures for recovering from disaster, as well as docs on how to do everyday processes in the event that our hero is out of commission.

A good admin plans for the day that they're no longer in the job, and makes sure that the organization can continue normal operation after they move on.

Protect Secret Identities

Ridiculous as the disguise is, Superman has learned to be careful to keep his secret identity as Clark Kent carefully guarded. What's more, Supes does his best to actually have a life as Clark Kent when he's not busy saving the world. Admins need to make sure that they do the same.

This means having interests outside the server room, and working to ensure that the job doesn't encroach too much on life outside of work. Being on-call can be seriously disruptive. It's important to be as proactive as possible to ensure that those 2 a.m. outages are at an absolute minimum.

This also means distributing responsibility fairly. Everybody in the Justice League has to do "monitor duty," and every admin should have to be on-call part of the time, even the managers. Work with your team and employer to make sure that the on-call load is handled as evenly as possible so the superheroes on the admin team each get some uninterrupted time off.

Respect other's secrets as well. Remember that other people's data is in your hands. It's the responsibility of a good system administrator to protect that data and guard against any break-ins. In the unhappy event of a break-in, a good admin will also make sure that the effected parties know what happened and why.

Use Your Powers Responsibly

With great power comes great responsibility. OK, that actually doesn't come from the Superman mythos. But Uncle Ben's words of wisdom to Peter Parker hold true for all of us, especially the big blue Boy Scout from another planet.

System administrators have a lot of power in an organization. The ability to approve or deny requests, the ability to look at others' data, etc. Admins need to be mindful of the power that they hold in an organization, and the responsibility that power comes with.

The League of Professional System Administrators has a good code of ethics for admins that deserves a read (if you haven't read it already). It's up to each admin to be professional, ethical, follow laws and policies, and communicate with their users, employer, and colleagues about the organization's computing resources.

If in doubt, ask yourself "What Would Superman Do?" That may sound silly, but the odds are you won't run afoul of company policies or doing the right thing if you let Superman be your guide.

Though the comparison might sound a bit overblown, there's no doubt in my mind there's a bit of the superhero in every successful system administrator. While a good admin may not be out solving crimes and fighting off this week's apocalypse, the job description is remarkably similar: protect end users, and make sure that the systems don't succumb to disaster in the face of attackers or natural disasters. Just think twice before wearing a cape to work.

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