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Virtualizing the Sysadmin

Virtualization is a new word for an old concept. Any time we present a resource to an end-user that is simply symbolic of different physical resources “behind the curtain”, we are virtualizing. When we present a graphical interface, we are virtualizing the internal hardware that makes the interface work. Similarly, virtualization is also combining disparate resources into one logical entity (or separating one physical entity into multiple logical parts). We’ve seen this in the server world with the advent and popularization of the hypervisor layer; we’ve seen it in the networking world with the availability of many network resources using less physical resources; we’ve seen it in the storage world where we represent multiple countless logical blocks of storage across a finite amount of disks. Parallel to this fantastic trend of resource utilization efficiency is the progression of human virtualization.

There are different roles that a Sysadmin can fill within an IT organization. In general, these roles have been compartmentalized heavily and it wasn’t simple to transfer skills from one to the other. They can be broadly defined as: Network Services, Server Services, and Storage Services. While there can be overlap between the three (after all, a given device will use all three services), the skills required to manage each role were very different, and a sysadmin would typically take a deep dive into one and never look back.

As more and more IT services become virtualized and further abstracted from their physical resources, we’re beginning to see the same phenomenon in the job of a sysadmin. Virtulization by definition means that traditional Network/Server/Storage boundaries are blurred, and the skills required to manage a converged IT infrastructure are not in line with the traditional roles that the industry is used to. We’re starting to see platforms and frameworks that are managing the data center as whole instead of simply the sum of its parts. Sysadmins who at one time were able to define themselves as Storage Experts will not have the skillsets required to manage the converged datacenter. The future sysadmin will be someone who understands everything in the datacenter and how all the pieces interconnect. The future sysadmin will be a virtualization of three different sysadmins of past decades. The data center will be a unified logical entity that represents various disparate physical interconnections that previously were managed by completely different skillsets.

I came into this field right as this movement was really getting started. I never felt like I needed to be boxed into one skillset because right from the outset I was dealing with technologies that required at least a basic understanding of multiple traditional roles (Cisco UCS, Cisco Nexus 5548UP). There is some worry that that this kind of “human virtualization” will make a number of sysadmins obsolete. This is accurate, and has always been the case in this business. Systems Administration is in many ways a meritocracy and those who stay ahead of the curve will be on top. In truth, it’s an exciting time to be a sysadmin, as we’re on the cusp of a large paradigm shift redefining the role altogether. There will be growing pains, but it’s ultimately a good thing, and a unified sysadmin role is just as valuable as a converged datacenter.

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