Administrators Can’t Know Everything Anymore

How many systems administrators is it reasonable for an organization to have?  Very few companies can afford to keep around the ever-increasing number of specialists required to know every aspect of their infrastructure, automation, operating systems, applications and so forth.  So what do we do?

Even if we confine our area of cognitive exploration to the field of IT operations, more new relevant information is generated each day than there is time to learn it.  More new startups are launched every month than any of us will ever be able to remember, and we are collectively already overwhelmed by the number of patches, changelogs and new versions of the products we already deploy.

Narrowing things further, storage and networking are both areas where it is possible to be a highly skilled and experienced specialist while still not knowing details about more than the top products from the top vendors.  Subject matter experts in these areas can spend the majority of their days doing research and still end up drowning in information.

Expertise is expensive. Small businesses can’t afford specialists.  If they can hire one sysadmin, that’s a lot.  As a result, organizations are increasingly relying on outsourcing.

Small businesses hire Managed Service Providers (MSPs), lean on Value Added Resellers (VARs) or engage cloud computing.  These services can provide for an organization’s IT needs, but this often occurs at a significant premium compared to using in-house talent.

Large enterprises can afford to keep specialists on staff.  They also tend to run enough IT that the sheer scale of what’s deployed makes having specialists economical.  At a certain point you have so many switches that it makes sense to have a network nerd, etc.

Easy Mode

If one solution to the increasing complexity of IT is to outsource the requirement for specialists the solution on the opposite end of that spectrum is make IT easy enough for generalists to administer.  IT automation efforts fit underneath this umbrella, as do technologies like HCI.

HCI automates storage.  What was once an entire specialty within IT is simply no longer needed.  For most HCI solutions there are no nerd knobs to twiddle and there are no optimizations available.  HCI lashes together the storage from every host in a cluster and builds a shared storage solution that is available to every node in the cluster.

HCI solutions that insist on separate frontplane and backplane NICs also remove a lot of the network complexity when compared to converged Ethernet-based storage solutions.  Many even build VLAN management capabilities into their user interfaces, allowing generalist or virtualization systems administrators to configure VLANs for each workload without needing to log into a switch.  For smaller organizations these HCI networking choices can remove the need for specialist networking staff entirely.

In the small business world an organization’s systems administrator(s) are likely to be Windows administrators with just enough networking knowledge to keep non-BGP-enabled Internet connectivity working.  HCI essentially provides these organizations with turn-key IT infrastructure.  Take it out of the box, plug it in, and start installing workloads.

The Fuzzy Grey Middle

Midsized organizations operate in between the two extremes.  Many midsized organizations rely entirely on generalists and as a result are addicted to IT appliances.

This isn’t meant to pass judgement on the utility or utilization of IT appliances, but simply as a point of understanding.  It is in the midmarket that “black box” appliances flourish: IT staff spend almost all of their time building integrations between various applications, so they don’t have time to worry about the underlying infrastructure.

Sysadmins at midsized shops usually don’t want to know – let alone spend time tweaking – the details of how their firewall blocks Google Hangouts.  They just want to tick a box and have the firewall do its thing.

HCI is a natural fit for these environments.  HCI is an appliance that runs workloads.  No fussing with storage, clustering configurations, or networking.  Push button, receive bacon.

Unlike many IT appliances, however, HCI scales.  If an organization reaches the limit of their firewall’s capacity, for example, a more powerful one must be purchased to replace it.

At some point, the appliance approach breaks down for most areas of IT.  A requirement for resiliency, scale or performance will pressure an organization into hiring a specialist and deploying more involved infrastructure.  As organizations grow larger their stable of specialists grows.

With HCI, when you need more capacity you buy more nodes.  If you start reaching maximum cluster capacity then you split the cluster during your next growth phase.  HCI serves organizations from small businesses through to the Fortune 500, making it a solution that can stave off the need for a specialist well into the enterprise stage of organization growth.

It is by deploying simplification technologies like HCI, in combination with IT automation, consolidation and rationalization efforts that organizations can cope with the rapid expansion of IT.  When a problem has been solved thoroughly enough that it can be handled by software, let it.  There are always newer and more interesting problems to be solved.



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Trevor Pott

Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He splits his time between systems administration, technology writing, and consulting. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley start-ups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.

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