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What should you write your LISA paper about?

Status: draft

The Usenix LISA 2010 "Call for Participation" is out. I encourage everyone to think about what they're doing to improve system administration, what innovation they've brought to their network, and write a paper about it.

People often ask me for a definition of "system administrator". TPOSANA/2ed has a great definition in the preface (read it and see).

But lately I've been thinking that one way to define it is in terms of lifecycle. I think of sysadmins as being the people that are responsible for technology from cradle-to-grave. Developers might create it. Executives might pay for it. Customers might request it. But we facilitate the cradle-to-grave process:

  • acquisition
  • deployment
  • maintenance
  • repair
  • scaling
  • decommission
(Hmm... am I missing a phase?)

Each of these phases can be a big deal and can be done well or badly.

Most sysadmins are mired in the operational aspects (keeping it running) and don't even realize the other phases exist. Consider the (usually Windows) desktop support person at most companies: the OS comes loaded from the vendor, is never changed, just maintained until the machine is thrown away. We (they) get a reputation for being janitors, not engineers.

The biggest innovations come from focusing on the other parts: getting customer requirements as part of acquisition; deploying things very well (especially desktops or things that have opportunity for mass-production cloning, etc.), scaling (growing from 100 machines , 10,000 machines, 1 million machines; or from hundreds to thousands to millions of users), decommissioning: securely destroying information, and so on.

You can optimize these phases individually or look for cross-phase improvements. If you have optimized all of these phases the only thing left is release engineering and scaling.

Surrounding these issues is all the soft skills that relate to "professionalism": how you deal with people, manage your time, etc.

So what are you going to write your LISA paper about? Which one of these phases have you improved? Did you write a new tool? Develop a new technique? Start an open-source project? Or maybe you have perfected a cross-phase methodology?

Alternatively, maybe you've noticed that there is a thing that sysadmins do, and you can study many groups of sysadmins doing that thing, and can draw comparisons and conclusions about what worked best.

Or maybe you're facing a problem that nobody else has faced, and it is worthwhile to publish your results. Maybe you've scaled Apache to more users than anyone else has, and learned something useful. Maybe you've broken from tradition "on a hunch" and your new disk backup software works better for a particularly common edge-case (Just kidding... I'm sick of papers about backup systems.) Heck, maybe you're just the first sysadmin to deploy a new technology (10G ethernet to the desktop?) and learned something about managing it that the engineers that invented it would have never expected.

What is your sysadmin team most proud of? What thing are you doing that others think is "futuristic" or "cutting edge"?

William Gibson famously wrote, "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." I suspect that most people reading this blog live in the future and by writing or speaking about what we're doing, we can spread it to others.

That's the goal of LISA, isn't it?

Read the "Call for Participation" here.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Conferences

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