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What is system administration like at Google?

People often write to me for advice about submitting a resume to Google. They always want to know what system administration is like here. I tend to write something original each time, but I always say the same thing. Therefore, I'm going to post it here and refer people to this post in the future.

What is system administration like at Google?

System administration at Google is quite different than at most companies. Since we do all our computing on massive clusters we don't touch much hardware. It is set up a rack at a time for us in data centers around the world. We don't spend a lot of time setting up typical services like LDAP, Kerberos, and load balancers because we have those things set up already, automated, and scaled.

So what /do/ we do? We keep the various web sites of google running, or keep the systems that they rely on running. We have small teams for each product or chunk of infrastructure (DNS, storage, etc). Members usually have 1 week of "on call" (pager) duty out of 6, and the other 5 weeks are spent making improvements to make the on call portion more optimized, automated, and trouble-free. (Some groups are 1 out of 8, or 3.5 days out of every 12, or whatever... some have zillions of pages per day, others 1 or two per week).

When you aren't on duty, you are optimizing the system for better operational efficiency. Suppose the last time you were oncall you noticed a certain problem was happening a lot. You might take on a project to monitor all aspects of it, find the problem, and either fix it or work with the developers to fix it. We have large, complicated systems that requires deep Unix knowledge to maintain properly.

A senior person takes on projects that have even larger impact. So, maybe you notice that not only does your product have that particular problem, but other projects do too. So you invent a new system that fixes the problem globally. For example, rolling out software to thousands of machines is difficult. After each upgrade the machine must be tested to make sure the software is working, and begin rolling back the change if there are failures. We haven't done that kind of thing manually in years, but maybe the current system can't tell the difference between a bug that means you should roll-back all systems, or a hardware failure that means one particular machine is down. You might refactor the system so that the failure test is a plug-in module and now everyone can write their own plug-ins.

This is why we call ourselves "Site Reliability Engineers" instead of of Sysadmins. As a SRE, we are constantly optimizing the system. Some of us are more focused on operational aspects (sysadmin skills) and others are focused on writing tools (software engineering focused). However, we all do some kind of software development, scripting, and so on. At our scale it isn't a question of whether or not to automate, but how to automate.

We also have more traditional system administrators in our CorpEng group. They are focused on internal systems (the printing system, deploying the newest Mac OS release, etc.). This is also the group that employs our internal helpdesk. Supporting 20k employees is a big job. Most companies don't have 10,000+ linux desktops and 15,000+ Mac laptops, plus countless other systems.

A few more great things about working here:

  • The relationship with the developers is collaborative.
  • You can stay technical while going up the career ladder without having to move into management.
  • My co-workers are so smart, I usually feel pretty stupid.
  • The challenges are so huge, I think we're 2-10 years ahead of the industry. Working here is like having a crystal ball that lets you see the future of our industry.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli

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2 Comments | Leave a comment

Do you have a opening in google for aix administration.

i want this job

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