Results tagged “system administration”

We are sysadmins. We love numbers. They mean a lot to us. They are specific and clean.

We also like a lot of details. When someone asks what operating system we use, we rattle off all fifty we can think of. That includes the embedded OS we know is buried deep in our toaster. Why? Because when we discovered it has a serial port, we plugged in and watched the bootup messages. That's why.

However, when writing and speaking the number of things we list means something to the reader/listener more than the number. Controlling the number of items in the list is more important than being complete.

Lists of length 1, 2 3 and "4 or more" have particular meaning.

A list with one element means "Hey! Look at this! Remember it!". If you ask me what operating system I use at work, the complete answer is a list a mile long. If I want you to remember that I am a Linux sysadmin, you won't remember that if I list "Linux, Mac OS X, Windows, IOS, JunOS, Android and ChromiumOS". The word Linux gets lost in the noise, even if it is the first item of the list. If I simply say, "I administer Linux machines" then that is what people will remember. If you want someone to remember what you said reduce the list down to one item.

A list with two elements implies comparison. "I am knowledgeable about Windows and Linux." invites comparison. It implies that these are different things and emphasizes that I have two very different skill sets: the ability to run Windows, and the ability to run Linux. A reader unfamiliar with computers will understand that these are two different things and might ask questions that relate to how they compare. It is actually jarring to list two items that you don't want the user to compare in their minds. In fact, the more similar they are, the more someone will think about the differences. "I run Ubuntu 9.1 and 9.2" makes people wonder what is so different about them that I list them both. Think about how these phrases invite comparison: "At home and at work", "night and day", "HTML5 and Flash", "Ubunto 9.x and 10.x", "apples and oranges". If your point isn't to emphasize differences (good or bad) make sure your list doesn't contain two items. If you want to emphasize differences, make sure your list has exactly two items.

A list with three elements implies (a) that you expect the reader/listener to hold all three in their head while I discuss them, (b) that you will discuss them in that order, (c) that the order matters. A three-item list is short enough that the reader can hold them all in their brain for the duration of the discussion. You haven't made the statement so complex as to have overloaded them. When you "drill down" on the items in the list, cover each item in the same order as the original list. This parallel format helps the reader/listener understand the flow. Lastly, order the items with great care. Often we put the most important item first but I find that people most remember the last item the most, so put it last. If I want you to "reboot the machine, make sure it comes back up, and come to my desk when you are done" I am emphasizing the need for you to come back to me. When writing an article or giving a presentation the last item often gets the most discussion. If you have one complicated and two short topics, end with the complicated item. This lets you cover the first two briefly and then focus on the third item for the remainder of your time.

A list with four or more elements implies that the point isn't the contents of the list, but that the list is very long. I might tell you that I use a lot of operating systems: MacOS, Ubuntu, Redhat, Windows, Android, JunOS and IOS. The point I am making is that the list is very long. The contents of the list is not so important. The reader/listener walks away remembering "Tom knows a lot of operating systems". If this is not what you intend, reduce the list to be shorter than 4 items. You may have to summarize ("Tom knows Linux, Windows, and some lesser-known operating systems.") If you don't want someone to focus on the details of the list, make sure there are 4 or more items on it.

We are sysadmins. Numbers are important to us. However, it is important to remember that the number of items in a list tells people a lot more than just what is on the list:

  1. Remember me.
  2. Comparison
  3. Things to keep in your head
  4. The quantity is more important that the details.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Professionalism

Tonight's topic is "What's the biggest problem in system administration?" 

his month's meeting will be less technical, more philosophical.

What's the biggest problem facing system administrators? Is it the vendors? The managers? The tools? Is it us? (nah, it couldn't be us! Must be the tools). Scaling? The inconsistant syntax of Perl? It probably isn't any one thing.

I will be facilitating  group discussion. Hopefully we'll learn something about our technology and ourselves.

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Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Community

(PICC is a regional sysadmin conference to be held in central NJ on May
7-8, 2010. I'm on the planning committee.

Today is the deadline for proposals for papers, talks, and such.

We're a little low on submissions so I'd like to make one more "beg". We'd love to have a talk about PHP for sysadmins, something fun you've done with Arduino, your favorite JS
library, a walk-through on setting up Google Apps. Demo your favorite open source project, or propose a panel of people to talk about something you find interesting (I can help find others for your panel). It is an excellent way to spread the word about a project you are involved with.

We've tried to make the proposal process really easy. Just send your
contact info and topic plus a 1-2 paragraph description to
[email protected]

For more info IM me and/or view:


P.S. Today is the deadline but we can grant extensions to anyone that writes and asks.

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Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Conferences

Do you work in New Jersey? Let your "IT guy/gal" know how much you appreciate them this Valentines day!

Send this to them, or better yet, open a ticket at your helpdesk with this text!

(And if you really like them, CC: their boss!)

8< ---------- cut here ---------- >8

Happy Valentines Day to my favorite computer system administrator:

You only hear from me
when my computer is blue.
So this Valentine's Day
I'm saying "Thank you!"

I admit my computer problems,
like it's a reality-show confessional.
But you hide your frown,
and act very professional.

I think that you're great!
I know I'm a pest!
But I bring my troubles to you,
because you're the best!

Some roses are red,
some roses are pink.
No candy this year,
but my card's at this link:

Thank you for everything you do! Happy Valentine's Day!


(your name here)

8< ---------- cut here ---------- >8

(Please pass this on to all your friends in New Jersey!)

This campaign is brought to you by and LOPSA-NJ (

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Conferences

Just moments ago Usenix has published their "Call for Participation" for the Usenix LISA 2010 conference. This is a conference that I attend every year because the value I get out of it is undeniable. The speakers are excellent and the topics make me feel like I have access to a crystal ball that lets me see into the future.

The CfP gives a more detailed explanation of the conference and the kinds of talks, papers, and presentations that they are looking for. This is a community conference; talks come from people in the community, not "top down" vendor presentations.

This year adds a new "Practice and Experience" section where people can give a 20 minute talk where people can explain "substantial system administration project that has been completed." Sounds like a great way to learn from other people's mistakes [After I typed that I thought people might think I was kidding or being cynical. Actually, hearing what speedbumps to watch out is pretty darn important!.]

Usenix LISA is unique in that they have a track of refereed papers. These high-quality papers are where some of the biggest system administration innovations have first been published. This year the committee is not requiring full papers, but instead requests 500-1500 word summary. If your paper is accepted you will be expected to produce the entire paper in time for publication. This lowers the barrier to entry and I hope to see a big increase in paper submissions this year (I'm on the panel that votes on papers). If you have done something fantastic, invented a new technique, or written new software that improves the state of the art for system administration, please submit! (Private email to me is fine if you want to ask for advice). Details about submitting papers is here.

Whether you are planning on submitting a proposal or not, reading the full CfP is a great way to understand how a conference like LISA works. When you are presenting or not, I hope to see you there!

Read the entire call for participation here:

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Conferences

CHIMIT (2007,2008,2009) is a conference for researchers that study the habits and workflows of IT workers in an effort to find ways to make them more productive (they call this "human factors in IT"). Anyone trying to make my work easier is alright in my book.

At the most recent conference I moderated a panel of system administrators who had been in the audience watching the first day of presentations. It was our turn to "speak up" about what we had seen.

One of the useful things that came out of this panel was a list of "signs that a product was designed to be easy for system administrators to install and maintain."

Here is a short version of the list:

  • as a command line interface
  • has an API so it can be remotely administered
  • has a "silent install" mode so it can be cleanly deployed
  • has a config file that is ASCII so it can be stored in a revision control system; and the same file can be input INTO the system.
  • has a clearly defined way to do backups and restores.
  • has a clean way to monitor for up/down issues (know when there is an emergency) AND vital statistics that relate to scaling/latency (know how to debug slowness) AND historical monitoring (be able to predict far in advance when we need to buy more capacity)

What would you add to this list?

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Academic study of SA

SysAdvent has begun!

SysAdvent has started its second year.  SysAdvent is a project to count down the 24 days leading to Christmas with a sysadmin tip each day.  Last year Jordan Sissel wrote all 24 days (amazing job, dude!). This year he has enlisted guest bloggers to help out. You might see a post of mine one of these days.

While I don't celebrate the holiday that the event is named after, I'm glad to participate.

Check out this and last year's postings on the SysAdvent Blog:

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in CommunityTechnical Tips

Run, run, run, dead.

I assume you have some kind of automated monitoring system that watches over your servers, networks and services. Service monitoring is important to a functioning system. It isn't a service if it isn't monitored. If there is no monitoring then you're just running software.

Monitoring "is it down?" is reactionary. It is better than no monitoring at all, but all it tells you is that there is already a problem. Monitoring is better when it predicts the future and prevents problems.

An analog radio (one with an old-fashion vacuum tube) sounds great at first, but you hear more static when the tube starts to wear out. Then the tube dies and you hear nothing. If you change the tube when it starts to degrade, you'll never have a dead radio. (Assume, of course, you change the tube when your favorite radio show isn't on.)

A transistor radio, on the other hand, is digital. It plays and plays and plays and then stops. Now, during your favorite song, you have to repair it.

At Bell Labs someone called this the "run run run dead" syndrome of digital electronics.

How can we monitor computers and networks in a way that makes it more like analog electronics? There are some simple tricks we can use when monitoring to be "more like analog."

Posted by Tom Limoncelli