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30 Years a Sysadmin

Sandra Henry-Stocker | Oct. 1, 2015
Looking back after spending more than 30 years as a Unix systems administrator, I have to say that's it's been quite a ride.

From the early 90's, I still have somewhere a 300 MB (yes, that's megabytes) disk that's roughly the size of a shoe box and sometimes stare at my USB ("thumb") drives, knowing that some hold as much as a terabyte. What an incredible comparison!  If this trend continues, we'll soon find that dropping a storage device on the floor will mean we're no longer going to be able to find it.

9gb scsi drive paul sullivan
9 GB SCSI drive. Credit: flickr / Paul Sullivan

thumb drive shs
32 GB USB "thumb" drive. Credit: Sandra H-S

I also remember backing up my servers using a reel-to-reel tape drive.  The tapes were huge and they didn't hold all that much data.  Some of the my file systems required 3-4 of them.  Today, we use robotic tape drives and tools that automate the backups and keep track of what files went to what tapes so that you can restore files from various backup tapes with ease.  And some of the backup technology today uses clever "deduplication" technology to reduce the size of data dumps by avoiding storing duplicate data, often reducing the size of backups to a small fraction of their original size.

reel to reel mike
reel-to-reel tape drive. Credit: flickr / Mike

tape robot chrisdag
robotic tape library. Credit: flickr / ChrisDag

Of course, almost nothing has changed the field in which I've spent the last 30+ years as much as the Internet and the web have. When I worked for the federal courts, the district courts were connecting to systems in Washington, DC using a service called "Tymnet" which used packet switching technology. My project would not only put "minicomputers" (systems about the size of a college dorm refrigerator) into the courthouses, but make it so that all activity no longer had to push bits to Washington DC and back.

The growth of the Internet made connecting to arbitrary systems around the globe not only possible but common. And the introduction of the web (nee the "world wide web", but mostly just called "the web" today) meant that I could find answers to many of my technical questions without even having to pull a book off the shelf.  Today I often find myself wondering how I ever found answers to my technical questions before Google and similar web searching tools made their appearance.

How the jobs have changed

In general, the networks we manage are larger and more diverse.  We won't see the AppleTalk network segments that I remember from the 80s doing their own thing, but the systems we run on our desktops and support in our data centers can be surprisingly diverse.  More of the work we do is centrally managed through network services like NFS, NIS, DNS, etc.


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