Does the SysAdmin Have a Place in the Future?

By Gerardo Dada

With disruptive forces like cloud, hybrid IT, BYOD, virtualization and the continued convergence of infrastructure upending traditional IT as we know it, you may wonder how systems administrators (SysAdmins) fit into the future?

In this changing and de-siloed landscape, SysAdmins need to redefine themselves to stay relevant, and to continue to deliver value to business. Gone are the days of simply being responsible for infrastructure to work and waiting for trouble tickets to roll in. Today’s SysAdmins must look beyond the technology. They must look beyond the infrastructure. They must become trusted advisers that solve real business needs.

The evolution of the SysAdmin
The SysAdmin is responsible for making sure the systems that are fundamental for business work, and work well. However, throughout the history of the discipline, there has been an ongoing evolution that is driven by the technology of the day. This evolution has been accelerated in the past several years, as rapidly maturing technologies like cloud, virtualization and hyperconvergence, among others, have all required the SysAdmin to add a wide array of new skills to their repertoire. The role is also becoming much more complex due to influx of new technologies available to the end user—the consumerization of technology and BYOD, which, along with the cloud, has resulted in less control in the hands of IT than ever before.

Virtualization and cloud in particular have become a true necessity for businesses, requiring SysAdmins to revise their skillsets. In fact, a recent SolarWinds survey of IT professionals found that 92 percent of U.S. respondents believe adopting cloud technologies is important to their organizations’ long-term business success. Furthermore, as this drives hybrid IT forward, SysAdmins must now find ways to take advantage of cloud technologies while also still ensuring critical on-premises systems, databases and applications perform well and securely.

In consequence, as identified by the survey, SysAdmins need to develop and improve specific skillsets: hybrid IT monitoring and management tools, application migration, distributed architectures, service-oriented architectures, automation and vendor management. SysAdmins must continually reevaluate their thinking and processes when it comes to security as well, and continue learning about new tools and new processes to protect the organization.

Turning SysAdmins’ challenges into opportunities
While challenging, these technological shifts are also providing new opportunities for SysAdmins. With the advent of the growth in cloud and DevOps processes, there are now different ways of thinking about IT that enable SysAdmins to be more strategic. In fact, according to the same survey, nearly half of the respondents who currently work in a hybrid IT environment said SysAdmins were involved in developing their cloud strategy.

Furthermore, since nearly all business now revolves around applications, IT must increasingly focused on end-user experience metrics such as uptime and performance, rather than infrastructure. While SysAdmins have traditionally had a hardware mindset, they must now shift to think about how the technology is actually being used by the end user. Hybrid IT in particular is forcing SysAdmins to be an enabler of the business—to build and manage reliable, agile, modern, secure and highly usable systems that support business needs.

However, the biggest opportunity for SysAdmins is the shift in the amount of technology options available for each business function, and that the end user is now more empowered than ever to make those decisions. As these options continue to grow, the SysAdmin can and must become the trusted adviser to all areas of the business, by taking business requirements and turning them into technology requirements. This means listening and understanding business need, running cost-benefit assessment and recommending the best option.

How can SysAdmins stay relevant today and into the future?
While the evolving technology landscape may be a threat for SysAdmins who stay stagnant, those that take advantage of these shifts in technology will ensure that they are able to stay relevant not only today, but into the future as well. To successfully seize the opportunities for SysAdmins in today’s IT industry and redefine the SysAdmin role, SysAdmins should consider the following advice:

  1. Develop an application-centric mindset: What matters to the business most is that applications are working well all the time, because every business, and every component of every business, is now dependent on applications. If there is a drop in application performance or altogether outage, business comes to a halt. The modern SysAdmin needs to think about application uptime and performance first and foremost—end user experience metrics are now part of the CIO’s SLA.
  1. Use monitoring to be the “silent hero”: Given the importance of application uptime and performance, systems and application monitoring needs to become second nature. SysAdmins must implement and manage comprehensive monitoring solutions in order to improve application performance, realign resources, identify early warning signs of problems and take proactive action. By finding and solving a problem before any end users even know there is a problem, the SysAdmin becomes the “silent hero.”
  1. Embrace the role of strategic adviser rather simply remaining a problem fixer: Thanks to the consumerization of technology, the control of many technology decisions has shifted from SysAdmin to the end user. This means SysAdmins need to be more end user-facing, and play the role of the adviser and coach, rather than simply the problem fixer. They must provide guidance to business units such as marketing, and advise them about their technology choices and then provide the appropriate integration services. SysAdmins should look to provide insight and advice to all parts of the business to help end users and department leaders make intelligent choices, rather than just responding to tickets.
  1. Learn how to make the right technology decisions for the business: According to the survey, 43 percent of IT professionals estimate that half or more of their organizations’ total IT infrastructure will be in the cloud within the next 3-5 years. That means more than half won’t be. While cloud is critical to all businesses, SysAdmins must be selective about what to move to the cloud and when. The cloud is just one item on the IT menu, and SysAdmins must be educated on when and how to use it in such a way that it will derive the most benefit for their organizations. That said, the cloud is just one example. There is a myriad new technologies available to IT: from containers to IoT to big data. SysAdmins must be smart about choosing the technologies that can truly enhance the business and be able to adopt them when they reach the right level of maturity.
  1. Always keep security top of mind: Whatever a SysAdmin does, security needs to be a top priority. The sophistication of attacks is increasing and evolving just as quickly as organizations can prepare for them, sometimes faster. Exacerbating the issue is how much sensitive information companies are storing in today’s era of Big Data. In fact, according to a separate SolarWinds survey on security, while just under a quarter of respondents expect their organizations to suffer from a security breach sometime in 2016, a full 75 percent of those same organizations store customer data, including 45 percent that store customer social security numbers. SysAdmins must continually take steps to ensure the security of their organizations’ digital infrastructure.

Historically, the job of the SysAdmin was often a thankless one, visible to other parts of the business only when problems arose. However, today’s disruptive technologies like hybrid IT, SaaS applications and hyperconvergence are transforming the role of SysAdmin, forcing them out of the server room and into valuable business advisers. To seize on this opportunity and secure their place in the next generation of IT, SysAdmins must look beyond the infrastructure for a true understanding of business needs, and how technology can meet them.

Gerardo Dada is the vice president of product marketing at SolarWinds.

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