Collaboration in System Administration

Eben M. Haber, Eser Kandogan, Paul Maglio
2010 Queue  
George was in trouble. A seemingly simple deployment was taking all morning, and there seemed no end in sight. His manager kept coming in to check on his progress, as the customer was anxious to have the deployment done. He was supposed to be leaving for a goodbye lunch for a departing coworker, adding to the stress. He had called in all kinds of help, including colleagues, an application architect, technical support, and even one of the system developers. He used e-mail, instant messaging,
more » ... -to-face contacts, his phone, and even his office mate's phone to communicate with everyone. And George was no novice. He had been working as a Web-hosting administrator for three years, and he had a bachelor's degree in computer science. But it seemed that all the expertise being brought to bear was simply not enough. Why was George in trouble? We'll find out. But first, why were we watching George? George is a system administrator, one of the people who work behind the scenes to configure, operate, maintain, and troubleshoot the computer infrastructure that supports much of modern life. Their work is critical-and expensive. The human part of total system cost-of-ownership has been growing for decades, now dominating the costs of hardware or software. 2, 3, 4 understand why, and to try to learn how administration can be better supported, we have been watching system administrators at work in their natural environments. Over the course of several years, and equipped with camcorders, cameras, tapes, computers, and notebooks, we made 16 visits, each as long as a week, across six different sites. We observed administrators managing databases, Web applications, and system security; as well as storage designers, infrastructure architects, and system operators. Whatever their specific titles were, we refer to them all as system administrators, or sysadmins for short. At the beginning of our studies, we held a stereotypical view of the system administrator as that guy (and it was always a guy) in the back room of the university computer center who knew everything and could solve all problems by himself. As we ventured into enterprise data centers, we realized that the reality was significantly more complex. To describe our findings fully would take a book (which we are currently writing). 6 In this short article, we limit ourselves to a few episodes that illustrate the kinds of collaboration we saw in system administration work and where the major problems lie. As we'll show from real-world stories we collected and our analyses of work patterns, it's really not just one guy in the back room. THE STORY OF GEORGE George is a Web administrator in a large IT service delivery center. We observed him over a week as
doi:10.1145/1898147.1898149 fatcat:nulq4anxefb2vps3atyig7d224