Top 10 Tools for Lonely Sys Admins

October 15, 1995


Reprinted from ;login: v20,n5, October 1995.

Here's my list of tools that I couldn't do without, in no particular order:

A Logbook
Steve Simmons once said, "I'm not brilliant, I've just got a good memory." [;login: J/F'93] Ditto.

A Bernoulli Drive (or some other brand of removable media disk drive)
Because when you absolutely, positively need to boot from a gold copy configuration of version x.y.z of SomeOS, it beat s the heck out of hauling around a Seagate drive assembly. Spaf [Eugene Spafford of Purdue University - Ed.] also claims that (to date), no hacker, via the Internet, has been able to modify or otherwise soil a disk that is locked inside a safe with the write-protect tab set.

A Portable CD-ROM drive
Ever notice how all the CD-ROM drives are in use just when you need to use one on an out-of-the way system that so happens to be missing one of its own? Also doubles as a handy entertainment system on those long lonely nights in the machine room while you're rebuilding a 2Gig hard drive from 2 weeks worth of backup tapes.

The O'Reilly Sys Admin Bookshelf (et al.)
I remember making this a condition of employment (the other was annual attendance at LISA :-). Fast, portable, compatible - a good reference library is indispensable. And O'Reilly publishes some of the best.

The Swiss Army Chain Saw of UNIX tools.

A box of terminators, cables, adaptors for SCSI, Ethernet, RS-232/432, etc.
Remember last night (and it's always at night, isn't it?) when you need to hook up a Macintosh running SLIP to the back of a router so you could bring up a back-up DNS server (don't ask, you really don't want to know)? That gender mender came in handy. Standards are wonderful; there are so many to choose from.

Problem/Request management/tracking software
Chapter 1 of every time management book I've ever read says that you need a single place to write down your tasks. Little Post-It® notes and slips of paper hanging out of every nook and cranny won't cut it. This is probably where the term "it must have dropped on the floor somewhere" was coined. Tracking software starts automating some of your task logging. It also gives your users a consistent priority (some might say triage) scheme for requesting work. And a 15 page report of line items is a good thing to show to your boss at salary review time.

A pager
I know this one is going to create a lot of controversy. [Note, since this article was published, there hasn't been any, so I guess more people agree on this than I thought. -KLM] A pager can be a tool, or it can be an electronic leash. The only people that know my pager number are my boss, his secretary, and some of the other division secretaries who make more than a few calls to me. I swear them all to secrecy (that's why they're called secretaries. If someone needs to get in touch with me, the secretaries can do a little prescreening for me.

I also got the person who maintains the company telephone system to create a voice-mail box that doesn't ring on any phone. I then programmed the box to call the pager (a nice built-in feature of our system). People call the v-mail box; I get a page a few minutes later. Then I can screen the message. The whole system disconnects the person (me) from the service (Help Desk) in time and space. If I'm away, someone else carries the pager (kind of an on-call), and users don't have to worry about calling a different number. (And I don't have to worry about retraining users.)

Telephone headset for hands-free talking (or talking with your hands ;-)
Since I got my headset, I don't mind staying on hold as much. Technical support calls don't wear me out either.

A hobby (a.k.a. a life outside of work)
This is one is probably more important than the rest, but I saved the best for last. The best sys admins I know, the best engineers I know, heck, the most successful people I know, are the ones whose life is not defined by their work. Without waxing philosophical or spreading too much psycho-babble, you need an anchor - something that keeps you in touch with the ground, reality. Otherwise everything gets warped out of perspective. And in our profession, sys admins as a class tend to be the obsessive I'm-not-going-to-quit-until-I've-licked-this-problem type. I'm not claiming that a hobby will make you into the net.god, but I strongly believe that it is an enabling characteristic.
Top 10 Tools for Lonely Sys Admins - October 15, 1995 - Ken Mayer