Jul 31, 2015

A Day In the Life of a System Administrator


I’m a system administrator (sys admin) for INAP.

This is a really tough topic to be concise about because any particular day in the life of a Server Intellect sys admin is pretty different than any other day. I mean, the differences are so vast, I don’t know how anyone who’s truly interested in the meat of the tech could ever get bored.

When my friends and family ask what I do, I like to tell them to think of me like an Internet Handyman. Our clients reach out and say “Hey, my such and such is broken, do you guys handle that?” and at Server Intellect, the answer is pretty much always “absolutely we do”.

Starting The Shift

I work during the first shift of the day, which is generally the busiest since folks from all over the world wake up and get to work right before we arrive. We are never NOT staffed with admins to respond to an issue, so my other first-­shifters come in and take the baton from our overnight team, who gives us a quick run­down on what requests or tasks from our European and Indian clients are still lingering or need more time or attention from the night before.

The clients overseas are doing business and can run into any old thing that may need addressing. I am usually making coffee while absorbing the details of the rundown. Its not long after this conversation that our US and Canadian clients will send in the initial wave of reports that need attention that morning.

Working The Queue

This is where the “every day is different” part of my job starts. We keep a queue of support requests (called tickets) that customers submit, and there’s a 40-inch screen at the north wall of the room that tells us all how many tickets need attention, how many new server orders need for someone to jump in and preconfigure a best­-practice environment before handing over the passwords to the client, and how many clients are currently in migration.

Our overnight guys are great, so generally we come into only about three-to-five unresolved tickets on the board, but they start to climb as the day ticks on.

What kind of stuff comes in on a ticket? Every client is as different as every workday. They may have noticed that their contact form is not working as expected on their website, or that they’re seeing a ton of their email bounce back suddenly. After some time in the job, you start to get a feel for what the usual suspects might be for any particular issue. But honestly, anything’s game.

The text on your webpage is all scooted over to the left and none of the images are loading? That’s a new one, but I’ll dig around and give you something tangible to take back to your developer for tweaks even if it takes me a few hours to really uncover something useful.

Prepared for Anything

I’ve got a bundle of tools that I’ve collected over the years to help me watch filesystem and network activity that happen too instantaneously for the system to reasonably keep in a log file, so I’m no stranger to watching what your web application is TRYING to do even if it fails for some reason, and it generally gets me pretty quick answers. And often enough, it’s not even simple development tweaks or email reputation report that need to be shared with a client, but stuff that’s even more nefarious.

Once, one of our clients terminated a member of their staff, and the bitter ex-­employee leaked the client’s live database password online and they woke up to a very different site than they were used to hosting. Instead of custom baby furniture, they had a site that was turned into a huge billboard for counterfeit sneakers. We keep a daily backup of each customer’s entire server instance, so it’s not uncommon for me to roll things back a few hours or even a whole day if something crazy like that happens. Once in a blue moon a manufacturer will ship us bad RAM sticks, and basically every file the system touches gets corrupted. Days like that make me bow to the backup gods and sing in languages that didn’t exist before then.

The INAP Culture

We have a steady stream of admins either starting or ending their workday every few hours. I get a few glasses of water and a stretch in before I give my brain a break for lunch. A couple of the other admins and I love to play Magic the Gathering, so we may sling some spells at each other for an hour or so before jumping back into the pile.

Things really never stop for us though, and it’s really cool to watch. You may start the day and pick up halfway through a data copy operation somebody asked for the night before, and at the end of the day, the customer’s decided they want bigger hard drives again. You spend the day coordinating a time to install with the client and arranging for the downtime and upgrade at the data center. By the end of your time in the office for that day, you’re handing the ticket to the evening guys with a brand new data transfer in progress for the same customer, and it’s all getting 24/7 attention like clockwork.

It’s not all crazy fireballs to dodge though. We have a good time doing what we do. One of our admins brings in his grill and does cookouts every few weeks. We have an arcade machine that we’re working on restoring whenever we get some free time, and there is a dark room with couches for passing out when you just need that extra hour of sleep that day. All in all, I love my career, and I have no idea what I’ll be doing tomorrow. That’s pretty exciting if you ask me.

Updated: January 2019

Explore HorizonIQ
Bare Metal


About Author


Read More