How Does the Cloud Change a Systems Administrator's Job?

How Does the Cloud Change a Systems Administrator's Job?

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I recently posted a blog entry on how cloud computing would change the Systems Architect’s role in an organization, and another on how the cloud changes a database administrator's job. This time I'll cover a few of the changes the cloud brings for the Systems Administrator.

The systems administrator shares some similarity with the database administrator, in that it's rare to find a single job description that fits all people in that role. There are some basic similarities among various organizations, so I'll use those as a starting point.

The Systems Administrator Role

The systems administrator role is perhaps one of the earliest in technology, at least as far as the implementation of a system goes. In the earliest days of computing, electronic technical professionals built prototype computers, and newly minted "programmers" wrote logical instructions for these systems. In time, the systems administration role owned the installation, configuration, operation and tuning of these systems once they went into production and use on a larger scale. A few of the tasks associated with the role are:

  • Planning, installing and configuring systems
  • Planning, designing and creating storage, networking and other system components
  • Planning, designing and implementing High Availability and Disaster Recovery for each system
  • Maintaining and monitoring systems
  • Implementing performance tuning systems based on monitoring
  • Re-balancing workloads across servers based on monitoring
  • Securing systems, networks and individual computers based on requirements and implementation
  • Planning, implementing and controlling user and account security rights and restrictions

Like the DBA, that’s just a short list, and each of those tasks also unpacks into a larger set of tasks. And like the DBA, the role is often more, or less of that list based on where the system administrator works. In smaller companies I've been a "systems administrator" that also ran the database and mail servers, web systems, front-line end-user support and made the coffee. In larger organization I was only able to spend the day on one or two parts of that list, since there were so many systems and they interacted with so many other systems.

Systems administrators often deal with multiple operating systems. In one company where I was a system administrator, I worked with no less than six operating systems from mainframes to PC servers, two of them highly specialized to the hardware.

How the Cloud Changes Things

The systems administrator has the same concerns and impacts of "the cloud" as the DBA and the Systems Architect. They need to educate themselves on the options within this new option (Knowledge), try a few test solutions out (Experience) and of course work with others on various parts of the implementation (Coordination).

I've mentioned the three big buckets of cloud computing, dealing with Virtual Machines (IaaS) writing code (PaaS) and using software that’s already written and being delivered via an Application Programming Interface (API).  In my experience, the systems administrator role normally tackles the first "bucket" most often - IaaS, which has at its base the technology of virtualization.

Virtualization

One of the first areas the systems administrator is involved with "the cloud" is in the area of virtualization. This technology isn't new - in fact, I worked on Virtual Machines (VM's) way back in my mainframe days. It's the process of using software to emulate hardware - which has implications far beyond that simple sentence.

Virtualization is normally a standard on-premises process. When you take Virtual Machines and host them in another location, this is called Co-Location, or CoLo. Personally, I don't define either of these activities as "Cloud" computing - it's simply virtualization. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) normally involves several more components, at the very least being able to set up the systems (provision) and deploy them in a standard, automated way. It also involves (at a minimum) the ability to monitor, move and alter the systems using a prescribed methodology. There are other parts of IaaS to be sure, but this level above simply scripting installations or virtualizing a machine is where the system administrator becomes involved in this new "cloud computing" paradigm.

There are multiple VM technologies available, from the hypervisor that is built-in to the Windows operating system (Hyper-V) to third-party alternatives such as VMWare. The choice of cloud provider often dictates the selection of hypervisor. Windows Azure uses Hyper-V, and allows you to move systems from the cloud to the desktop and back again. Other providers use VMWare, or a proprietary format. Some allow you to push or pull images from the cloud service, others do not. The systems administrator must educate themselves on the business need and then select the cloud provider that best fits the requirements for a workload. It's also common to use several cloud providers within a single company.

Resources: Windows Azure Virtual Machines: http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/manage/windows/tutorials/virtual-machine-from-gallery/ and System Center: http://blogs.technet.com/b/server-cloud/archive/2011/12/01/managing-and-monitoring-windows-azure-applications-with-system-center-2012.aspx 

Cloud Computing Architecture - Private, Public and Hybrid

It's important to note that IaaS can be on-premises, at another facility, or both. The first is called "private cloud", the second "public cloud", and the third "hybrid cloud". Yes, these are marketing terms, but they are useful in describing where the decisions are for deploying a system. If data security is paramount, then private cloud may be the right choice for a given workload. If agility or cost is an issue, public cloud may be the right answer for another workload. And in many cases - perhaps most - using both architectures is the right way to split the workload. 

The key is to understand the workload well. In the past the system administrator needed to know the component requirements, such as how much memory, CPU, network and storage a workload needed. In cloud computing, these are also concerns, but you need to add in the questions of cost, business use, location of users, security and other vectors. These concerns bring the systems administrator closer to the business and its goals.

Resources: Windows Azure Hybrid Systemshttp://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/hh871440.aspx?AnnouncementFeed 

DevOps

One new term introduced into cloud computing is "DevOps" - short for Developer Operations. Not everyone agrees that this is even a real "thing" - that it's a made-up term by cloud vendors. Regardless, there is a new set of tasks that the cloud brings that may sit within the purview of the system administrator. 

Basically it involves the administration needed at the PaaS or SaaS level. The IaaS function of cloud computing holds most of the same characteristics as an on-premises system, defined the in the first list I mentioned above. But when the organization uses Platform as a Service, the operating system, much of the security, scale and other components of infrastructure are abstracted into the platform, and are often even controlled by the developer.

But once the application "goes live", there are a host of billing, controlling, scaling and other security questions that developers aren't equipped to handle. Who takes care of those? As companies are finding out, they need to appoint someone to cover these overlapped areas between developers and administrators.

References: How DevOps brings order: http://searchcloudcomputing.techtarget.com/feature/How-DevOps-brings-order-to-a-cloud-oriented-world and Managing Windows Azure: http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/manage/overview/

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  • I would like to know how a "public cloud" could be more agile than private as an on-premise IaaS would be fine tuned to organisations requirement which would help in faster retrieval of data. Unlike Public, which provides IaaS to may be multiple organisations. Apart from security, we might also have to compromise on service/resource availability. Please help me out as I am new to Cloud computing.

  • CCexplorer - Great question. The answer is: It isn't. And it is. :) The key is to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of all approaches, and choose the one that fits given those requirements.

    Most folks that choose public cloud do so because of a few reasons: They can leverage the expense the provider has put into networking, datacenters, and so on; it fits their security requirement; and most importantly, they can simply stop paying when they are done using a part of that cloud - something you can't do with private. On the other hand, private clouds offer complete control (and of course all of the costs and efforts that go into that) which includes whatever security results you put into it. I've done a few audits on private clouds (at customer request of course :) ) and found a couple that were VERY insecure. If you own it (which is a good thing), you have to take care of it.

    It's all about making the right choice for the problem at hand - and in our case, it's not "either/or" - we have private systems, private clouds, and a public cloud - you can use them together or separately, or mix and match. It's an "and" proposition.

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