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The Practice of System and Network Administration

Thomas A. Limoncelli and Christine Hogan's recent book "The Practice of System and Network Administration" breaks new ground in its coverage of Systems Administration.

It is platform-agnostic, and while its audience is comprised largely of Unix and Linux systems administrators, details of administering a particular system are out of this book's scope. (Good books specifically about Unix and Linux systems administration include Aeleen Frisch's Essential System Administration and the UNIX System Administration Handbook by Evi Nemeth, Garth Snyder, Scott Seebass, and Trent R. Hein.)

Instead, it focuses on the goals, techniques, and strategies employed by successful system administrators. The Practice of System and Network Administration is a book about the professionalization of system administration. As such, it is not necessarily appropriate for users who wish to effectively administer their home computers and networks, though many techniques could certainly be tested on such networks. Its primary audience is people who are employed as system administrators; appropriate secondary audiences include their managers and users who aspire to careers in systems administration.

It is divided into four parts: "The Principles", "The Processes", "The Practices", and "Management". The first part concentrates on the goals of system administration. What rules do well-administered servers and workstations follow? In essence, Part I is about defining an infrastructure. In addition to chapters about obvious topics including desktops, services, networks, and the like, Part I includes chapters on security policy, ethics, disaster recovery, and the process of debugging problems. The debugging chapter, in particular, is stunning. It describes how to start with user requests and end with solutions. For system administrators who already intuitively understand the debugging process, it is refreshing to see it laid out so clearly; for readers less familiar with the practical aspects of debugging, this chapter provides a strong theoretical basis for practical debugging.

Part II, "The Processes", focuses on change management. Systems and networks rarely remain static, and making sure that changes are propagated safely is difficult. This section includes chapters on Change Management, Server Upgrades, and other topics. It's rather disturbing to see a chapter on operating system upgrades that contains not one system-specific instruction, but this in keeping with the intended approach.

Part III, "The Practices", describes various subsystems and design guidelines for those particular services. These subsystems are not limited to packages that run on computers, though email, backup, and other services merit chapters; in addition to these, there are chapters on Helpdesks, Data Centers, and Software Depot management. Chapter 16, on Customer Care, is outstanding. It includes a four-step model for solving customer-reported issues. Like the debugging chapter, this chapter deconstructs a process with which more capable administrators are already familiar. As before, this process helps experienced administrators understand what it is that they do while teaching novices what it is that they should do.

Part IV, "Management", has no parallels in any other book aimed at system administrators. It includes chapters on hiring system administrators, firing them, how system administrators should strive to be perceived, and being happy. This part is not simply intended as a guide for system administrators who wish to become managers (though several chapters on management are also present), but also for system administrators who simply want to survive their managers and the business aspects of the profession.

The Practice of System and Network Administration differs from every other book on system administration I have ever read. Through its deeply-felt platform neutrality, it desires to be a book for the ages. Through its copious use of system administrator humor and real-life anecdotes, it should be successful in bringing new system administrators into the culture of system administration. At the same time, its emphasis on policies, procedures, and business goals seeks to quietly professionalize system administration.

Although I am sensitive to the claims of system administration as craft, turning system administration into a true profession is an admirable goal, one shared by many within the field. Limoncelli and Hogan provide a very useful book that is also a gentle push in the right direction.

Recent comments

26 Feb 2002 06:17 Avatar rdhyani

Exlent Reference for System Administrators
The Practice of System and Network
Administration" is a wonderful reference book
for System and Network administrator. It gives
insight to methodological aproach to system
administration. A must in every sysadmin's

Rakesh Dhyani

18 Feb 2002 13:01 Avatar ridgelift

Great book
Based on this review, I bought a copy. Simply excellent.
Good content, realistic approach to the daily
challenges admins face, and the OS-neutral approach
makes it useful for both Windows and Unix admins.

My copy will definitely become dog-eared and worn
from repeated re-reads and reference.


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