The sysadmin’s mantra: Manage time, think ‘abundance’ and softly does it

Author and system administrator guru Tom Limoncelli offers his insights into a range of sysadmin topics ahead of his keynote speech this month at linux.conf.au.

Tom Limoncelli

Tom Limoncelli

Internet activist, author and system administrator at Google, Tom Limoncelli, would like to see IT pros getting more involved in social justice, organisations thinking more creatively about IT, and systems administrators embracing their soft skills.

As technology grows ever more pervasive and connected the demand placed on systems administrators only continues to grow. "You can't even blow up aliens or care for your Webkinz if there aren't system administrators designing and operating the networks and servers that make it all work," says Limoncelli. For this reason, he says skills such as time management are crucial in order to achieve personal and operational efficiency.

Limoncelli speaks to Computerworld about what else makes it all work behind the scenes, as well as open source software and the social good. Limoncelli will be presenting the opening keynote at the up-coming linux.conf.au.

What will your keynote at linux.conf.au be about?

I'm going to talk about the "scarcity mindset", how it holds us back, and how adopting an "abundancy mindset" would free us to think more creatively about IT. Certain things are scarce but when they become plentiful our thought processes and IT policies don't change fast enough.

For example, disk space used to be very scarce and expensive but isn't any more (comparatively). However, many organisations have policies oriented around economics that haven't existed for years. There is very little reason to not use a disk mirror (RAID 1) for the boot disk of all servers, for example. Similar stories can be told about CPU, networking, and other technologies such as software.

Free and open source software is another example (of a shifting landscape). The ability to have a new feature added to software was previously a scarce resource, something vendors doled out grudgingly, but with the free and open source software movement, we can adapt software in ways never thought previously.

This will be my first time attending linux.conf.au and I'm really looking forward to it. While my talk will bend towards system administration, it will be broad enough that all developers should appreciate what I have to say.

What are some prime examples of ways that business can now adapt software in ways never thought previously?

People are adapting Linux to run on cell phones (Google's project Android gets the most press). That isn't feasible with a proprietary operating system purely for non-technical reasons. I suppose a room full of negotiators, lawyers, and stacks of cash would make it possible, but most developers don't have that. Taking that one step further, there is a research project (by Jennifer Wong, Dept of Computer Science, University of Victoria (in Canada): http://www.google.com/events/scalability_seattle/) where they are using Andoid as the operating system for a hand-held device for scuba divers. That's an adaptation of an adaptation! With proprietary systems these kinds of opportunities are missed because of the higher barrier to entry.

When you have a "market of one" (like the scuba project), the old business justification routine doesn't always work. If a proprietary company had been approached about a one-off use of their operating system for scuba experiments, it wouldn't be considered without risk assessments, a marketing strategy and so on. And the answer would be, "No, this isn't worth our time."

Having a frictionless option to make your own changes is very powerful. The ability to adapt software to make it the perfect fit for your organisation can be the differentiator that makes your operations stand out and impresses customers.

And what are the main things still holding business back from adopting free and open source software?

I think there are open source alternatives that are out there that haven't been broadly adopted because of a lack of PR. SugarCRM and Asterisk come to mind. That improves over time.

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