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The methods of system administration

2017/09/07

Moses B. popped this in my timeline. Although the piece is about philosophy (of which I know nothing about) I thought I could entertain myself by paraphrasing the key points a bit. I am blatantly plagiarizing:

People like me, who have been trying to do Ops (system administration by a new name) for more than twenty years, do in due course learn, if they’re lucky, how to do what they’ve been trying to do: that is, they do learn how to do Ops. But although I’ve learned how to do Ops, nobody ever told me how do it, and, so far as I would guess, nobody will have told you how to do it, or is likely to tell you how to do it in the future.

So back in the early 90s why was I not taught how to do Ops? In parallelism with the philosophy article, here are some ideas:

  • System administration was free of methods.
  • The methods were kept quiet, perhaps because people thought “the methods of cannot be explicitly taught/said, but have to be shown via example/exemplars.”.
  • “those of us who have learned how to do it struggled so hard to get where we now are that…we think you, too, should suffer,” perhaps because “we’re now selfishly reluctant to give you some of the fruit of our struggle for free”.
  • “the methods of (early to middle) system administration were not unified”.
  • “it is a form of boundary policing. Under such a regime, outsiders are permanently mystified about the rules of the game because they don’t know what move to make to acquire standing”.

Let me see. When I started in this line of work there was no manual other than man and the technical documentation from the vendor (if you were lucky to have access to it).  Humble posts to the USENET groups and to lists like decstation-managers also paid off.

People lead by example. So their accumulated knowledge was not part of the technical documentation (I still find old vendor technical documentation far superior than today’s). Knowledge gained from experience, was passed the same way forward: By experience. “Do that” said the wizard in a stressful situation and afterwards they would share the war story that led to that. You were then supposed to generalize from what you were shown.

But sometimes, being shown was not enough. You had to struggle. Because the wizard as an apprentice was forced to learn how to swim by themselves, they retained the same belief for the next generation, or even for a peer (if you’re an equal, you can do it). The initiation process would require you to struggle, to earn the knowledge, to be able to read the packets in the wire like being the network driver yourself. The wizard was one with the machine, why should you benefit from this and not become one too?

How would you administer your systems? Via, SAM, SMIT, some other curses-based tool, if any, the shell, batch scripts doing rlogin? How? How would you do that in an era when infrastructure as code was not a thing and cfengine was a curiosity? How do you even do that now that you are hit by the paradox of choice? Did you ever hear of a book like this? If you did, did you read it?

Do you remember what a BOFH is? I know, because I was one. Before becoming one, I was told: “I do not understand why you’re asking this: You should either know what to do, and not ask, or you do not know what to do, and do not have to ask because you will not do it”, said the elder, then thought to be wise BOFH.

We are priests. Either you know how to read our hieroglyphs and you’re in, or you’re out. A great sense of empowerment came out of this. We take your crap and place it in production. It breaks. We tell you why and you still do not have a clue. We’ve explained the issue clearly, but not in your language. Your fault.

I will go with the most charitable explanation: We do not know how to pass the craft’s knowledge and everything else is a defense so as not to fall in your eyes.

I’m sorry.

PS: And then, DevOps came along

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