System Administration Career Paths - An Overview

System Administration

System administration involves installing operating systems, configuring them, and maintaining a network of computers powered by those OS’s. System administrators ensure that the computer systems they manage are reliable and available enough to meet the requirements of their organization and end users. The efforts made by system administrators should be cost effective and satisfy their budget constraints.

Additionally system administrator concerns include performance, resource consumption, and security. System administration has it’s own sub-fields such as operating system, platform, and discipline specific areas. Regardless of their specialization, system administrators should have a good understanding of computer networking concepts because connecting computer systems lays a foundation for their work.

Due to the enormous amount of knowledge required for each subfield, system administrators tend to specialize in a specific technology. In terms of operating systems, they focus on either Windows or Unix/Linux. New platforms such as cloud computing requires a different set of skills from those necessary for Windows or Unix/Linux system administrators. Discipline or domain specific aspect of system administration also ask for additional training and specialization.

Big data is an emerging technology field which calls for an upgrade in system administrator expertise because it demands familiarity with so many new tools and technologies. Of course you can learn it all and do it all too, but the chance of doing that continues to decrease as the field of system administration expands and in its scope and depth.

Careers in System Administration


Unix has a long history. It originates from the Multics operating system or “OS”, jointly developed by MIT, AT&T Bell Labs, and GE in the 1960’s. Unix was intended for mainframe systems. Essentially, a big computer designed to serve many remote users. Linux was a Unix-like operating system developed for personal computers, or “PC’s” in 1990’s.

Linux is open source and free software, while Unix is proprietary. Because of this longevity, the Unix-Linux OS are loaded with features and offers lots of nooks and crannies to explore for beginners. Although, Unix-Linux distributions provide graphical user interfaces or “GUI”, a majority of system administration tasks still rely on command line interfaces. The command line based operation is what makes the Unix-Linux OS powerful. Especially, for tasks to be conducted by system administrators. Automation is relatively easy, because all you need is a text file called “Shell Script” consisting of a few lines of commands.

However, because of the steep learning curve associated with Unix-Linux, Windows OS are more appealing to many systems administrator candidates out there. But please note that, many server programs widely in use today are Unix-Linux based. Apache Web server and Secure Shell server are classic examples. Therefore, learning the Unix-Linux OS may be worth the trouble. Unix-Linux also has ample networking support and tools, which sweeten the deal! If you’re more interested in managing servers rather than end-user machines, Unix-Linux is definitely you’re ticket to a dream job! The underlying automation capabilities Unix-Linux offers will definitely make you look good with a less amount of work when the duty calls, as long as you are willing to digest and eventually master the vast sea of information on Unix and Linux.


Windows operating systems have the biggest market share, especially on desktop computers. According to in its latest data analysis, more than 80% of desktop computers, worldwide, used Windows OS. This dominant position Windows OS has provided strong job security for Windows system administrators.

Organizations use Windows Server OS to manage desktop computers. One of your tasks, as a Windows system administrator, is to limit access to a particular system resource on individual computers. Let’s assume that you want to disable USB port access on computers to enhance security. When there is a small number of computers, you can do this manually on each computer, one by one, but this process is not scalable.

Using the powerful access control feature of Windows Server OS, you can accomplish this task in seconds instead of hours. This is just one example of many of the advantages of using Windows Server OS for your system administration tasks. Of course, the scenario only works well when your computers run only Windows OS, which is why you are inclined to build an ecosystem of a Windows product line as a Windows system administrator.

To compensate for the lack of powerful and native scripting tools, Windows OS has also introduced a tool, like PowerShell, and are making attempts to catch up with the efficient and graceful characteristics of its Unix-Linux counterparts. For the foreseeable future, Windows OS seems to keep its dominant position in the marketplace, and this is an excellent reason you should consider being a Windows system administrator.

Cloud Computing

Cloud Computing is no longer an emerging technology. We are now surrounded by products built on Cloud computing technology. We use Cloud storage services like One Drive and DropBox on a daily basis. We create documents using Google Docs. We store our photos in the Amazon Cloud. While the end users like us reap the benefits of Cloud computing, there need to be system administrators behind the scenes working on the infrastructure that makes Cloud computing possible.

One of the core technologies Cloud computing administrators must master is Hypervisor, which is a special operating system or OS, specifically designed to run virtual machines or VM on itself. Virtual machines are logical containers on which full blown OS can be installed and become operational. A hypervisor allows you to create multiple VMs on a single physical computer, which in turn can run their own independent OS.

The end result is that you can provision any flavor of OS such as Windows or Linux on demand. You can also connect multiple physical machines to create an illusion of a single logical machine that can fire up hundreds and thousands of VMs as long as you have enough memory and CPUs on the computers constituting the Cloud Infrastructure. Based on the description so far, you can get a glimpse of why Cloud computing is so scalable and how complex the enabling technologies can be.

Big Data

Big data is a term that describes a large dataset. The concept of big data is always changing because big data today may not be treated as big data tomorrow. Why? Because the storage and processing capacities of a single computer will grow rapidly due to technological advances.

New tools are necessary to store and process big data and they’re all based on the idea of distributed systems. The concept of distributed systems is nothing new but we can now implement distributed systems much more effectively. One important aspect of distributed systems is distributed file systems which allows commodity computers to share their file systems across a network.

Another facet is distributed processing which divides a big job into many small pieces that can be run on individual computers without special hardware. There are big data tools available for creating a distributed file system such as Hadoop. MapReduce and Spark are softer solutions for distributed processing. There are many more specialty distributed processing software applications and the number is growing.

As a big data system administrator you need to be proficient with these big data tools of the trade and help data scientists solve various analytics problems. Since big data is relatively new, there aren’t enough professionals trained to manage big data infrastructures, which is a golden opportunity for those of you who are brave and interested in becoming a big data system administrator.

Preparation Tips

Like other IT developers careers, system administrator candidates can go through either formal programs or unconventional routes. The field of system administration is relatively well established and both two-year and four-year colleges offer majors concentrating on it. Regardless of the type of training your receive, one of the most important things to remember is your exposure to the technologies you’ll be tackling professionally.

To reach the level of proficiency you’d like to have as a system administrator, you really have to fall in love with the technologies of your choice. If you choose to become a Unix/Linux system administrator, the operating system commands should be almost your second nature. The experience is like that of learning a language. If you don’t use it, you lose it. You have to be willing to spend a significant amount of time to eventually master the operating systems.

The same applies to all the other OS and tools system administrators have to deal with. The sooner you start learning these technologies, the better, which is why you have to make some strategic decisions early on regarding which technologies to focus on. As in any other IT developer professions, you also need to constantly upgrade and update your skills.

If you don’t pay attention to these new developments, your abilities can quickly become obsolete. As usual, the most important ingredient in being successful in a system of the administrative profession is your passion, otherwise, nothing else matters.


The System Administrator Certifications vary depending on what technologies are involved. Redhat offers a number of options for Unix/Linux system administrators. Some of their certifications include

  • Redhat System Administration
  • Certified System Administrator

CompTIA is another organization providing certification opportunities. CompTIA Linux+ is one of their certifications.

There are also other vendors, such as Oracle and Linux Professional Institute, or LPI. Microsoft has its own certification program for its Windows product line and Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator, or MCSA, is available for system administrators.

Cloud computing has been around for awhile and there are many options for certifications. One of the major cloud computing vendors is VMware, and its certifications are VMware Certified Associate, or VCA, and Professional, or VCP, series. Microsoft also has its own cloud computing platform called Azure, and its certification is Microsoft Azure Certification Exam.

Big Data certifications revolve around specific products. These include

  • Amazon Web Services or AWS
  • Certified Big Data Specialty
  • Cloudera Certified Professional Data Engineer or CCPDE
  • Cloudera Certified Associate or CCA
  • Spark and Hadoop Developer
  • SAS Big Data Certification

There are many more certifications available for system administrators, and, as usual, you must be wise about which certifications to get because they are expensive and time-consuming to obtain and maintain.

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