June 6

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System Administrators Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

From World War 2 WRENS to Modern day cloud admins, automation has always been part of the process.

Automating and speeding up, boring, long and repetitive tasks is what computers were designed for in the first place. The current D-Day anniversary reminds us that in fact the first ever programmable electronic digital computer was Colossus built at Bletchley Park during World War 2. Colossus is the epitome of this requirement for automation to alleviate human brains from tasks that we are not best suited to or too slow at.

Colossus built on various peoples work including Alan Turing, but, it was actually designed by Max Newman and Tommy Flowers to be able to crunch through the German codes at a speed and accuracy which would have taken hundreds of human brains hundreds of hours and all without making a single mistake. It is no exaggeration to say that in many ways without Colossus we would not be where we are today, it was built to automate the one of the most important jobs in the last 75 years.

Thus, the computer was built to automate the code breaking itself, but it still required people to administer the system, produce the feed tapes and ensure the smooth operation of the process and that it was being run securely with no access to the data from other parties. These first operators or rather systems administrators, as we would know them today, were all from the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens) who ran the whole process and ensured that it worked to the best of its ability at a critical time.

Throughout the intervening decades as the performance and speed of computers have improved so has the function and skills of the systems administrator. Writing as a professional in the systems administration, we’ve moved up the cognitive scale of what we do as computers have speeded up and been able to do more. To use a more up to date example, can anyone remember the days when you had to manually download system and software updates? Well, that part of your job has now virtually completely disappeared and now you’re concerned with data security for example. In fact automation helps you focus on those jobs that aren’t repetitive and monotonous. Automation allows you to work on projects that need a “proper” brain.

What has changed is about the type of knowledge that’s required each time there is a new generation of technology and therefore capability. We used to have to create and load paper tapes into Colossus, then we were shunting very large disks around in the seventies, in the nineties the role involved installing and patching and tuning software, 2010 brought cloud computing and the move away from the physical world to a different skill set altogether.

Take a classic example around provisioning a server and how it’s changed and become automated in the last ten years. Previously we’d have had to select the hardware to use, install the operating system, manually install and configure the application software, configure it with licenses and connect it to the network ensuring it had access to the right databases and network shares. This process would take several days assuming you had the hardware to hand.

Now look at auto-scaling within a cloud environment. Today We can create a system which when the load on a website increases above a certain point, it automatically creates a new machine from the template you have pre-selected. It can then apply a configuration process to that machine installing the web application, the configuration, adding it to the right network and security groups and then into the farm of machines to be able to serve the website. All in just a couple of minutes without the system administrator having to lift a finger. Even to the extent that once the load has decreased again, the auto-scaler will terminate and delete servers that are no longer required. That whole process which used to be our bread and butter has been automated.

However, a system administrator is still required, it’s simply that the role has changed. We need to be able to set up auto-scaling, configure the cloud infrastructure, machine template and application in such a way that it can be automated like that. We have made the process more efficient, more cost effective and better performing but we will always have work to do.

Our role today is the same as it was 75 years ago, it is our job to ensure that systems are running as securely and efficiently as they possibly can be. Although few of us administer systems as important to the world as the Wrens did at Bletchley, we can recognise in them the same duties that we have today, and I am proud to have them as my forebears.

We salute the heroes and heroines at Bletchley Park, who saved so many lives through their work, and continue to inspire the following generations who work in technology.

We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants.


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