A friend of mine is a grease monkey: the kind of auto
enthusiast who rebuilds engines for fun on a Saturday night. He
explained to me that certain brands of automobiles were designed
in ways to make the mechanic's job easier. Others, however, were
designed as if the company had a pact with the aspirin industry
to make sure there are plenty of mechanics with headaches. He
said those car companies hate mechanics. I understood completely
because, as a system administrator (sysadmin), I can tell when
software vendors hate me. It shows in their products.
A panel discussion at the Computer-Human Interaction for
Management of Information Technology (CHIMIT) 2009 conference
focused on a number of do's and don'ts for software vendors
looking to make software that is easy to install, maintain, and
upgrade. This article highlights some of the issues uncovered at
that meeting. CHIMIT is a conference that focuses on
computer-human interaction for IT workersthe opposite of
most CHI research, which is about the users of the systems
that IT workers maintain. This panel turned the microscope around
and gave sysadmins a forum to share how they felt about the
speakers who were analyzing them.
Here are some highlights:
DO have a "silent install" option. One panelist
recounted automating the installation of a software package on
2,000 desktop PCs, except for one point in the installation when
a window popped up and the user had to click OK. All other
interactions could be programmatically eliminated through a
"defaults file." Linux/Unix tools such as Puppet and Cfengine
should be able to automate not just installation, but also
configuration. Deinstallation procedures should not delete
configuration data, but there should be a "leave no trace" option
that removes everything except user data.
DON'T make the administrative interface a GUI.
Sysadmins need a command-line tool for constructing repeatable
processes. Procedures are best documented by providing commands
we can copy and paste from the procedure document to the command
line. We cannot achieve the same repeatability when the
instructions are: "Checkmark the 3rd and 5th options, but not the
2nd option, then click OK." Sysadmins do not want a GUI that
requires 25 clicks for each new user. We want to craft the
commands to be executed in a text editor or generate them via
Perl, Python, or PowerShell.
DO create an API so the system can be remotely
administered. An API gives us the ability to do things with
your product you didn't think about. That's a good thing.
Sysadmins strive to automate, and automate to thrive. The right
API lets me provision a service automatically as part of the new
employee account creation system. The right API lets me write a
chat bot that hangs out in a chat room to make hourly
announcements of system performance. The right API lets me
integrate your product with a USB-controlled toy missile
launcher. Your other customers may be satisfied with a "beep" to
get their attention; I like my way better (http://www.kleargear.com/5004.html).
DO have a configuration file that is an ASCII file, not a
binary blob. This way the files can be checked into a
source-code control system. When the system is misconfigured it
becomes important to be able to "diff" against previous versions.
If the file cannot be uploaded back into the system to recreate
the same configuration, then we can not trust that you are giving
us all the data. This prevents us from cloning configurations for
mass deployment or disaster recovery. If the file can be edited
and uploaded back into the system, then we can automate the
creation of configurations. Archives of configuration backups
make for interesting historical
DO include a clearly defined method to restore all user
data, a single user's data, and individual items (for example,
one email message). The method to make backups is a
prerequisite, obviously, but we care primarily about the restore
DO instrument the system so we can monitor more than just,
"Is it up or down?" We need to be able to determine latency,
capacity, and utilization, and we must be able to collect this
data. Don't graph it yourself. Let us collect and analyze the raw
data so we can make the "pretty picture" graphs that our
nontechnical management will understand. If you are not sure what
to instrument, imagine the system being completely overloaded and
slow: what parameters would we need to be able to find and fix
DO tell us about security issues. Announce them
publicly. Put them in an RSS feed. Tell us even if you don't have
a fix yet; we need to manage risk. Your public relations
department does not understand this, and that's OK. It is your
job to tell them to go away.
DO use the built-in system logging mechanism (Unix syslog
or Windows Event Logs). This allows us to leverage
preexisting tools that collect, centralize, and search the logs.
Similarly, use the operating system's built-in authentication
system and standard I/O systems.
DON'T scribble all over the disk. Put binaries in one
place, configuration files in another, data someplace else.
That's it. Don't hide a configuration file in / etc and another
one in /var. Don't hide things in \Windows. If possible, let me
choose the path prefix at install time.
DO publish documentation electronically on your Web
site. It should be available, linkable, and findable on the
Web. If someone blogs about a solution to a problem, they should
be able to link directly to the relevant documentation. Providing
a PDF is painfully counterproductive. Keep all old versions
online. The disaster recovery procedure for a five-year-old,
unsupported, pathetically outdated installation might hinge on
being able to find the manual for that version on the Web.
Software is not just bits to us. It has a complicated life
cycle: procurement, installation, use, maintenance, upgrades,
deinstallation. Often vendors think only about the use (and some
seem to think only about the procurement). Features that make
software more installable, maintainable, and upgradable are
usually afterthoughts. To be done correctly, these things must be
part of the design from the beginning, not bolted on later.
Be good to the sysadmins of the world. As one panelist said,
"The inability to rapidly deploy your product affects my ability
to rapidly purchase your products."
I should point out this topic was not the main point of the
CHIMIT panel. It was a very productive tangent. When I suggested
that each panelist name his or her single biggest "don't," I
noticed the entire audience literally leaned forward in
anticipation. I was pleasantly surprised to see software
developers and product managers alike take an interest. Maybe
there's hope, after all.
I would like to thank the members of the panel: Daniel Boyd,
Google; Æleen Frisch, Exponential Consulting and author;
Joseph Kern, Delaware Department of Education; and David
Blank-Edelman, Northeastern University and author. I was the
panel organizer and moderator. I would also like to thank readers
of my blog, www.EverythingSysadmin.com,
for contributing their suggestions.
1. Plonka, D., Tack, A. J. An analysis of
network configuration artifacts. In Proceedings of the 23rd
Large Installation System Administration Conference (Nov.
Thomas A. Limoncelli is an author, speaker, and system
administrator. His books include The Practice of System and
Network Administration (Addison-Wesley) and Time
Management for System Administrators (O'Reilly). He works at
Google in New York City.
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