System Administration

Vol. 9 No. 1 – January 2011

System Administration

Articles

Finding Usability Bugs with Automated Tests

Automated usability tests can be valuable companions to in-person tests.

Finding Usability Bugs with Automated Tests

Automated usability tests can be valuable companions to in-person tests.

Julian Harty, eBay


Ideally, all software should be easy to use and accessible for a wide range of people; however, even software that appears to be modern and intuitive often falls short of the most basic usability and accessibility goals. Why does this happen? One reason is that sometimes our designs look appealing so we skip the step of testing their usability and accessibility—all in the interest of speed, reducing costs, and competitive advantage.

Even many large-scale applications from Internet companies present fundamental hurdles for some groups of users, and smaller sites are no better. We therefore need ways to help us discover these usability and accessibility problems efficiently and effectively.

by Julian Harty

National Internet Defense - Small States on the Skirmish Line

Attacks in Estonia and Georgia highlight key vulnerabilities in national Internet infrastructure.

National Internet Defense—Small States on the Skirmish Line

Attacks in Estonia and Georgia highlight key vulnerabilities in national Internet infrastructure.

Ross Stapleton-Gray and Bill Woodcock, Packet Clearing House


Despite the global and borderless nature of the Internet's underlying protocols and driving philosophy, there are significant ways in which it remains substantively territorial. Nations have policies and laws that govern and attempt to defend "their Internet"—the portions of the global network that they deem to most directly impact their commerce, their citizens' communication, and their national means to project social, political, and commercial activity and influence. This is far less palpable than a nation's physical territory or even than "its air" or "its water"—one could, for example, establish by treaty how much pollution Mexican and American factories might contribute to the atmosphere along their shared border, and establish metrics and targets fairly objectively. Cyberspace is still a much wilder frontier, hard to define and measure. Where its effects are noted and measurable, all too often they are hard to attribute to responsible parties.

Nonetheless, nation states are taking steps to defend that space, and some have allegedly taken steps to attack that of others. Two events in the recent past illustrate the potential vulnerabilities faced by small nation states and suggest steps that others may wish to take to mitigate those vulnerabilities and establish a more robust and defensible Internet presence. The first was an attack on Estonian Internet infrastructure and Web sites in May and June 2007. The second was a cyber attack against the Georgian infrastructure that accompanied the Russian incursion into South Ossetia in August 2008.

by Ross Stapleton-Gray, Bill Woodcock

System Administration Soft Skills

How can system administrators reduce stress and conflict in the workplace?

System Administration Soft Skills

How can system administrators reduce stress and conflict in the workplace?

Christina Lear


System administration can be both stressful and rewarding. Stress generally comes from outside factors such as conflict between SAs (system administrators) and their colleagues, a lack of resources, a high-interrupt environment, conflicting priorities, and SAs being held responsible for failures outside their control. What can SAs and their managers do to alleviate the stress? There are some well-known interpersonal and time-management techniques that can help, but these can be forgotten in times of crisis or just through force of habit. The purpose of this article is to restate these maxims and remind readers of these important soft skills, particularly as they apply to SAs.

Conflicts with Colleagues

SAs often feel that their efforts are not appreciated and that their department is the butt of jokes or a source of frustration for the rest of the company. The sources of these conflicts can be varied. The attitude that the SAs project and how they are perceived by their colleagues, how they prioritize their workloads, how they follow through, the first impressions they make on their colleagues, and poor communication skills are all pieces of the puzzle. The conflict is often exaggerated in an engineering environment where technology-savvy employees have different needs and expectations of their computing environment.

by Christina Lear

Testable System Administration

Models of indeterminism are changing IT management.

Testable System Administration

Models of indeterminism are changing IT management.

Mark Burgess


The methods of system administration have changed little in the past 20 years. While core IT technologies have improved in a multitude of ways, for many if not most organizations system administration is still based on production-line build logistics (aka provisioning) and reactive incident handling—an industrial-age method using brute-force mechanization to amplify a manual process. As we progress into an information age, humans will need to work less like the machines they use and embrace knowledge-based approaches. That means exploiting simple (hands-free) automation that leaves us unencumbered to discover patterns and make decisions. This goal is reachable if IT itself opens up to a core challenge of automation that is long overdue—namely, how to abandon the myth of determinism and expect the unexpected.

We don't have to scratch the surface very hard to find cracks in the belief system of deterministic management. Experienced system practitioners know deep down that they cannot think of system administration as a simple process of reversible transactions to be administered by hand; yet it is easy to see how the belief stems from classical teachings. At least half of computer science stems from the culture of discrete modeling, which deals with absolutes as in database theory, where idealized conditions can still be simulated to an excellent approximation. By contrast, the stochastic models that originate from physics and engineering, such as queueing and error correction, are often considered too hard for most basic CS courses. The result is that system designers and maintainers are ill prepared for the reality of the Unexpected Event. To put it quaintly, "systems" are raised in laboratory captivity under ideal conditions, and released into a wild of diverse and challenging circumstances. Today, system administration still assumes, for the most part, that the world is simple and deterministic, but that could not be further from the truth.

by Mark Burgess