The job descriptions of the network administrator and the system administrator have a significant amount of overlap between skills and duties – in some companies, there is no practical difference. Traffic between the jobs is extremely common and has few barriers, with often only a training course or some knowledge gained in another position allowing a position switch. So why do the corporate world and technical organizations distinguish between network administrators and system administrators? The answers are varied and complicated. Some professional groups, such as the System Administrator’s Guild or SAGE, don’t make a practical distinction between system administrators and network administrators.
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However, companies such as Microsoft do make a clear distinction between the two specialties. Opinion among other groups is largely that while there is significant overlap between system administrators and network administrators and the jobs can be substituted for each other in many instances. However, large and complicated networking installations such as a data center or network operations center environment, or complicated system administration environments such as an office building with inpidual Unix workstations for graphics or programming work, require specialized system and network administrators to best handle the requirements of the installation.
Whether a professional group or inpidual company makes a distinction between network administrators and system administrators or combines the roles depends on the size of the installations and the political stance of the organization. In other words, companies and technical organizations which make a distinction between network administration and system administration usually do so because their main user base or their own information technology infrastructure requires separate job descriptions for system administration and its networking specialty.
In order to explore the reasons for the difference between network administrators and system administrators, it’s important to clarify what the positions are generally defined as. Barnard defines a system administrator’s role as encompassing “security administration, service monitoring and control, job scheduling, network administration, directory services, print and output administration and storage management (2002”. Although network administration is defined as part of a system administrator’s role, it is also defined separately as:
Network administration is typically involved with the first three layers of the stack, which mostly consist of hardware. There is some overlap between network and system administration at the transport level… management of such services as DNS, WINS and DHCP provide the basic name resolution services required by fully functioned IT services. Depending on the organization, these core services may also be included as network service functions. Since DNS, WINS and DHCP run on servers, network servers are sometimes included among the hardware components managed by the Network Administration SMF. (2002)
In other words, Barnard defines a system administration role as one dealing primarily with software, servers and auxiliary services such as print and storage capabilities; network administration, which may be included in system administration in smaller installations, includes responsibility for the network itself as well as the support hardware such as name servers. Because Microsoft’s server business base is primarily large to very large installations, there is a strong emphasis on separating the network administration and system administration specialties, and on designing personnel and job descriptions to meet the requirements of the hardware design. Barnard remarks, “Modeling system administration takes into consideration an organization’s computing architecture – whether it is centralized, distributed or a hybrid of the two. Your administrative model is most likely to follow the design of your architecture, although there are exceptions. (Barnard, 2002).”
Dijker (2001) states that network administration is a particular specialty of system administration, rather than a separate job description. She defines system administration as a whole as “all those systems tasks a user might want to offload”, including in a lengthy list such tasks as data integrity management, upgrades, security and networking (Dijker, 2001). While the basic knowledge is the same, the specific skills vary from position to position. Dijker also points out that the roles of system administrator and network administrator largely depend on the organization they’re employed by. Rather than being a well-defined profession, both system administrators and network administrators shift their duties and skills to fill the holes left in an organization by other positions (Dijker, 2001).
SAGE, the System Administrator’s Guild, largely agrees with Dijker’s position that network administration is a specialty of system administration; their suggested job descriptions include networking tasks at every level of system administration above the junior administrator level (SAGE, 2001). More complex sites are seen as requiring more specialized administrators, including networking, security and storage specialists. While network administration and system administration are not completely separate fields, the larger and more complex the installation, the more and more the duties of the two positions perse.
Microsoft and SAGE are both large organizations, but what of the inpidual opinions of network and system administrators? A thread at Ars Technica sheds some light on what inpidual views of the difference between them are. User ErraticAssasin posted, asking the question “what is the difference between network and systems admin?” The responses the post received were varied; they included:
“Many gov’t contractors might be picky since they can sometimes budget with specific positions (read: job titles) required…” “Larger groups tend to have greater differences between an NA and an SA. This is because the SAs only deal with the servers and the NAs only deal with the network. If a group is smaller, then these responsibilities may fall onto the same people.” “The differentiation comes about for large organizations. There are places where 100% of your time can be spent working on cisco gear = netqork engineer. Likewise, if all you ever do is touch nt/2k, or solaris = systems engineer”. (ErraticAssasin, 2001)
Clearly, the observations of those on the front lines of network and system administration agree with the big boys: the difference between network administration and system administration largely depends on the size of the organization and their information architecture.
Finally, we have Menezes’ view, which is a bit unconventional compared to the rest. While Menezes seems to consider network administration part of the systems administration umbrella as well, he suggests that a a network administrator may be more inclined to “write scripts to monitor network, then rewires entire machine room, improving response time by 2%”, whereas a system administrator may be more inclined to “put network usage in motd. “ (Menezes, 2007).
Network administration and system administration are not absolutely separate technical specialties, and most software providers and professional groups acknowledge this. Most emphasis is put on defining both job specialties by what the organization requires, rather than by a predefined set of skills and responsibilities. This allows organizations the flexibility to define their job descriptions by their requirements, rather than trying to slot a pre-written job description into what may be a unique position. A small organization can employ a small team of generalist system administrators (or even just a single administrator) to fill all their information technology needs, including design, installation and maintenance of internal networks and external connections.
A larger, more complex organization with a complicated network topology, specialized network security requirements or a high number of networked hosts often have one or more network administration specialists. Some organizations have requirements for network administrator roles to fulfill funding requirements for the positions, as well. The distinction between the network administrator and the system administrator is largely one of convenience for the hiring organization or a reflection of the complexity of the organization’s network environment. Companies and organizations that maintain the difference between network administrators and system administrators do so in order to maintain a maximum flexibility in the roles and allow them to fill any gap the hiring company requires, rather than forcing the company to design a position to meet a predefined role. The distinction allows the maximum in flexibility for both companies and administrators.
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