Cloud eye for the sysadmin guy: Get tooled up proper, like

How to weather the storm

Storm clouds photo via Shutterstock

Like it or not, the cloud in all forms is approaching at great speed, irrespective of your employer's size. All sysadmins need to get onboard or be left behind. Me? After 17 years working in a range of environments, I did at one point believe I had ages before the cloud arrived at large-scale enterprises like the one where I'm employed. Plenty of time to skill up. Or so I thought.

One day that plan got turned upside down. The proclamation came down from on high: everything was going to the cloud. Quickly.

The move wasn't expected by the rank and file. Why would it? We are – or were – comfortably running several thousands servers, ranging from legacy Windows NT4 and RHEL 5 all the way through to Windows Server 2016. But our customers were demanding cloud and cloud is seen as a good way to cut physical footprint and help control costs.

All of which left me (and the other sysadmins) in a bit of a quandary as to what was next in terms of staying relevant and, more importantly, employed. Sure, the on-premises infrastructure wasn't going anywhere today, tomorrow or next year but it was now on notice.

So how do sysadmins, especially the ones that have spent several years or even decades dealing with on-premises get on the all-singing, all-dancing, cloud on-ramp?

There are a couple of ways to look at the situation. You could not bother to retool and take the upcoming redundancy package, or seize an opportunity to understand that we as administrators are on the very precipice of a paradigm shift in how IT gets done. Master the hot skills and become exceptional at what you do and people will pay handsomely for it.

Taking the second route provides a way to potentially reinvigorate your livelihood and perhaps make you more in demand than ever. Do I have your attention now?

But you are going to have to do the legwork. Companies, both small and large, typically tend to cheap out on training. I came in a few days after getting this new diktat to find that we had been assigned an absolute slew of training on managing AWS. That excitement didn't last that long.

Invest in yourself

Getting the right training is key – anyone who wants to effectively learn has to be both interested in and motivated by the subject. Most companies won't spring for a set of real, instructor-led courses for every administrator. It would cost a small fortune. Therefore, it is partly understandable why we got this courseware. It just happened in our case to be bad courseware.

These courses I sat, to be frank, where absolute dross. They were part of a course catalogue that came from a large "coverall" type of courseware vendor that gets sold to large businesses. In Part II of 64 (or however many it was) the tutor was building applications in AWS using Node.js and JavaScript. No mention of how he got "into" the cloud workspace to actually be creating the app.

Administrators are not developers, at least until they get into the DevOps groove. We want to understand the tech before we start throwing ourselves at half-assed demo applications.

After this second course, my mind was frazzled. The issue is that in common with a lot of generic providers the course didn't really start at step one and made assumptions about the viewers. The takeaway? You have to look after your own career, direction and training plan.

My advice if you find yourself in a similar scenario is do the training mandated (no wants to be on the non-completion naughty list) but spend your own time and money on some decent training.

OK, you've invested in some decent courseware – but also need to be motivated. I make sure I do at least a couple of hours of training per day (if you are stuck in the office during lunch it's hopefully possible to sneak in a bit of virtual training). I prefer to put in a couple of hours before work. A fish-and-chip supper after a day in the office is not conducive to effective learning.

So how do you get ahead of the game and get involved in the real cloud planning and deployment? This is how I approached it. Firstly, take any opportunity you find. Most companies (the sane ones at least) will have a plan to design and develop their cloud offering by professionals in the field. Be bold, approach these individuals with whom the cloud burden lies and offer to help out.

Roll up your sleeves, get stuck in

Even the crappy jobs, or the process development and documentation (I personally love documentation but no reader cares about that, right?). It gets you known as the person who can be relied on to get that item done. It also provides exposure to the technologies and methodologies in the cloud.

The one thing I haven't yet addressed is what exactly to bother learning. This is where you have to think about what you would like to learn to align with the platform the company is moving to. Cloud is more than just a specific platform like Azure or AWS. It's about the software stack and automation tools that are being used and make up the whole offering.

A properly designed set of stack documentation will give you a bag full of hints and directions as to what to start learning. Admittedly this could be more difficult for some admins who have thus far had a narrow field of exposure to the new technologies mentioned.

The administrator doesn't need to be able to develop applications in these tools but needs to have the skills to manage them. A simple example being the skills needed to program in SQL versus managing the database server of choice.

Lastly, and potentially the hardest bit of tooling up for the cloud wave, is the change in how things get done. Say goodbye to the GUI approach – the cloud is all about standardisation, automation and command line tooling. I have invested my time in JavaScript and PowerShell because in the environment I work in and from what I see around me in general suggests these will be highly marketable skills. Being able to code for deployment, automation and monitoring in the cloud makes you valuable. Being able to do Bash scripting is also not to be sniffed at!

Whether you know it or not, change is coming. Sure, we've all read about cloud and seen how it's happening to the other guy. Sure, we might even believe in a world of hybrid cloud. But be prepared: maybe not today, or tomorrow, but someday soon the suits will have their light-bulb moment and suddenly it'll be all in or incremental adoption of cloud for existing or new apps and services. It is just a case of when.

Surprisingly, learning to adapt to this new world gets easier the more you commit. ®


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