Three Books Every System Administrator Should Read

Go get a copy of these books. The investment will pay huge dividends.

Let’s face it, most technical and computer books are boring, and reading the texts cover-to-cover is nothing less than a slog. However, there are some exceptions, including a number of books apropos for system administrators. In fact, there are three books I highly recommend and are mandatory reading for my staff.

The Unix Philosophy by Mike Gancarz

The Unix Philosophy is a quick read and aims to explain Unix and its design philosophies. One reviewer on Amazon says the book provides “… a rare description of ‘Unixness’” and the characterization is spot on. The Unix Philosophy encourages developers and system administrators to keep the spirit of Unix in mind in every task. Indeed, according to Gancarz, Unix is a herald and exemplar of how software should be designed and implemented.

Much of the book is organized into tenets, where each tenet ties a Unix principle to the jobs of the developer and system administrator. For example, the first tenet is “Small is beautiful.” Small modules are easy to code; small programs are simple to understand; and small building blocks lead to modular assembly. Small is better, from writing methods to building a RAID array.

Another tenet and probably the most oft-heard mantra of Unix is “Make each program do one thing well.” Here, Gancarz presents several questions you should ask constantly during development to preclude feature creep.

  1. Does the program require user interaction? Could the user supply the necessary parameters in a file or on the command line?
  2. Does the program require input data to be formatted in a special way? Are there other programs on the system that could do the formatting?
  3. Does the program require the output data to be formatted in a special way? Is plain ASCII text sufficient?
  4. Does another program exist that does a similar function without your having to write a new program?

These questions may seem obvious, but that makes them no less challenging. The real fallacy is not asking these questions early and often and applying the discoveries. For example, a server should be constructed to do one thing well so that if (when) something goes wrong, there are a minimum number of variables to troubleshoot.

This is #1 on my list of recommended reading for system administrators, new and old.

The Practice of System and Network Administration by Thomas Limoncelli, Christina J Hogan, and Strata Chalup

The Practice of System and Network Administration, or “TPOSANA” as I often call it, may be the closest thing to a textbook description of how to perform the craft of system administration. While many of the concepts in this book may be familiar, the layout and codification of these practices is invaluable.

Chapter 1 demystifies many common system administration tasks so you are always prepared. For example, Section 1.5 describes how to move a data center. I have moved several data centers large and small during my career, and while every environment is different, some of the same rules apply. From labeling every cable, to testing cooling, Limoncelli tells you what to do when and points you to advanced and related topics found in other parts of the book.

Each subsequent chapter is organized into “The Basics” and “The Icing”; the former gets right to the information you need to know, while the latter provides further meditations on the subject. There are exercises and cross-references throughout.

The book shines because the authors are skilled and battle-scarred practitioners of system administration. They know what works and what doesn’t, and make solid recommendations on how to handle specific situations.

For example, Chapter 4 discusses servers. The Basics covers buying servers, and notes that purchasing desktops and loading them with server software is a bad idea. The chapter also explains maintenance contracts and how to purchase them smartly.

The book also covers soft topics like customer service. Mindful customer service is an important feature of any successful IT organization and an obligation of every system administrator. Chapter 14 is dedicated to customer service and includes recommendations for dealing with people and case studies that show you how to provide good customer service in our industry.

Overall, The Practice of System and Network Administration is an excellent book for any system administrator to have on his or her desk. If you’re a system administrator, go buy it. If you manage system administrators, buy a copy for each.

Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas Limoncelli

The first time I met Tom Limoncelli at a North Carolina System Administrators/Triangle Linux Users Group joint meeting in 2004, he mentioned he was writing a book about time management for system administrators. I thought it was a great idea and couldn’t wait to buy a copy.

Then I promptly forgot about it—until an employee brought it to my attention during a discussion of The Practice of System and Network Administration. That day I purchased a copy for each of my employees.

In Time Management for System Administrators, Limoncelli covers the basic principles of time management as well as how to stay focused in your position. He provides sample routines, information on how to develop your own daily processes and routines, and introduces The Cycle System, a method of managing daily tasks. This book is peppered with time-tested (no pun intended) principles that apply directly to our profession. The book also includes several User Friendly comics to illustrate various points.

At a mere 200 pages (including the index), Time Management for System Administrators is a quick read on an airplane ride or over the course of the week during that morning bus ride. After reading the book, you’ll wonder why you didn’t read it a long time ago.

Go get a copy of each of these books from your local library or bookstore. The investment will pay huge dividends.

If you are able, I recommend buying the books so that you can keep them for reference. If your company has a library or book purchase plan, recommend these books to the person who manages it. If you are a manager of system administrators and you have a book budget, give each current and new employee a copy of each.

Ultimately, you will reap the benefits of your employees’ improved skill and productivity.

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