Tomorrow’s Network Today

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Apologies for being under radio silence the past couple of weeks — I was busy celebrating my dearest Wanda’s birthday, swapping out four old home computers, and replacing all the tired old 100-megabit / CAT5 network hardware with new 1-gigabit / CAT5e stuff.  I know what you’re thinking — who in their right mind needs five PCs?  The short answer is, a guy who manages servers for a living.   (There’s actually seven, but some of them — like the Firm’s laptop — are not mine, although they will use the home network’s services every so often).

See, in the large corporate environment of The Firm, each technical group is responsible for a small portion of the overall infrastructure.  The server hardware guys are responsible for assembling and rack-mounting the physical components, on a timeline about two weeks after you wanted it.  The network guys are responsible for making sure your server can’t get through the firewall, plus cabling new servers into the appropriate switch and ensuring that port-specific acceleration (or blocking) takes place.  The domain administration guys are responsible for messing with machine and user accounts within the domain directory service, plus pushing security fixes and patches.  The risk management guys are responsible for intrusion/virus detection, prevention and generally telling you how your new project architecture breaks some obscure IT security policy.  The application-level guys are responsible for maintaining particular software services on each server — the stuff end-users might actually be familiar with, like e-mail or databases.  We all have some familiarity with other pieces of the puzzle beside our own, but to really work with each and every piece, you have to be working for a very small company indeed.

In smaller firms, all of these duties are bundled into a single job title called “system administrator”.  Unfortunately small companies’ IT departments are not, generally, where the dollars are.  They are a good place for building experience and figuring out what you want to specialise in, but they are not so good if you need to pay down a mortgage.  In a large outfit like the Firm, these responsibilities are farmed out across multiple teams of dozens of individuals.  While this division of labour makes sense for The Firm, it can make it difficult for system administrators to maintain maximum proficiency in all areas of the field.  If you’re a hardware guy, you will never end up managing applications.  If you’re an application guy, you will never touch the firewall or intrusion detection systems.  If you are a security guy, you will never touch the application servers nor the hardware that they live on.  I am highly specialised in enterprise messaging stuff (i.e. e-mail and application infrastructure for multi-thousands of users), but I try to maintain proficiency in most areas of the sysadmin field.  For the past 8 years or so, I have structured my home network just like the average corporate network — including fault tolerance and redundancy, hence the four to five boxes.  It is a fully managed corporate environment in microcosm.

“Fully managed”, by the way, is I.T. jerk code for “not left up to the discretion of the user, who may do something dumb”.  Whenever you read “fully managed” in I.T. literature, it means the same thing as “child-proof” does to civilians.  In my home network this means that, for instance, the firewall and network configuration of each workstation is automatically set and cannot be tampered with.  File shares are clustered; if one file server fails, the user is automatically redirected to its mirror on another file server.  Centrally-managed automated backups pull data from all five boxes every weeknight.  Anti-virus protection is pushed to each machine, at the same version, with server- or workstation-specific policies and settings — and they are all polled several times an hour to report their status.  Intrusion attempts and virus outbreaks for all five systems are centrally logged and deflected (or in the worst case, contained) automatically.  The network will also notify me whenever any of these conditions step outside the normal profile.  Aside from providing me with the opportunity to maintain proficiency across a broad spectrum of system engineering tasks and tools, the major objective — just like that of a real corporate environment — is to maximize automation and minimize the amount of tasks requiring direct intervention of the support staff.  For maximum value you want your I.T. staff working on projects to make life easier and more efficient, not fixing the broken crappy technology some other misguided soul decided to buy.

The good news for trees, the ozone layer and fuzzy creatures is that, thanks to the advances in electronics, the newer, faster five-box network has a smaller physical and energy-consumption footprint than the older, slower four-box predecessor.  Actually the energy footprint is a lot lower, since the old boxes had 250W power supplies and the newer ones get by on a mere 175W.  My old 21″ and 19″ CRT monitors (which could easily raise room temperature by a degree or two all by themselves) have been replaced by less power-hungry 22″ LCDs.

The old computers have been decommissioned, had their drives wiped, and are now awaiting transportation to family members and a local charity.  I am hoping that the charity will take the 11-year-old 21″ CRT as well, but it weighs about as much as a young brontosaurus and its thermal output rivals that of a space heater.

As you can imagine, all of this takes time and energy to put in place, so ah, that’s my lame excuse for being a lazy blogger.

Category: Web/Tech
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One Response
  1. Kateland says:

    I understand completely why you needed 4-5 computers, God and Techno stoner guy willing, my third computer will be on the network tonight – and 3 is really not enough – I probably should get two more to keep the tribe and myself all happy.