What is Systems Administration?


What is systems administration or who is a systems administrator (or sysadmin)? Let's start off with some definitions provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology:

An individual, group, or organization responsible for setting up and maintaining a system or specific system elements, implements approved secure baseline configurations, incorporates secure configuration settings for IT products, and conducts/assists with configuration monitoring activities as needed.


Individual or group responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operability of a computer system or network. This position normally carries special privileges including access to the protection state and software of a system.

See: Systems Administrator @NIST

Specialized Positions

In addition to the above definitions, which broadly define the role, there are a number of related or specialized positions. We'll touch on the first three in this course:

  • Web server administrator:
    • "web server administrators are system architects responsible for the overall design, implementation, and maintenance of Web servers. They may or may not be responsible for Web content, which is traditionally the responsibility of the Webmaster (Web Server Administrator" @NIST).
  • Database administrator:
    • like web admins, and to paraphrase above, database administrators are system architects responsible for the overall design, implementation, and maintenance of database management systems.
  • Network administrator:
    • "a person who manages a network within an organization. Responsibilities include network security, installing new applications, distributing software upgrades, monitoring daily activity, enforcing licensing agreements, developing a storage management program, and providing for routine backups" (Network Administrator @NIST).
  • Mail server administrator:

Depending on where a system administrator works, they may specialize in any of the above administrative areas, or if they work for a small organization, all of the above duties may be rolled into one position. Some of the positions have evolved quite a bit over the last couple of decades. For example, it wasn't too long ago when organizations would operate their own mail servers, but this has largely been outsourced to third-party providers, such as Google (via Gmail) and Microsoft (via Outlook). People are still needed to work with these third-party email providers, but the nature of the work is different than operating independent mail servers.


It's not always necessary to get certified as a systems administrator to get work as one, but there might be cases where it is necessary; for example, in government positions or in large corporations. It also might be the case that you can get work as an entry level systems administrator and then pursue certification with the support of your organization.

Some common starting certifications are:

Plus, Google offers, via Coursera, a beginners Google IT Support Professional Certificate that may be helpful.


Getting involved in associations and related organizations is a great way to learn and to connect with others in the field. Here are few ways to connect.

LOPSA, or The League of Professional System Administrators, is a non-profit association that seeks to advance the field and membership is free for students.

ACM, or the Association for Computing Machinery, has a number of relevant special interest groups (SIGs) that might be beneficial to systems administrators.

NPA, or the Network Professional Association, is an organization that "supports IT/Network professionals."

Codes of Ethics

Systems administrators manage computer systems that contain a lot of data about us and this raises privacy and competency issues, which is why some have created code of ethics statements. Both LOPSA and NPA have created such statements that are well worth reviewing and discussing.

Keeping Up

Technology changes fast. In fact, even though I teach this course about every year, I need to revise the course each time, sometimes substantially, to reflect changes that have developed over short periods of time. It's also your responsibility, as sysadmins, to keep up, too.

I therefore suggest that you continue your education by reading and practicing. For example, there are lots of books on systems administration. O'Reilly continually publishes on the topic. RedHat, the makers of the Red Hat Linux distribution, and sponsors of Fedora Linux and CentOS Linux, provides the Enable Sysadmin site, with new articles each day, authored by systems administrators, on the field. Opensource.com, also supported by Red Hat, publishes articles on systems administration. Command Line Heroes is a fun and informative podcast on technology and sysadmin related topics. Linux Journal publishes great articles on Linux related topics.


In this section I provided definitions of systems administrators and also the related or more specialized positions, such as database administrator, network administrator, and others.

I provided links to various certifications you might pursue as a systems administrator, and links to associations that might benefit you and your career.

Technology manages so much of our daily lives, and computer systems store lots of data about us. Since systems administrators manage these systems, they hold a great amount of responsibility to protect them and our data. Therefore, I provided links to two code of ethics statements that we will discuss.

It's also important to keep up with the technology, which changes fast. The work of a systems administrator is much different today than it was ten or twenty years ago, and that surely indicates that it could be much different in another ten to twenty years. If we don't keep up, we won't be of much use to the people we serve.