One of the upsides to systems administration as a profession is that there is no end to new challenges that we can sink our teeth into. The corresponding downside, of course, is that there is no end to new challenges that we can sink our teeth into. This certainly holds true with the impact of the World Wide Web on systems administration. A few years ago, many of us may have looked at the Web and said something like, "Wow, that's neat. But, I have new users to create, and new apps to install, new subnets to configure, and a whole bunch of security issues to address. I'll look at that Web thing later." And, as most things systems-administrative, later came much sooner than we had hoped for.
The Web is both a beautiful, self-replicating fractal and a cancer. Which of those it is at any given moment depends on your point of view. Implementing Web technology can offer simple solutions to vexing cross-platform interoperability problems, such as a generic interface to legacy applications. The Web also offers new and exciting ways to do business, communicate, do research, and perform various other business-related and personal tasks. But, the Web also presents daunting challenges to the systems administrator charged with implementing the technology within an organization. Just as a fractal becomes more complex with closer inspection, so does the implementation of Web technology.
The implementation of Web technology, whether as a publicly accessible information site or as an intranet, adds another layer to the administrative block diagram. For example, in the ideally staffed organization, the base layer of the block diagram would be pure systems administrators - folks who handle the hardware and systems software. Additional layers might include database administrators, security administrators, network administrators, application administrators, and now Web administrators. In my view, the Web administrator is distinct from the Webmaster, who assembles and manages the content. The Web administrator is not concerned with content, per sé, but rather the underlying Web server and associated software that enables the hosting of content. This approach results in clear-cut boundaries of responsibility, and a nice, clean systems administration block diagram - something that any engineer could be proud of.
Alas, the reality of systems and Web administration is likely to be substantially different from my ideal representation in most organizations. Job boundaries merge as the number of people charged with the tasks becomes smaller. Typically, I suspect, Web administration is just one more function that the systems administrator is expected to handle. There is a greater likelihood that a company will assign separate individuals to the DBA and Webmaster tasks, largely because those functions have greater visibility within senior management. The other lines in the administrative block diagram tend to be fuzzy due to the fact that the underlying functions and amount of work required by those functions are less obvious to senior management. Perhaps what we need is a new species of spider. A spider that not only can spin a web above our doors proclaiming, "Smart Admin", but also can add a bold "s" at the end. Charlotte, where are you when we need you most?
While waiting for Charlotte, the spelling spider, to return, we've put together an issue to help you with your Web-based administrative willies. With this issue of Sys Admin in hand, you'll be able to attack the problem at first light with Apache, draw a circle for the wagons with RADIUS, and bump spam into the bit bucket with Sendmail rulesets.