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System administration

One of the challenges facing system administrators in the post and broadcast space is that they almost always start out doing other things. In my case, I was the engineer who had a knack for computer-related projects; I became a system administrator by accident.

If you are lucky, your organization will realize that it has grown to the point that it needs someone to devote time each day to system administration tasks. Even if you are not given specific time for system administration tasks, it may help to recognize that simple networking projects here and there have grown to the point that you are now a system administrator.

Get on the learning track

You may have gotten some training on equipment when it was delivered, but I would guess that you have not received any education in system administration. Therefore, training is imperative. First, it's important to get training on the operating systems (OS) you support. The training should be specific to system administration if possible. You should also get training on networking fundamentals. Many community colleges offer excellent network training courses. There are also many online courses, and Cisco operates a certification program too.

Second, read everything you can get your hands on. There are good books on system administration, usually written with a particular operating system in mind. This is because every operating system has specific administrative commands and maintenance tasks that differ from OS to OS. Because computer books are frequently expensive, I suggest you check Internet auction sites or my favorite bookstore for used technical books — Powell's Books in Portland, OR, (www.powells.com).

As you grow into your system administration role, become familiar with some of the characteristics that make media networking so challenging. Here are a few things to note:

  • Large file sizesMedia files are much larger than typical office application files. I may be stating the obvious, but in a file transfer, the bit rate on the network can be so high for so long that network devices start behaving strangely. Testing was done that showed under some conditions a manufacturer's switch was guaranteed to start dropping packets, even though the network was not fully loaded. Certain common office technologies such as FTP will not handle large media files well, especially over long distances or unreliable networks. This is not because the technologies are broken, but because the designers never assumed that the technology would have to handle such large files.As a network administrator, it is important to think about how large file sizes will impact typical network topologies and applications. In most cases, people have come up with solutions. For example, there are file transfer acceleration programs available that address the problems associated with moving large files on IP networks.
  • Professional streaming mediaMany office networks now sustain a large amount of streaming video traffic. But in the professional media environment, the stream sizes are significantly larger. A failure to properly account for the bandwidth required to support this functionality may result in a total failure of the network. In professional media facilities, you may have to construct physically separate networks or virtual local area networks (VLANs) to support the streaming transfer of high bit-rate media.
  • Sensitive to bit errorTypical office applications are unaffected by a single bit error. However, media applications can be sensitive to bit error when transferring large media files. In nonoptimized configurations, a two-hour movie transfer might have to be started over if even one bit error occurs on the network. This could be serious if there is not time to restart the transfer. Additionally, a single bit error occurring on a B-frame of an MPEG-compressed stream may cause a disruption that lasts more than one second. There are ways to avoid these problems, but proper network engineering and the use of appropriate applications are required. You may be called upon in your role as network administrator to address bit error issues. Be aware that regular office applications may be unaffected by the occasional bit error, but that professional applications may be severely disrupted.
  • Sensitive to network outagesMedia companies operate 24/7. Network outages can have serious consequences. Just because a facility has moved to a largely IT-based infrastructure does not mean that the organization is any more accepting of outages. Take this into account as your organization relies more on IT-based infrastructure for its core media functions.
  • Sensitive to security breachesNetwork security is a sensitive topic for media companies. A network administrator working in this environment should be aware that the company and its mission-critical applications may be a target for hackers. Administrators need to pay careful attention to security issues, as a security breach could have grave consequences.
  • Combination of mission-critical and office trafficMedia facilities always contain a combination of mission-critical traffic and typical office environment traffic. Proper network design ensures that issues on the office network do not affect mission-critical functions. I have seen cases where a single failed network interface card (NIC) took down an entire network segment. If the network had not been segmented, the failure would have brought down the station automation system.

Share what you learn

As you become familiar with administering media networks, share what you learn with others. For some reason, many people in a network administration role are adverse to sharing information. But there are many good reasons to spread the knowledge. When you teach someone else, the knowledge is cemented in your own mind. Also, there may be areas where you need to expand knowledge.

In the process of sharing knowledge, you will educate another person in the organization who can help with administrative tasks. Contrary to what you might think, you will not be working yourself out of a job. In fact, it is likely that your organization will acquire more IT-related media technology as time goes on. By getting someone else up on the learning curve, he will be able to help with the additional work.

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Find a mentor

Find a mentor; you will need one. This person does not need to be in the same company. My UNIX mentor lives about 800mi away in another state. I try hard not to bother him with simple questions, but when I really get stuck, I can count on him to roll up his sleeves and help out.

One of the best ways to find a mentor is to regularly read one of the Internet news groups associated with the operating systems you maintain. To search these groups, go to Google, select “groups,” and then look under comp.os. You will find groups dedicated to almost every operating system known to man. Make note of someone who regularly contributes to the group and writes in a way that you can understand. The next time you get stuck with a problem, send him a short e-mail asking if he would mind helping out with your problem. In almost every case, these people are extremely eager to share their knowledge and help you out.

Be respectful of end users

They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. As a system administrator, you may find yourself in a position to hold power over others. Please remember that the creative people in our industry are there for a reason. They are the ones who are making the content that we show on the air. You should use what you know to help them, not stand in their way. Many times these people do not have a technical bent, and they may not understand why doing something is not a good idea, or why it cannot be done immediately. If you must deny someone's request, try to be respectful, and bear in mind that if they were not there, you would not have a job.

Brad Gilmer is president of Gilmer & Associates and executive director of the Advanced Media Workflow Association.

Send questions and comments to: brad.gilmer@penton.com

Signs you have become an accidental system administrator

  • You have so many username/password combinations on different systems that you cannot remember them all.
  • You understand network subnetting, but when you explain it to others, their eyes glaze over.
  • You find yourself dreaming about firewall configurations.
  • You wish there was someone else who could help with your administration tasks, but you do not have time to train them.
  • No one can assign an IP address on the network without consulting you.
  • You have more cell phones than can fit on your belt.
  • You have had to come into work on two of the last four weekends to deal with a computer problem.
  • While the symptoms may seem humorous, they are indicative of a problem. You are in a position of growing responsibility, perhaps without proper planning and support.