Zen and the Art of System Administration

What is the sound of one mouse clicking?

Is your computer smarter than you? It can perform complex tasks almost immediately that might take you all day. It works tirelessly, you need to eat and sleep. Is there any way to compare your productivity with that of a machine? Computers are eliminating people’s jobs. Are people taking jobs away from computers?

It seems that humans are really beginning to question their value. When did we start treating our biology as a handicap? People confuse tools with their users and have an eternal tendency to obsess that rules are changing. Humanity has always been the force behind paradigm shifts. After all, humans begat tools and technology. But some people are quick to declare an end to a mode of living or working when it’s clear that there’s a lot more living and working to do.

Burning Thought

A do-it-yourselfer, I still struggle with the concept of “DIY”. All creation has inputs from sources other than ‘you’. Is the color used by an artist more significant if it’s squeezed from a berry versus a tube of paint? Or a pixel? Long gone are the neolithic days of bare hands and bearskins. We stand on the shoulders of giants, yet somehow feel entitled to the view, blinded by shiny objects.

Creativity and generativity may be “under fire,” but why? Tradespeople use tools (even computers). What’s changed to revive a collective angst about attacks on one or another franchise of work? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the values of work and life. Our society is built around grossly inefficient ways of working and living. People can be greedy and egocentric, demanding far more than their needs, inflating their worth, taking credit for momentum, serendipity and chance.

What is confirmed in the current state of corporate decay and downsizing is a disconnection between leadership and responsibility. Freedom from choice affects people working toward the goals of others. Without meaningful choice, freedom is empty. People externalize their liabilities by shifting blame for their lack of motivation.

For decades, I’ve been challenged to remain a freelance designer/programmer. I scrutinize my strengths and weaknesses because they won’t scrutinize themselves. Staying relevant is a matter of personal perspective and decisions to navigate the avenues available for change. Age is a factor in competition with younger rivals. Work smarter, not harder. Will a “smart” phone help?

I.T. is What It Is

Information Technology is synonymous with computing infrastructure in its many forms. Information Expertise is what you do with it. I.T. has advanced the frontiers of I.E. Access to information, democratized by rapidly-expanding access to computing resources, is providing tremendous opportunities for discovery and enrichment.

It’s reasonable to think that you can learn to understand things well enough to build a competent worldview allowing you to not only choose, but to manipulate features and factors of your environment. I encountered my first computer, an Apple II, in high school. BASIC programming allowed me to tease engaging output from the computer. This sparked a life-long curiosity and empowered me to view ‘black boxes’ differently.

Artificial “intelligence” doesn’t arise from hapless configurations of silicon any more than humans learn in a vacuum. Education is valuable, but not necessarily formal. Human minds are subjected to impressions and training in a myriad of life experiences. Countless hours of personal effort have imprinted the functions of your brain. Scores of researchers and engineers have created the electronic brains of today.

Fishing for a Lifetime

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Does that mean we’re all destined to become robots?

System Administration (sysadmin) is a human role. As much as AI is claiming more and more tasks, people are ultimately responsible for the choices to manage and maintain technologies. The art of sysadmin can contribute to your efficiency and effectiveness, not restricted to the realm of computers.

Systems thinking can have a profound affect on your worldview. Unlike specialized expertise, it’s not limited to a domain of knowledge. It’s a way to reduce the complexity of many moving parts. Fields of knowledge as disparate as nuclear physics and choreography have similarities. Understanding metaphor is a human gift. Metaphors unlock secrets obfuscated by data-centric approaches. These models are the ‘forest’ that create meaning from the ‘trees’ of information.

How many windows are currently open on your computer? Each of them is a portal. Six tabs in six windows provide 36 slices of computing space. We navigate information like fish in water, unaware of the data-rich world we live within. The amount of computing capability on our planet is immense. Every CPU has computing potential that provides an opportunity to unleash its value.

Learn to Cook

A sysadmin has an understanding of how data is stored, processed and shared by computers. Hardware maintenance adds a layer of experience that includes physical control, but even in cloud environments intelligent decisions are required to configure a server.

Iterative rewards of sysadmin are appealing. Begin, accomplish a small goal, and it can whet your appetite to achieve more. You are required to learn when you need more knowledge to accomplish a task. You will develop a stubborn persistence if you enjoy finding solutions.

A recipe of specific steps for building a working server would soon be dated. Hardware and software choices, versions and locations change regularly. Instead, I’ll attempt to provide some motivation and general advice. For anyone interested in sysadmin, the first step is to find inspiration.

Numerous online resources explain how to install and configure hardware and software. The art of sysadmin is to evaluate the available options for a solution based on your needs. Understanding the digital services and roles you rely on is required to liberate yourself from current service providers. Your managed node can become a value-creating machine running money-earning or money-saving processes.

I’ve self-hosted websites since I began building them in my business. Starting with a production server in my garage in the late 1990s and later in a server facility, I’ve recently returned it to my home network. This video (https://youtu.be/nR9Y3WXYKiQ) gives you a tour of my home server cabinet. My current cable network provides much-increased bandwidth over earlier digital services provided by the telephone company. It’s grown with network demands. Any home network with a rapid Internet connection has the potential to support a node or nodes on the network. Fiber-optic connections to the home are becoming more prevalent, supercharging bandwidth capabilities.

A Port on the Digital Seas

Everyone who browses the web should realize that the files fetched by their web browser are stored somewhere ‘else’. It is this ‘elseland’ that servers inhabit to provide the data that feeds our connected devices. To participate, you’ll need to become familiar with configurations and comfortable with receiving and sending data from a node on your home network. Treat your first server as a prototype with the goal of creating an online resource that you control.

Your home server strategy should strike a balance between accessibility and security. In most instances, ‘security by obscurity’ is a starting point. A network-accessible server won’t immediately become a target for malicious actors. Some well-known services (i.e. e-mail relays, WordPress installations) are targeted more than others. You have more anonymity running a server as an IP address. There’s no need for a domain name if you only want to run a cryptocurrency wallet.

Periodically monitor your server to identify unwanted access and bandwidth usage. Correct vulnerabilities and learn from the experience. You’ll gain an appreciation for the landscape of cyberthreats while, hopefully, feeling empowered by your efforts and the help from online communities to thwart attacks.

Serving files from your home network requires an understanding of your Internet connection. Your network communication is dependent on the services allowed by your provider. Understanding how to configure your provider’s router may be required. Routers accommodate bi-directional connections initiated by outbound requests. Crypto wallet software establishes peer-to-peer connections this way.

Inbound communication without an established connection will be subject to the router’s firewall rules. Without a static IP address to uniquely identify your server, you must also setup port-forwarding to manage the incoming requests. Ports are specific numerical values embedded in requests that identify what server services are targeted. For testing and private data, it may be desirable to run a web server on a non-standard port to obscure the service from requests that don’t know where to look.

Setting Sail

Prototyping and some production services are well-suited to being served from a home network. Low-volume websites are easily supported over modest bandwidth. Many sites are only infrequently accessed. Increasing traffic is a good problem to have and can be addressed. My original design services website (http://fab7.com) is self-hosted today, same as it’s alway been. Managing a server allows me to maintain multiple sites and experiment without added fees for hosting. Other projects I’ve developed remain online for my own use and discovery by others. One site is a project/task tracking tool that I use to invoice clients (http://collab.us). Another site is an experimental meditation tool (http://metawhirlz.com). Feel free to try it! Let me know what you think.

Even large files can be made publicly available via a direct link, simply by adding them to your server. No need for the expense and maintenance of a file sharing service. Your home server can provide a more private location for family members to access photos, videos and other files.

To help prime your journey to deploy a real server, I’ll disclose some specifics about my implementation that may be useful to you. My preferred software is open-source. This ecosystem of developers and other supporters is built on sharing principles. My servers run Linux (most recently, Ubuntu ). I use Apache as my web server (other viable options exist). My database software is MariaDB (formerly MySQL). The scripting language PHP rounds out my LAMP server software stack. My latest servers are Intel NUC hardware. I chose these mini-PCs for their form-factor, power and price. They are common and used models with generous disk and RAM configurations offer exceptional value.

Domain names are managed by registrar services. Coupled with DNS service, your choice of URL is activated by mapping the name to a server’s IP address. I’ve been satisfied with the value and performance of the registrar NameSilo (https://www.namesilo.com/) and use it for domain name registration, DNS and e-mail forwarding. I don’t recommend hosting e-mail on a home network. Besides the headaches of conformance, filtering spam and preventing unauthorized relay attempts, many Internet providers block this service on their networks. When I moved my server back to my home network, I shut down my e-mail relay and created an account at NameSilo.

A LAMP server supports numerous applications and utilities freely available for download. Webmin (https://webmin.com/) is a web-based system administration tool I’ve used since my first Linux server. It has sophisticated monitoring and management features. More recently, I’ve started using the cloud file manager Cloud Commander (https://cloudcmd.io/) to upload files from my Mac laptop to a large external drive connected to a server. WordPress (https://wordpress.org/) is a popular website framework that can be installed directly on a server to provide easy, powerful creation and customization tools that you manage.

Where cryptocurrency is concerned, you may have to accommodate specific hardware and software requirements of the wallet (start at the project website). A wallet that earns coins for being part of a peer-to-peer network must be available on the network. If your server crashes or your network connection is interrupted, the wallet is not active and your rewards will be impacted. A monitoring tool like Webmin (above) can give you feedback on CPU and network utilization to help you determine the impact of any server usage, including crypto.

The Journey Begins

I’ve barely scratched the surface of becoming a sysadmin. But I hope I’ve given you some inspiration that YOUR systems approach will become clearer. While implementation details may be confusing, remember that web search is your learning resource. You’ll find answers to your questions and discover many things I haven’t mentioned, including shell access, scripts, software maintenance and ‘power user’ tips and tricks. Start simple. If you have advice about the art of sysadmin, I’d love to see your comments. If you’re interested in collaborating on software and servers for a project, contact me. If you’re just beginning to explore the fascinating possibilities of managing a server node on the Internet, good luck and enjoy the ride!

About Peter

As a consulting professional in the Internet industry, I have helped small- and medium-sized businesses and community organizations effectively design and deploy web services and information. Years of hands-on design and project management experience for this market have inspired me to post my ideas and insights on a public forum -- blog.collab.us.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *