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Guerrilla System Administration:
Scaling small group systems administration to a larger installed base.

Tim Hunter & Scott Watanabe
University of Colorado at Boulder


Many university sites have a large number of machines that consist of a variety of platforms and operating systems. Because of limited budgets, many use a small number of full-time systems administrators supervising a group of undergraduates to administrate the campus network. The usual solution is to have the full-time administrators act as managers for a pool of junior and senior undergraduates. The junior administrators learn on their own, with limited help from the senior administrators and managers. This model works well for a small group of undergraduates who can remain in close contact. However, recent increase in demand for system administration requires hiring more undergraduates, causing the small group system to break down—junior administrators do not get as much contact with senior administrators and management, and some lose touch altogether.

This paper presents modifications to the small group model intended to improve training of junior administrators, and associated changes to improve customer service. The driving idea is to give undergraduates as much authority as they can handle responsibly. This means making current undergraduates a part of the interviewing process for new administrators; taking advantage of the benefits of the small group model by forming small groups of junior administrators lead by senior undergraduates, who receive minimal guidance from management; and creating standing orders that extend the authority of a staff member in a crisis situation. These improvements, as a whole, have worked very well. New hires take less time to become part of the team; small groups of undergraduates provide better support for junior administrators, and free full-time administrators from dealing with the details of a large project; competent junior administrators are able to handle most situations without help.

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