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Automated Systems Administration

Unfinished draft -- work in progress

The word "computers" used to be used to describe the human beings who did the daily drudgery of calculation and data processing. This word was later adopted to describe the electronic computers which released those humans from their drudgery and created the field of computer programming.

The word "systems administrator", or sysadmin for short, today is used to describe the humans who do the daily drudgery of maintenance and monitoring of electronic computers. In the near future we may see the term "systems administrator" used to describe the software which monitors and maintains electronic computers. This would release human sysadmins from their drudgery and create a field which might be called systems administration engineering, infrastructure architecture, or some variant.

Economies of Scale

One way to approach the problem of systems administration is to compare enterprise systems to the automobile industry.

Scaling the Automobile Industry

Early autos were hand-built, each vehicle representing a set of unique parts and techniques. Assembly and design problems were often solved on the spot, the solution often affecting only that vehicle. Parts fabrication costs were high because parts often had to be made to fit one particular vehicle. Assembly costs were high because of the trial-and-error nature of handcrafting. Reliability was extremely low compared to today, and repairs were problematic and expensive.

These factors made the cost of ownership of an early auto high enough that only the most affluent could afford to buy one. This retarded general adoption of the motor vehicle for some decades, and extended the use of animal and human power alongside early vehicles. Heavy trucks were too expensive for practical use until even well after light cars became commonplace.

Standardization, mass production, automated assembly, and eventually mass customization changed the automobile industry. Cost of ownership has dropped by at least two orders of relative magnitude, and has enabled ubiquitous motor vehicle use and higher quality of life in even the poorest parts of the world.

Scaling the Computer Industry

For decades, computer systems have been handcrafted. While a given machine may use a standard operating system and many standard applications, each machine represents a set of unique hardware, software, and techniques. Even in an enterprise with similar machines, installation problems are often solved on the spot using a trial-and-error process, the solution affecting only that machine. Systems administration costs are high because scripts and techniques often have to be developed for one particular machine. Systems reliability is extremely low compared to the reliability of the hardware itself, and troubleshooting is problematic and expensive due to nondeterministic differences between machines.

These factors make the cost of ownership of computers high enough that only the most affluent can afford to buy one, and usable lifespan of computers is short -- most are discarded rather than upgraded. This will continue to retard adoption of general-purpose computing for some decades, and extend the use of paper and manual data processing alongside computers. Artificial intelligence and supercomputing applications will remain too expensive for general use until even well after personal computers become as common as cars.

Standardization, automated administration, and mass customization can change the computer industry. Cost of ownership can drop by at least two orders of magnitude, and can enable ubiquitous computer use and higher quality of life in even the poorest parts of the world. [an error occurred while processing this directive]