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Come together: In search of a Windows NT community

August 17, 1999
Web posted at: 10:07 a.m. EDT (1407 GMT)

by Gerald Carter

Windows TechEdge

(IDG) -- As a Windows NT administrator, to whom do you turn when you have a problem? How do you find out about new technology? Whom do you bounce your new creative ideas off of? What is the best trick you have learned as a sysadmin, and where did you learn about it?

Unfortunately, for the majority of us, our answer to the first two questions is, "From the Microsoft Knowledge Base," and our answer to the last is, "I promise I will never install a service pack on a production server again without properly testing it!"
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While learning from books or learning things for ourselves is great when we have the spare time or when the problem is solvable, our networks and server rooms are becoming much too complicated to be maintained using only the island of knowledge we amass among our own staff.

The question that faces NT sysadmins is, "How can we best leverage the enormous amount of information available today?" Better yet, "How can we learn from the people who possess that information?"

Where did your knowledge go today?

A recent inquiry from the higher-ups about disaster recovery mechanisms for information infrastructure prompted the sysadmins in my department to rethink their contingency plans. Most responses focused on things such as management of file backups, UPS systems for servers, and mirrored boot disks on critical machines. All fine and good, they said. But their next question took our group by surprise.

Given the fact that we are a small staff (6 people, to be exact) and that we have about 1,200 Unix and Windows machines and about 6,000 active user accounts to administer, what would happen if one of us were the disaster? Suppose someone left suddenly or was in a plane crash? How would we recover from that -- from losing a key member of our IT staff? Would we have time to read all of the documentation about the RAID controllers while maintaining our mail servers, file servers, client machines, and modem pools?

Probably not. And everyone knows that when something goes wrong in a production environment, you don't have time to start learning from scratch.

The brain trust

The point is that we don't always have time to leisurely reinvent the wheel. If you want to secure an IIS server, do you read the entire Resource Kit and every page returned by a search through the Microsoft Knowledge Base? Probably not. In a more likely scenario, you ask around for some white papers published by reputable authors on the subject, and use those as a starting point. After the server is up and secured to your best knowledge, then you can begin to explore new territory.

In this scenario, you quickly learn from others in order to get up to speed. Isn't this what FAQs are for in newsgroups? Many NT admins, myself included, spend a lot of time on a few select mailing lists. There are certain frequent posters that one can recognize either by e-mail address or signature or some other distinguishing mark. On any one list, a handful of people, perhaps a hundred or so, make up the core of the discussion -- those parts of the discussion worth following, at least. FAQs are developed by people who've become disgusted with answering the same questions over and over and thus never being able to spend time on formulating new ideas.

A community of knowledge

A paper by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid from Xerox Park, entitled "The Social Life of Documents," illustrates the growth of communities among Internet users. It is not a particularly huge jump to apply the ideas presented in that paper to this discussion of a community among NT administrators.

One of the points presented that was particularly interesting was the role that documents play in the creation of communities on the Internet. These communities are referred to as imagined, which is not the same thing as imaginary. Imagined communities are ones in which the members may never meet, but still consider each other to be the dearest of friends. The documents that bind these communities can be anything that carries information: audio files, articles, video clips, even source code.

It's a fairly common conclusion that an imagined community of knowledge in this sense lacks widespread commitment and participation among Windows NT administrators. On the other hand, this type of bond has long existed in the Unix world. Why are Windows NT sysadmins found lacking?

Regarding the maturity level our operating system, one of the biggest complaints people often voice against Windows NT is that "it's buggy because it hasn't learned from mistakes that other operating systems made a decade ago." Perhaps we as administrators are guilty of this charge as well.

Why don't we have a stronger NT community?

So what exactly has prevented a Windows NT community from taking shape?

  • First and foremost, Windows NT is new, so it makes sense that its community would be new as well. The Unix community has had decades to grow and bond, beginning as early as 1969, depending on how you classify development. The first release of Windows NT, version 3.1, was in July of 1993.

  • A large portion of the Internet was built on top of Unix machines. The initial community defined by the Internet were those users who had access to it. Therefore, the first "virtual community" was composed of people who knew Unix.

  • In its early days, Unix (and Linux today) was embraced by educational institutions. The people involved were interested in exploring. Conferences gave researchers a chance to share their findings and to thus solidify a network of people, not just machines. Conferences of this sort are more rare in the corporate world, where Windows NT has taken hold. Meetings outside the corporate workplace usually involve classes and exams.

  • Because of the infancy of NT, many employers seek NT administrators who have been certified, rather than those who posses great amounts of experience. In the Unix world, experience reigns supreme. This experience implies contact with others, and therefore more of a sense of community.

  • While Windows NT has been guided and developed solely by Microsoft, Unix administrators and programmers have in some sense guided the development of their platform themselves. Of course, we know that Sun does not accept outside source code for Solaris, but the characterization is fair to make in the case of Linux, which is entirely open source.

    It can also be applied to such things as Samba, sendmail, and BIND. These packages are add-ons to the Unix operating system that provide required functionality. Many Unix sysadmins have a somewhat more personalized interest in their networks, because often they have patched together the code that makes things work. Sharing that work is a thing of pride. This is probably one of the biggest reasons why the Unix community is so strong.

    The complexity of the Win32 API acts a deterrent for those who would seek to learn it as a hobby. In addition, it changes constantly. But that is a discussion for another day.

We are family?

Maybe you disagree with this premise. Perhaps you feel that the Microsoft Professional Developer Conference or the people with whom you took the MCSE exam constitute a community. Let us refer again to our definition of an imagined community. It is one in which the members may never meet but feel as though they are the dearest of friends.

How often do you see name dropping occur in Windows NT circles? How often do you hear someone refer to Mark Russinovich by first name? What about Russ Cooper? Now contrast this with how many times people refer to Uncle Linus on a Linux users' group, or people that refer to Dennis Ritchie as a though he were their brother-in-law.

One reason is face time. Linus and Dennis spend a lot of time at user gatherings and trade shows, feeding the enthusiasm behind their innovations. The benefits of such user conferences have been immeasurable to educational institutions and corporate bodies in building the Unix community.

Many NT conferences annually take place around the world, and they can provide us with a starting point for building our community. These are not a vendor's dog and pony show or a demo of the latest beta from Microsoft. These conferences are ones geared towards using current technologies to meet the current needs of our networks. For the most part, these are put together for and by network administrators like ourselves. There is one in particular with which I have had a great deal of involvement.

Large Installation Systems Administration of Windows NT

Every year in July or August, the Large Installation Systems Administration of Windows NT Conference (LISA NT) is held in Seattle. Last month, approximately 300 Windows NT administrators met to hear solution presented by their peers. Topics covered issues such as:

  • Securing Windows NT services and firewalls
  • Deploying system updates using Perl
  • Using Windows NT Terminal Server Edition to secure access to critical databases in an open environment
  • Experiences with large scale deployment methodologies

These were not textbook solutions that were being discussed. Rather, the papers and talks were, for the most part, products of the creativity of the authors. Abstracts and summaries from this year's conference are online (see our Resources section below). The full papers are also available for USENIX members -- USENIX is not just about Unix anymore.

What was particularly enjoyable to many NT admins was the chance to go outside of a technical session and join a group of a half a dozen or so people and have a miniconference. Whether we were listening to someone tell about the experience of deploying Windows 2000 Beta 3, or trying to one-up each other on who has the most out-to-lunch users, there was a lot to commiserate about. And a lot to learn.

Not only did we attendees learn a great deal, but we also went back to work with a handful of ideas to improve our own existing network services. (Right now, I've got enough ideas to keep myself busy until next year's LISA NT.)

Come together

If you've been paying attention, you're probably thinking, "What about this definition of an imagined community?" Remember, in this type of group, most of the members will never meet. But we should get together whenever possible, because its more than likely that the problem you solved yesterday is the same one someone else will face tomorrow.

Since the call for participation has just gone out for next year's LISA NT, perhaps you could start your community-building efforts by gathering up your best tips and tricks to share them there. Community is built through greater collaboration, and that's bound to benefit everyone who participates.

Gerald Carter is a network manager at Auburn University in Auburn, AL, where he is responsible for maintaining a melting pot of PCs and their operating systems. He is the lead author of the book Teach Yourself Samba in 24 Hours. One of the cochairs of this past year's LISA NT, Jerry is also a member of the Samba team.

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The evil and traumatic side of Windows NT
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Beefing up your NT vocabulary
(Windows TechEdge)
Open source software for Windows NT
(Windows TechEdge)
Unix commands at your beck and call
(Windows TechEdge)
Developing NT expertise
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When it comes to NT problems, expect the unexpected
(Windows TechEdge)
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LISA NT Abstracts and subjects
"The Social Life of Documents," J. S. Brown and P. Duguid
A brief history of the Windows NT operating system
USENIX, the advanced computing association
Large Installation Systems Administration of Windows NT
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