What is a system administrator?
A system administrator (sysadmin) is an information technology professional who supports a multiuser computing environment and ensures continuous, optimal performance of IT services and support systems.
Sysadmins are responsible for ensuring the uptime of their companies' computers, servers and internet -- basically "keeping the lights on" to limit work disruptions. This includes system maintenance and configuration, such as installing and troubleshooting hardware and software and assessing new technologies for their companies.
Nevertheless, system administrator job responsibilities vary greatly among employers. In larger organizations, the title may be used to describe any administrator who is responsible for a specialized IT system, such as the one that supports servers.
Depending upon an organization's specialty, information system administrator job titles may include a data center administrator, computer network administrator, virtualization administrator, server administrator or database administrator.
Smaller IT departments generally give the system administrator position a wider scope of responsibilities. In some organizations, a sysadmin may need to support everything from end-user desktop computer systems to the organization's local area network, wireless LAN, voice over Internet Protocol phone system and hybrid cloud storage.
System administrator duties and skills
Due to the wide range of job responsibilities for system administration in various organizations, job skill competencies are often broad, as are salary ranges. Typically, job descriptions in this field call for a minimum of a bachelor's degree in computer science, computer engineering or a related field.
In general, sysadmins must be comfortable working with application and file servers, desktops, routers, wide area networks, databases, information security systems cybersecurity protocols and storage.
Sysadmins also should be skilled at problem-solving in multiple operating systems, such as Linux, Microsoft and others. Additionally, they should be familiar with tasks related to scripting, automation and programming. Increasingly, virtualization and cloud computing skills have also become essential to the job.
The sysadmin's tasks generally include provisioning, configuring and managing system performance, as well as the software that runs on the web servers and the computer hardware that supports it. For this reason, a sysadmin should feel comfortable installing and troubleshooting IT resources, establishing and managing user accounts, upgrading and patching software, and performing backup and recovery tasks.
However, the ability to troubleshoot, manage firewalls and provide technical support aren't the only skills required for sysadmins. Soft skills (people skills) are just as necessary as hard skills for sysadmins because they interact with people in so many areas of IT and business. When IT services are slow or down entirely, a system administrator must be able to work under pressure, read a situation as it unfolds and quickly decide on a response that yields the best result for all involved.
IT system administrator certifications
Computer system administrators -- and most IT professionals for that matter -- are expected to have at least one, but preferably multiple, certifications for the job.
Depending on the technologies used within an enterprise, common certifications in demand include Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate, CompTIA Server+, Cisco Certified Network Associate and Red Hat Certified System Administrator. Other useful certifications for sysadmins include IT Information Library Foundation and Electronics Technicians Association International Network Computer Technician.
What is the job outlook for sysadmins?
Although the ongoing shift to the cloud, as well as increased automation, are likely to change the duties -- and skills required -- for future system administrators, the need for professionals skilled at maintaining and configuring systems and ensuring their reliable operation will continue. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasted a 4% increase in employment for network and computer system administrators from 2019 to 2029.
A typical advancement path for sysadmins is to move on to become a systems engineer or a systems architect. However, just as the duties for sysadmins vary, there is also a broad range of opportunities for advancement, from transitioning into a security role to becoming an IT consultant.