Hardware Admin Basics, What You Need to Know

Friday May 20th 2005 by Drew Robb
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We wrap up our server skill set series with a look at what you need to know to manage the hardware side of the server room.

What does it take to create a successful career for yourself as a system administrator? It all depends on who you ask. Some believe certification is key, some say experience, a few consider that it boils down to the tools used, and still others point to the value of sound academic training.

When it comes to hardware, Wally Edmondson, a system administration for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, feels that the most important thing a solid background in computer architecture. Such a background enables him to deal with new technologies as they come along and diagnose problems quickly.

"Having at least a B.S. [bachelor of science] in computer science is a great start," says Edmondson. "I use the theories that I learned in my systems architecture concentration so often that they have become second nature."

But not everyone has the opportunity to spend several years at college. So bachelor of science or not, Edmondson advises budding sys admins to read as much as they can about new technologies, and think about how they work and how they are used. He also recommends finding a couple of hardware blogs of interest and reading them every day.

Are You Experienced?

Experience, of course, is that insurmountable barrier that potential employers throw up in front of you. So where do you start if you don't have any? Building a home server from parts is a straightforward way to learn about hardware. Although it is getting easier to do every year, building a server from the ground up still requires some searching and reading about the capabilities of each component, weighing price/performance data, selecting vendors, worrying about noise and heat, and troubleshooting startup problems — basically resolving every issue a server room manager deals with on a daily basis.

With that accomplished, a next step might be to try building a cluster. Run it for a little while, then rebuild it using what you learned along the way.

Another tip is to focus on specific types of devices and obtain training from their manufacturers.

"Choose a brand like MSI, Amtron Technology, or Intel and go see the company to learn as much as possible," suggests Hamid Azar, a computer consultant from Sherman Oaks, Calif., who gained a wealth of experience working for many years as a system builder for Micron. "Choose one brand, learn all about it, and get trained by the manufacturer."

Azar is a registered Intel System Builder, for example. Whenever a new product appears, he is contacted for training, and that keeps him up to date. He's also received similar training and updating from motherboard and other manufacturers. This, he says, has proven invaluable when trying to figure out what's wrong. But why does the rookie generally take a long while to troubleshoot, and the veteran arrives at the heart of the matter in short order? Azar considers that there is no substitute for experience.

"80 percent of troubleshooting and resolving problems is experience," he says.

On that score, however, opinions differ.

"Some might say that experience trumps all, but things change too often in a data center for yesterday's fix or workaround to be relevant a year from now," counters Edmondson. "Knowing the theories behind the technology allows me to interpret my experiences with an eye towards fixing problems on a more permanent basis instead of the regular break-fix cycle."

Getting Certified

Certification is another good way to get into the game. The Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) is the gold standard in the Windows world. Another highly regarded certification is the The CompTIA A+, which is an international industry credential that validates the knowledge of computer service technicians with the equivalent of 500 hours of hands-on experience.

"MCSE and CompTIA A+ are usually recommended for sys admins," said Pet Natividad, chief technology officer at Micro 2000, a Glendale, Calif.-based company that offers computer diagnostics software and certification courses.

Micro 2000's A+ course, for example, is a home study program designed to prepare the student for the CompTIA A+ exam. This course meets all of CompTIA's objectives and is a certified CACQ (Curriculum Authorized/CompTIA Quality) program.

But that diploma may be too costly for some future sys admins. For them, Micro 2000 offers an excellent beginning level PC Hardware Made Easy home study course. Unlike most computer courses that throw acronyms at the student and assume the reader is already familiar with key concepts, this one breaks everything down and explains it in simple terms.

"It takes the student through the very basics of computer hardware all the way through to the more advanced hardware technology," says Natividad.

Certification, or its various undercut home study courses, is a great starting point for many who wish to enter the sys admin realm. But it may not be the right path for everyone. Azar and Edmondson both got their feet wet via an insatiable desire to fool around with and fix computers. Edmondson, for example, got his start with a Commodore 64 several decades ago.

"Certification might get you in the door, but your attitude is what makes you indispensable," said Edmondson.

>> Diagnostics

Diagnostics

Azar concedes that experience and attitude can sometimes use some backup in the form of diagnostics software. Like most experienced sys admins, he is skilled at locating problems through trial and error based on the symptoms being observed. Through time and effort, he is able to eventually fix the problem through a series of parts swapping and troubleshooting. Diagnostics software can streamline the process by checking the various devices to narrow down the source of trouble.

"I use diagnostic software to test memory hard drives and other components," said Azar. "It helps isolate where the actual problems lie."

Manufacturers often provide diagnostic tools for their products. For a broader toolset that spans multiple devices, however, several tools are available. Micro 2000's Universal Diagnostic Toolkit (UDT), for example, combines Micro-Scope Diagnostic Software, which reports malfunctioning hardware components, and POST-Probe card to diagnose a machine that will not start at all. It identifies which part of the computer is preventing it from booting up. UDT provides a report with specific details about the malfunctioning or underperforming component. Once identified, more extensive testing and diagnostics can be run to determine if the component should be replaced or fixed. The software is easy to use, and no special training or knowledge is required.

"Using UDT provides a better and more accurate diagnostic with faster results, saving an enormous amount of time and energy," said Natividad. "This allows a sys admin to focus on more strategic IT projects."

Patient Attitude

No matter the educational background, certificates earned, experience gained or diagnostic tools harnessed, there is one attribute that should be regarded as the make-break point of a successful sys admin career — patience. A patient attitude is an absolute must for large server rooms. After all, "little problems" sometimes have long and boring solutions.

"Someone who expects there to be a step-by-step fix for every problem written down in some binder on a shelf and a daily routine that doesn't change would be terrible as a server room manager," says Edmondson. "They need to believe that the needs of the user outweigh their own needs to beat the traffic, avoid change, work less, etc."

Azar agrees with this assessment. The best sys admins, he says, never give up. To fix a problem, they are prepared to look anywhere.

"If they can't sort it out, they call vendors, customer support, their associates, check on the Internet, whatever it takes to resolve the issue," says Azar.

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