Web and App Server Admin, What You Need to Know

by Aaron Weiss

No matter how top notch your equipment or software is, it is only as good as the people behind it. Our newest series looks at the skills needed for a successful server room. We kick it off with an overview of what it takes to be a Web server or app server admin.

No matter how top notch equipment or software is, it is only as good as the people behind it. With this in mind, we are launching a series that evaluates the skills to successfully manage various operations or functions within the server room. We will look at the most sought-after skills and certifications to aid both those in the hiring seat and those trying to be hired — whether just starting out or making a career switch.

The field of Web and application server administration is broad and amorphic. Its tasks and responsibilities vary widely from one organization to another. Unlike becoming, say, a doctor or a lawyer, there is no single defined path into the profession. This is partly because the Web server industry has only recently begun to mature, and universal standards and expectation have yet to be set, and partly because successful Web administrators can come from a variety of backgrounds: Some have formal education with specific certifications, while others have been informally educated but bring with them much experience and enthusiasm.

Depending on the organization, its IT infrastructure, needs, and resources, administering the Web or application server may be only a small part of a larger network administration role. Or it may be a central responsibility.

Clearly, Web servers aren't going anywhere any time soon. As the Internet has evolved, the demands placed on Web servers have grown significantly — and not just in terms of sheer traffic volume. As uses for the Web mature, what were formerly referred to as Web pages are quickly morphing into what is better described as Web-based applications. Traditional Web servers simply handed static pages from server to client. The new generation of application servers perform sophisticated server-side processing — constructing pages rather than merely acting as a simple intermediary — and are a completely different animal to tame.

Depending on the organization, its IT infrastructure, needs, and resources, administering the Web or application server may be only a small part of a larger network administration role. Or it may be a central responsibility.

Two Worlds

Very broadly speaking, server environments are divided into two camps: Microsoft shops and Unix-based shops. The former use Windows, while the latter use a variety of operating systems, such as Solaris, Linux, and BSD. Many organizations have invested in one or the other or, less frequently, a mixture of Windows and Unix. Such heterogeneous networks are becoming more common as organizations grow larger and develop more layers.

We all know the caveats about stereotypes. That said, Microsoft and Unix systems tend to attract different cultures which may, in turn, involve different sets of expectations from current and prospective employees. Microsoft-based shops, for example, may conform more closely to the "corporate culture" environment, with employees expected to participate in structured professional development, including certifications and ongoing training. Unix shops are more likely to attract IT professionals drawn from an "enthusiast" background, and may place a higher value on informal, self-taught, hands-on experience over structured, formal education.

Like all generalizations, these are not hard and fast rules but general trends. Exceptions are present in both environment.

Get Certified?

The importance and usefulness of technical certification in server administration is the subject of much debate. It is a simple fact that certification is big business. Dozens of companies sell certifications through course work, exams, or a combination of the two. Some certifications require annual renewal to remain valid, which may or may not involve additional testing, and almost always involves additional costs.

Many veteran server admins place a lower value on certification, per se. They believe hard-earned experience in the trenches is a more valuable employee asset than passing grades on exams. On the other hand, as the industry matures and the candidate pools grow, certification becomes an increasingly important way for human resource departments to separate some applications from others and gives hiring managers objective benchmarks.

Certification can be a useful way to get noticed, particularly when pursuing work at large organizations. It is also a useful, although potentially costly, way to fill in knowledge gaps — even for those with experience. For many IT managers, however, experience and enthusiasm will be the ultimate factors in evaluating a candidate.

The chart below highlights some of the well-known certifications in Web and application server administration. Some are vendor-specific; for example, the Microsoft and Oracle certifications are particular to their respective products. In all cases, the total costs of certification may exceed the exam costs themselves. For example, a training program to learn the material may involve tuition, materials, and travel and lodging costs. Also, some certifications may require prerequisite exams. A comprehensive inventory of certification programs is available at gocertify.com.

Web and App Server Certifications to Consider

Exam Cost
Microsoft Certified System Administrator 2000 or 2003 (MCSA)Cost of training and exams: Typically between $6,000 and $9,000
WOW Certified Professional Web Administrator (CPWA)Exam cost: $195
CompTIA Certifications (Network, Server, i-net)Exam cost: $199
Oracle9iAS Web AdministratorExam cost: $125
International Webmasters Association (CWA Server Administrator, CWP Administrator)Varies
Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE)Exam cost: $749
SAIR Linux Certification Exam cost: $400

>> Real-World Education

Skills & Knowledge

With or without certification, being a Web or application server admin requires a good working knowledge of several areas. By definition, the server is the nexus for information flow. This means knowledge of basic networking, Internet and intranet security, Web development, and operating system administration is critical. An effective Web server admin may not be a dedicated expert in each of these, but he or she must be comfortable in each realm and understand how issues filter down the chain.

In any reasonably active organization, the Web or application server is not a "set it and forget it" piece of infrastructure. It must adapt to the needs of the organization — it may need to scale or integrate new technologies (e.g., secure encryption, e-commerce functions, or SOAP or JSP support) as enterprise requirements or availability change.

Things that happen in the underlying operating system may also affect the performance of the Web server, and vice versa. An effective administrator can see the "big picture" because many administration issues occur at the interface between the server product itself and adjacent layers, such as the operating system or the network.


There is no downside to experience, except perhaps burnout. Ultimately, experience trumps all, including certification, in winning the heart and mind of most employers.

Fortunately, gaining entry-level experience in Web server administration is achieved fairly easily. Most of the relevant software is available to anyone, although this is even more true for Unix-based platforms. Apache continues to be the most widely used Web server in the world, and the "AMP" stack — Apache, MySQL, PHP — is the most common application server. All three are freely available for both Unix and Windows platforms, and multitudes of learning resources are also available. With some initiative, one can become quite familiar with the details of server administration in current projects.

Real-world experience is most valuable, however, because it places demands on your knowledge that you can't control.

Those looking to move into the Web server space would therefore be best served by finding ways to manage Web servers. Start with a small or local organization, even if it's on a volunteer basis. Learning to troubleshoot in the field will both enhance your skill set and substantiate your resume.

This article was originally published on Wednesday Mar 9th 2005
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