Center of the IT Universe: The Network Administrator
If there’s a single job role that can take responsibility for starting the whole IT certification phenomenon, it would have to be that of the network administrator. Starting in the mid-1980s, the introduction of network operating systems made it clear that trained professionals were key players when it came to installing, configuring and maintaining the systems and networks necessary to make these technologies work.
As networking technologies have grown faster and more capable, and the notion of networking has expanded to embrace Internet access, security, switching and all kinds of services, requirements for network administration knowledge and skills have grown apace. What hasn’t changed is this position’s pivotal importance in designing, implementing, maintaining and evolving workable IT infrastructures of all kinds.
It’s also worth noting that the line between the role of a systems administrator (responsible for installing, configuring, maintaining and troubleshooting computer systems) and that of network administrator (someone responsible for installing, configuring, maintaining and troubleshooting computer, voice or converged data and voice networks) can be hard to draw. Just as most professionals who work under the title of systems administrator work with networks, most professionals who work under the title of network administrator work with systems—particularly network servers and the services they so routinely provide. That’s why you’ll see an interesting mix of subject matter as you explore the systems/network administrator’s organizational role.
A systems/network administrator is an individual who understands local networking and network operating system tools, technologies and services thoroughly. That means he or she not only understands how to install, configure, maintain and troubleshoot a wide range of devices and systems, but also knows how to work with wired and wireless network media and equipment. A systems/network administrator must be able to understand and interpret business or organizational needs, goals and objectives, and help to implement and maintain appropriate information technology to help meet them.
Key Knowledge and Skills
Savvy systems/network administrators need:
- A strong working knowledge of desktop and server PCs, including laptops and desktop end-user PCs, as well as departmental and specialized servers. This includes the hardware components that go into such devices, as well as the common operating systems, applications and services that they run.
- A strong working knowledge of Ethernet networking, including fiber and wired versions of 10, 100 and 1,000 Mbps technologies, plus half- and full-duplex implementations.
- A good understanding of wireless LAN and WAN networking technologies, especially various elements of the 802.11 collection, plus some familiarity with emerging WLAN/wireless broadband options.
- A good understanding of the OSI networking model and the various devices that plug in or operate at (or across) various layers.
- A strong working knowledge of TCP/IP addressing, services, tools and utilities, as appropriate to the systems and networks that one must manage. These days, this encompasses a lot of territory, from basic networking protocols and services to session-oriented services and streaming media, as well as basic Web, FTP and other standard IP-based networking services.
- A strong general knowledge of information security policy, procedures and best practices is absolutely essential.
On the platform-specific side, most people end up specializing in one or two areas, though some exceptional individuals may become expert in three or (rarely) more. Here, the bare minimum for platform- or product-specific knowledge consists of being able to install, configure, maintain and troubleshoot:
- Network devices and components in use.
- Desktop and server operating systems in use.
- Key networking services, such as DNS, DHCP, NAT, directory services, network file systems and so forth.
- Key application services, such as databases, Web-based services, e-mail and so on.
This knowledge becomes more complex and specialized as one climbs into more senior roles.
In practical terms, some professionals tend to concentrate more on the network infrastructure side of things and focus more on routers and gateways, remote access, VPNs and other such elements, while others tend to concentrate more on the systems side of things and focus more on servers and their underlying operating systems and the services they provide. Either way, there’s plenty of room to specialize and narrow one’s focus to dig more deeply into specific areas of expertise as one’s seniority, skills and knowledge base increase over time.
A good general computing background is a great place to start a career as a network administrator, with perhaps an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in computer science, management information systems or information technology. Beyond that foundation, certifications provide a first step to help turn wanna-bes into practicing IT professionals (though nothing means more to HR staff or hiring managers than on-the-job experience):
- A+: Ensures basic knowledge of PC components, operating systems, setup, configuration and troubleshooting.
- Network+: Ensures basic knowledge of networking devices, protocols, services and applications, including coverage of setup, configuration and troubleshooting.
- Security+: Ensures basic familiarity with key information security terms and concepts, as well as basic best practices, processes and procedures.
These credentials also are excellent stepping-stones for entry-level personnel ultimately seeking work as network administrators by way of the help desk or technical support operations.
Discussion of targeted systems/network administrator credentials usually requires following some kind of platform or vendor choice to help individuals focus learning in a particular market niche—preferably one where opportunities are ample, and where employment is growing, rather than otherwise. Today, these include:
- Microsoft: Microsoft’s credentials in this area are the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). As the most popular desktop operating system and a leading server operating system, these credentials remain strong in today’s tough market. In fact, Windows Server 2003 credentials are enjoying a strong uptick this year as a result of Microsoft’s transfer of Windows 2000 from its core product line to “extended support.”
- Novell: Novell’s Certified Linux Professional (CLP) and Certified Linux Engineer (CLE) adhere to Novell’s popular and well-recognized SUSE Linux platform. The Certified Novell Administrator (CNA) leads to the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE). The primary focus of this credential remains NetWare, which remains a strong—but steadily shrinking market sector.
- Red Hat: Red Hat’s Linux certifications have been around the longest and continue to enjoy name recognition in this Linux portion of the systems/network administrator certification marketplace. The more junior Red Hat Certified Technician (RHCT) credential is more systems-focused, while the more senior (and highly regarded) Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) credential covers a broad mix of system and networking topics. Red Hat also offers a security certification, as well as a credential for architects.
- Cisco: The Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) credential is a stepping-stone to most of Cisco’s professional- and specialty-level technical certifications and commands a population second only to the entry-level Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) credential. The Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) i