Friday, October 19, 2012

Why aren't you embracing automated configuration management?

Automated configuration management, why aren't all professionals embracing this technology?

I spend most of my time in what I consider my professional community. I consider this group my friends and peers I have met through the USENIX LISA conference and LOPSA organization. These people are pretty firmly in the open source camp, they tend to push technology to new levels, and they are the ones who see the benefits of automation and standardization.  When I'm hanging with my professional circle, there's friendly banter about configuration management; it tends to be a popular topic from year-to-year. Whether your views lean toward Cfengine, Bcfg, Puppet, or Chef... at least you're using these tools to automate your environments. When you hang with the same group from year-to-year, you tend to think that they represent the international sysadmin community at large.

I cannot imagine any medium-to-large sysadmin shop that isn't using something akin to one of the tools above to manage their environment in today's complex IT world. Yet, the more I talk to sysadmins outside of my USENIX/LOPSA circles, from fairly sizeable organizations, I find that they're not using anything to manage their configurations. Some of them have heard of these tools and are starting to look at them, some claim there's no management support for such things. I'm amazed at the number who are using home grown scripts or rely on complex databases of configuration differences (excel spreadsheets anyone?).  I want to yell "there's a better way!"

So what are the benefits of automation and standardization? Well, for years I've seen my job as trying to automate myself out of what I currently do so I can use that time to do new stuff. If I spend all of my time keeping track of server and client configurations, performing upgrades, and monitoring individual logs then I don't have time to figure out the next thing that will save my customers time/money or make their lives better. I think of professional sysadmins as always trying to make the IT world better by reducing complexity, increasing consistency and system resiliency, and helping customers be the most productive with their IT. These lead to better IT security, reduced downtime and support costs, and increased overall value of IT to the organization. For my group, it means we work on new and fun projects for our customers instead of spending most of our time slogging through manual methods to perform basic day-to-day sysadmin functions.

Someone recently told me that only about 10% of medium-to-large organizations are using any kind of automated configuration management. If that number is remotely close to reality, it amazes me.

We started using configuration management ~10 years ago with Cfengine. We quickly saw the benefit of standardizing the way we configured Unix machines. Even machines that had configuration differences, such as servers, were easier to manage with Cfengine. Here we are 10 years later and there are more Open Source tools available to choose from, but the concept is still the same: use something to automate and manage your machines. We've expanded from Unix/Linux servers to clients including all of our Macintosh computers (automated configuration management, it's not just for Linux/Unix anymore).

We keep our Macs configured according to our organization's IT security requirements. Building a new Mac is so easy. Load OS, load our Cfengine package, reboot, done. All of the configs are magically loaded and the machine is ready for use. It has made deploying and managing hundreds of Macs simple. Mac under the hood is not your typical "Unix/Linux" though it may seem so on the surface. Getting MacOS X management under the same system as your Linux machines makes them seem much more manageable (and that's saying a lot for OS X).

With automation, we have the ability to audit our configs and to check whether a certain state applies to every machine. We have the ability to see if all Macs have a critical patch or if the antivirus is up-to-date. All of this is reportable to a central location. We also decentralize authority so people who aren't sysadmins can monitor machines within their own areas to ensure compliance and IT security. All of this is possible through automation. I love that even machines that don't connect every day can phone home when they're on-line. It means home computers can benefit from this technology, connecting when they VPN into the internal network. I can also see by our management console which machines are connecting now and which haven't connected in a while.

We're even using this system for some of our scientific devices such as robots that run the Cfengine configuration to ensure IT security compliance. I cannot image a life without automated configuration management.

I admit there is a learning curve, but isn't there always learning curve when you're a sysadmin? I got into this profession because there was always something new to learn and a better way to solve a problem. Go out and do some research, figure out what is important in a tool, and set up a test network. There are a lot of resources for all of these tools to help you with recipes and getting started. I won't list them all here because I'm sure your Google foo can produce help on any of the tools listed at the beginning of this rant... er, post.

Automated configuration management isn't bleeding edge, it isn't new, it should be a part of any mature enterprise.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Why attend LISA and how to get there on a budget

How to attend LISA on a budget

LISA '12 registration is open! The USENIX Large Installation System Administration (LISA) conference is the gathering place for some of the best in the industry.

If your job resembles system administration then you should make an effort to be in San Diego sometime between December 9 - 14th. Vint Cerf opens the technical conference on Wednesday with his Keynote then you've got an eclectic menu of choices and topics. LISA covers the broad swath of skills and technologies that a modern sysadmin needs to know to advance in the profession. I've been attending since 1995 and I still pick up gems every year. 

Why should you attend LISA?

I get it, conferences can be expensive. If you only look at them as a perk your employer provides, then you're missing the real reason to attend a conference. Of all of the reasons to attend, supporting yourself is the biggest reason to go. If your employer doesn't value your professional development, that's their prerogative. The only person who is ultimately responsible for your development is you.

To attend a full week of LISA including tutorials every day and three days of tech sessions, you could drop a pretty penny. If you're paying on your own dime, cut costs but still get there:
  • Book a flight early. As we get closer to the conference, flights will only increase. In looking at the total cost to attend, flight isn't the biggest cost.
  • Hotel - This seems like one of the bigger costs. $179/night adds up if you're staying 6 or 7 nights. 
    • So only go half the week. That cuts your hotel cost considerably.
    • Roomshare -- I get it, not everyone can share a room. A double is $199/night but if you split it in half, it's still cheaper than a single. Most of us don't spend that much time in the room. It's basically a place to sleep and shower. Just think of it as college when you shared a dorm room, only this time it is only a few nights instead of a few semesters.
    • Join the USENIX roomshare mailing list to look for people to help share costs. 
  • Conference registration -- the technical conference costs $985 before any discounts
    • Take advantage of USENIX ($125/yr) or LISA SIG ($45/yr) membership to save $170 off of the LISA technical conference.
    • See the conference discounts page for details. Here's a sampling:
      • $100 off as a government employee
      • $100 off as an employee of a non-profit
    • Do you have another hardship such as you're currently unemployed or living on a fixed income? Email to request hardship assistance.
  • Ask for a refrigerator in your room and eat on the cheap 
    • Go shopping! Ask at the hotel for a local grocery and pick up something that could make lunches--PB&J, cold cuts and bread, veggies, chips.
    • Save your leftovers. Restaurants give us way too much food, so save half and eat it for lunch the next day.
    • Remember that lunch is provide to tutorial attendees on the days of their tutorials.
I encourage students to come. I could write a whole thread on students in the community. If you're a student in system administration, or even a junior level sysadmin, LISA is the place to talk to others in the profession. What skills do they have, what are they recruiting for, what specialties exist and what do you need to break into a specialty? Companies like Google are always recruiting at LISA. Think you have what it takes? Come and talk to the companies at LISA. The people you meet just might lead to your next opportunity. How do you get past the flood of applicants for a desired job? You get to know people in the company and pre-interview in the hallway track at LISA. It's valuable to anyone in the profession but it seems vital to those just starting out...

I hope you find investment in yourself worthwhile and I hope to see you at LISA. I'd love to hear if you found any of this useful.

Your friendly neighborhood 2012 LISA program chair

Friday, October 5, 2012

Third day at the Grace Hopper Conference

Winding down the Grace Hopper Conference

It's the 3rd day at Grace Hopper in Baltimore and I have had more time to immerse myself in the conference.Unfortunately I missed yesterday's keynote by Nora Denzel's but I was told by several people that it is a must see. Luckily, if you too missed it, it is available online

I'm finding more sessions that apply to a mid or upper-level tech woman.  I still walked into a couple of sessions to find that they were slanted toward students. How can we fix that?  There are woman who are mid-to-upper career who want support and have questions. The hallway track was the best today.  I met some great women who are more like me and not just starting out in their careers. It was wonderful to connect with other women.  I had a great time people watching. I was amazed at the number of extroverts. I don't know if it was because it was a mostly-women event (there were a few men, but not many) or because we were told to meet each other...

Things I would have liked to do better:
  • Find other women in system administration. I saw the table topics but I didn't figure out how they worked until today. It didn't seem like 3600 women were doing the table-topic thing so could I really reach the attendees by hand-writing "sysadmin meetup" on the backside of the table topics board?  Someone suggested emailing Systers but of the 3600, only 300 Systers were in attendance. Plus, after seeing the Systers statistics from the survey tonight, sysadmin is not one of the primary careers represented on Systers.
  • Let me add that I'm hiring. I don't have a corporate booth with bling to hand out, but I do have a legitimate tech job. I was hoping there would be a jobs board or some way for an attendee to advertise a job without committing to a booth. I didn't see a way so I left with my lonely job opening.  I can post it to the Systers list, but again only 300 of the 3600 attendees are on Systers.
  • Talk to even more people. There were a few times I missed getting into a session so I sat in the hallway and did work. Work would be happy to know that I did that, but I missed out on some opportunities to talk to more attendees.
Dinner was super!  After the Systers meetup, our table decided to hike to dinner together. We started talking about how much of the conference was aimed at students. All of us were beyond that stage and most of us were well into our careers.  Our group conspired to organize a track for mid-to-upper-level technical women for next year.  We'll see if it comes to fruition. We all ponied up our contact info so... it may actually happen. Thanks to Laura, Anne Marie, Terri, Lugene, Nicole for a lovely dinner and Miche for speed-walking to dinner with me. Sorry you couldn't eat with us but we understand you had to get to the 25th anniversary celebration ON TIME!

And Lugene did lead everyone out to the dancing with bling! I knew it!

There is still one more day. If you're a coder, then Saturday is for you. It's Open Source day. As I'm more a user of Open Source and not really a coder, today was my last day. It was sad to see it end but boy am I wiped out!

Would I go again?  Yeah, probably, but I'd look more closely at the sessions and map out what I would want to attend before I booked the flight.

Next year is supposedly in Minneapolis so it is an event that makes itself attainable to women all over the US.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

First look at the Grace Hopper Conference

So can a woman with 2 decades of professional computing experience find something applicable at the Grace Hopper Conference?

This is my first time at the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC). Being a woman in computing, it sure sounded like an amazing event: 3600 women in computing under one roof. Luckily it's in my backyard this year (Baltimore) so I decided to go.

I spent the first day getting a feel for the sessions. It's only the second day so I don't have a complete perspective on the event, but I thought it was reasonable to provide a first impression of the conference.

My experience at conferences is 90% USENIX events. I admit that USENIX won my heart years ago with the LISA conference. As a Unix system administrator, it continues to be the place to go to keep up with the community, changes in technology, and the profession as a whole.

It's hard not to compare. It's a different event, different organizing body, different community. This is a good thing. I want to broaden my exposure; different is good.

GHC looks like something I would have loved when I was a student, or at least early in my career. Many of the sessions are aimed at students (e.g. resume writing, going to grad school, PhD programs, mentoring). There is a huge career fair with every national lab I can think of (e.g. Oakridge, Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, Los Alamos... ), many universities, and the big companies that hire computing professionals (e.g. Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.).  People looking for a job can wander through the "vendor" area to talk to companies that are hiring. There are also on-site interviews and a special area designated for this purpose. I've talked to several students who had technical interviews schedule with Yahoo or Facebook right here at the conference. You see a lot of young people dressed in their interview clothes wandering through the halls and sessions.

This is a great opportunity for women to support women.  In several cases, a nervous student talked to those of us seated around her and received sage advice and encouragement "be yourself" "interviews are two-way" "don't sweat the whiteboard part--writing code on a whiteboard is hard to do perfectly. Focus on the problem you're trying to solve and be able to explain your logic." It was pretty cool to be a part of that.  I hope the encouragement I attempted to provide really did help because I do remember being the green techie, unsure about my skills. These kids are just starting out. Experience is not a strength for these applicants; what they've learned through school and summer jobs and their willingness and ability to apply that to new skills and experiences is big.

So what am I getting out of GHC so far?  I'm not sure. It is interesting to see 3600 women in computing. I feel like I've helped in some small ways (helping a couple of students with resumes, talking to students pre-interview, talking to some young women about the industry) but I feel like something is missing.  Maybe these sessions are up and coming.  So far I've heard a lot of "we can" as far as being a woman in computing. I'm not hearing a lot about what the real world can be like, for instance: walking into a meeting where the only other woman is the secretary, being on a team of guys where you feel like an outsider because of the overwhelming male culture of beer and high-fives, navigating the sensitivities of gender differences (e.g. being the only team member who has or will be pregnant), how to interview a company to see if you'll fit there.

It's great that we have this 4 day gathering where we can safely talk to anyone. In one of the opening sessions, one of the organizers described this conference as different from others you'll attend. She went on to say something to the effect of 'here you can walk up to anyone and introduce yourself and talk about what you do and the other person really wants to talk to you.'

That seems like an opportunity for GHC to provide a session on how to meet people at other events that aren't this one!  It seems like a missed opportunity to bring these women together to pitch that you need to come to this one event in order to safely meet other peers.  While it's great to have this as an introduction to networking at conferences, I'd like to see GHC lead the way for these women. So, the next time you attend that "other" computing conference in your specialty, here's how you meet people. Most other computing conferences are going to sway heavily to the male demographic unless they specifically target women attendeees. I want to be able to meet people who specialize in my computing area at these events rather than feeling like I should become part of the wallpaper there.

The downside to networking at GHC is the breadth of specialties. I can talk to any woman in the hall but the likelihood that she and I are in the same computing area is not high.  I've talked to web developers, programmers, women interested in robotics, and some other extremely specialized areas. As a former Unix sysadmin and now an IT manager, I'd love to meet some other sysadmins, but I don't see how.  I've talked to a few other women here who are in a similar boat. They'd love to meet up with some other women in their sub-specialty, but how do you find them?   The answer is probably, go to a different event to get that kind of community exposure. This circles right back to "but how do I talk to people at my speciality conference?"

FWIW, you can meet people at other gender-mixed events. Be prepared that there are trolls everywhere in computing so not all of your attempts will be successful, but I have found (in the past 17 years of conference attending) that the community is interested in making connections. Reach out to other like professionals. Take advantage of the social meet ups at other conferences and discount the trolls in favor of the other great people you will meet.


Ok, that horse is probably dead.

I don't want this to be a negative review of this amazing event. It may not be the event for me, specifically, where I stand in my career. We'll see. The jury is still out. I think it presents a unique opportunity for all the women in college who need help getting to the next level whether that is grad school or their first real computing job.

Things I really like so far:
  • 3600 women in computing under one roof
  • Friendly hallway track - everyone wants to meet you and hear your story.
  • Everyone, all the way to the top of the Anita Borg institute, wants to create a safe environment for women.  Sweet!
  • Great attendees!

Things I'm not enamored of:
  • Sessions fill up too quickly. If you're not there 10 minutes early, you risk that the room will fill and the room monitor will turn you away. I think conferences should consider that some sessions will be more popular than others and space should be reserved with that in mind.  Who cares if a room is half full. I'd rather have empty space than a closed door. Telling rejected attendees to find another session doesn't work if that was the session you were looking forward to.
  • Due to the above, I'm skipping all of the social breaks (e.g. what USENIX calls the hallway track) in order to get a seat in the next session. It sorta defeats the purpose of the networking break if you're worried about getting a seat.
  • The perception that this is the only place you can meet people at a conference. Let's change that!

Unrelated to GHC but tangentially having an impact, I have to mention the Starbucks in the conference center while I'm here.  7 to 8 of the most inefficient team I've ever seen at a Starbucks.  They could see a long line of women who were doomed to miss their sessions as cobwebs collected on us in line. The employees were busy joking, hugging, standing around waiting for direction, and taking orders in a serial fashion. To an intelligent observer, you could easily see some efficiencies they could implement on the fly.

They seemed nice enough when I mentioned that we really needed to get through the line faster or risk missing the conference we paid to attend.  I got a free scone, but I would rather have the manager look at the line and redistribute his/her staff to improve customer service. I have a feeling nothing will change. Ah well!

My advice to attendees: Plan ahead!