Nine traits of the veteran Unix admin

Follow this field guide if you want to understand the rare and elusive hard-core Unix geek

Last week I briefly departed from reality, thanks to the inexplicable actions of the CRTC, but this week, I'm off the drugs and back on terra firma -- sort of. Anyway, to celebrate my return to the land of the sane, I thought I'd tick off a few hallmarks of veteran Unix admins, so you have a better chance of spotting these rare, beautiful creatures in the wild. Here is our song.

Veteran Unix admin trait No. 1: We don't use sudo

Much like caps lock is cruise control for cool, sudo is a crutch for the timid. If we need to do something as root, we su to root, none of this sudo nonsense. In fact, for Unix-like operating systems that force sudo upon all users, the first thing we do is sudo su - and change the root password so that we can comfortably su - forever more. Using sudo exclusively is like bowling with only the inflatable bumpers in the gutters -- it's safer, but also causes you to not think through your actions fully.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Read Paul Venezia's tips on how to become an IT ninja. | Check out Paul Venezia's five-year plan to tackle the 8 problems IT must solve. ]

Veteran Unix admin trait No. 2: We use vi, not emacs, and definitely not pico or nano

While we know that emacs is near and dear to the hearts of many Unix admins, it really is the Unix equivalent of Microsoft Word. Vi -- and explicitly vim -- is the true tool for veteran Unix geeks who need to get things done and not muck about with the extraneous nonsense that comes with emacs. Emacs has a built-in game of Tetris, for crying out loud.

I'll grudgingly admit that the bells and whistles in vim such as code folding and syntax highlighting might be considered fluff, but at the end of the day, real Unix work blends extremely well with vi's modal editing concepts. In addition, its svelte size and universal portability make it the One True Editor. Thanks Bill, thanks Bram.

Veteran Unix admin trait No. 3: We wield regular expressions like weapons

To the uninitiated, even the most innocuous regex looks like the result of nauseous keyboard. To us, however, it's pure poetry. The power represented in the complexity of pcre (Perl Compatible Regular Expressions) cannot be matched by any other known tool. If you need to replace every third character in a 100,000-line file, except when it's followed by the numeral 4, regular expressions aren't just a tool for the job -- they're the only tool for the job. Those that shrink from learning regex do themselves and their colleagues a disservice on a daily basis. In just about every Unix shop of reasonable size, you'll find one or two guys regex savants. These poor folks constantly get string snippets in their email accompanied by plaintive requests for a regex to parse them, usually followed by a promise of a round of drinks that never materializes.

Veteran Unix admin trait No. 4: We're inherently lazy

When given a problem that appears to involve lots of manual, repetitive work, we old-school Unix types will always opt to write code to take care of it. This usually takes less time than the manual option, but not always. Regardless, we'd rather spend those minutes and hours constructing an effort that can be referenced or used later, rather than simply fixing the immediate problem. Usually, this comes back to us in spades when a few years later we encounter a similar problem and can yank a few hundred lines of Perl from a file in our home directory, solve the problem in a matter of minutes, and go back to analyzing other code for possible streamlining. Or playing Angry Birds.

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