A few years ago, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece detailing nine traits of the veteran Unix admin. It enjoyed quite a reception and sparked all kinds of debate across the Internet, with people discussing each trait point by point and sparking skirmishes between rival factions. Since then, I've thought about giving network admins the same treatment, but never got around to it. It seems that this is the week. Here are a few of the many traits of the veteran network admin.
Veteran network admin trait No. 1: We already know it's down
Few things are more annoying than having your phone blow up with automated alert messages from your monitoring systems, scrambling to dig into the issue, only to be continually bombarded with humans texting/talking/emailing/calling with the same "Is x down?" question, or even worse, "The network's down!" If the outage is significant, we already know about it, and we are trying to work on it as fast as we possibly can. Continued attempts to deliver elderly information will only impede that effort.
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Veteran network admin trait No. 2: If we don't know it's down, it's probably not down
Conversely, if we get a message claiming, "The network's down!" yet we have not been notified by any monitoring system, then the problem is almost certainly the complaining user in question. To users, if there is any resource that cannot be contacted, whether that resource is internal to the network, on the Internet, or perhaps orbiting the earth, that means the network is "down." This apparently includes 404 errors from shady websites, mistyped URLs, or the lack of any sort of network connection on the user's laptop. Nothing is more grating to a network admin than someone claiming the network is "down." No, it isn't -- reboot your laptop.
Veteran network admin trait No. 3: We will ping and test several times before digging into the problem
If we begin looking into a problem, especially across a WAN or long-haul link with several providers in the middle, we will reserve judgment for the first several minutes. This is because these connections are subject to the vagaries of their path, and connectivity problems can come and go like ghosts in the night. A fiber WAN link that was stable a minute ago but is now exhibiting 30 percent packet loss will more than likely fix itself in short order. Only after a probationary period will we start digging deeper into the issue.
Veteran network admin trait No. 4: Believe it or not, we've tried turning it off and back on again
Many times, we will "fix" a problem by turning an interface off and back on again. In fact, this may be the first thing we try when troubleshooting an issue. Whether it's a problem with auto-negotiation, a sketchy cable, or sunspots, you'd be surprised at how often dropping and restarting an interface will restore proper operation. While networking may be a science, it's not without its white whale.
Veteran network admin trait No. 5: During an outage, we're not just staring at the screen -- we're following a path in our heads
If you come across a network admin working on a problem, looking at a routing table with a 1,000-yard stare, he's not experiencing performance anxiety or somehow "lost." He's running through dozens of possible scenarios in his head, following the routing and switching paths, and calculating possible problem scenarios. The uninitiated can't quite grok the way a network admin's mind works, but a parallel might be to imagine an intangible maze, then try to solve it. Somewhere in that maze lies a dead end that shouldn't be there. We're looking for that -- then we can take steps to open up the path again.