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September 1999
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Stop your fire-fighting

Why fight fires when you can prevent them?

Peter identifies some common problems system administrators face -- and more importantly, how to prevent them from happening repeatedly. (2,000 words)


By Peter Baer Galvin
Scenario: A systems problem arises, and you begin work on it, but then get distracted by other help requests. An hour later you return to the problem, solve it, and move onto other tasks. Suddenly, another problem flares up. Sound familiar?

It's time to get out of the fire-fighting mode and into the firehouse-building mode -- unless, of course, you find an ever-growing to-do list and plenty of interruptions entertaining.

I've often been asked to review my clients' system administration methods and activities in order to determine why they get stuck in the "fire-fighting cycle from hell." My recommendations vary wildly depending on the circumstances, but some common themes have emerged, and they might serve as the keys to your new firehouse.

Putting out fires
How does this frustrating cycle get started and remain in place? Consider the following traps:

The causes of fires
There are specific fire causes, but it's more practical to evaluate the big picture in order to prevent the isolated incident.

Fire prevention
The antidote for system administration fires is finding their causes and sources, then solving them. Solutions vary depending on the circumstances, but hopefully your site already implements some of those recommended here. This section is designed to give you new ideas and provide a starting point to help you put out your own fires.

Most solutions cannot be implemented in a vacuum; they need coordination with other staff members, management buy-in, planning, and, sometimes, money. The first part of this column could serve as justification for the effort needed to implement these changes.

Fires will always occur, and time spent fighting them can mean the difference between being productive and stress-free, or becoming prematurely burned-out. Let me know if you chose to implement any of these ideas, and how they work for you.

Next month's column will continue this theme, and include examples of system administrators pouring gasoline on fires, and system administration methods that avoided fire altogether.

The information in this column was first presented as a keynote talk at the 1999 SAGEAU conference. Thanks to the participants there for their feedback.

[Peter Galvin's photo] About the author
Peter Baer Galvin is the chief technologist for Corporate Technologies, a systems integrator and VAR. Before that, Peter was the systems manager for Brown University's Computer Science Department. He has written articles for Byte and other magazines, and previously wrote Pete's Wicked World, the security column for SunWorld. Peter is coauthor of Operating Systems Concepts and Applied Operating Systems Concepts. As a consultant and trainer, Peter has taught tutorials on security and system administration and given talks at many conferences and institutions.

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