The network administrator is one of the less obscure job roles you'll see in today's IT world. It's familiar to many of us, partly because having a network administrator has been central throughout the entire PC era (personal computer, not political correctness), as infrastructures and environments changed radically.

So what does a network administrator do? One easy observation is that the network administrator’s job is very different now than it was years ago. Beyond that, though, it takes some digging to look at exactly how network administrators work in this day and age.

Changing Times

In the old days, the days of hardware environments, network administration was mainly about stringing workstations together.

You had physical computers, and you had servers. The network administrator would talk a lot about basic topologies – whether the network used a star topology, or a ring topology with a token, or a linear bus – you get the picture. The network administrator connected the various pieces, by cabling, or later, by wireless connection, and the network was born.

Network administrators still work on local area networks (LAN) and wide area networks (WAN). However, an array of dazzling innovations in technology has really changed the way environments work.

First there's the software defined wide area network (SDWAN) – one level of abstraction of the traditional network systems that network administrators managed. Then there's the cloud, and the rise of software as a service (SaaS), which eventually led to virtual environments.

These days, network administrators are often asked to contemplate a technology stack where the network environment is more distributed then the simple hardware systems of the prior age. That means they really have to wear a number of hats.

“The role of a network administrator is vast,” said Jorge Rojas, Partner at Tektonic Inc. Dec. 12, describing some of this change and how it affects the corporate role. “In addition to managing the network, creating users, resetting passwords etc., there are many other things that have to be considered: implementing best practices in the network, creating group policies in Active Directory- here, the list can get very long, password policy, network drives mapping, network printer mapping…….Most times, a Network Administrator has to be a jack of all trades, making it difficult for the individual to get the job done properly.”

Rojas also had words for the part of the industry that he feels does not support the NA on the ground.

“In most smaller organizations,” he says, “they are not provided by the employer with the proper tools to do the job.”

There are clues in public job postings that show the requirement that the network administrator master other auxiliary kinds of technologies beyond traditional networking.

For example, when we looked at some government job ads for network administrators, key qualifications included a Cisco CCNA, which makes abundant sense in the traditional model.

However, going into the private sector, we saw requests for skills with VMware, and even Docker. The reason has to do, again, with ecosystem change.

Connecting the Dots

Networking with virtual machines and containers is different from the traditional approach.

Essentially, network administrators are still responsible for connecting the dots. They have to put together the architecture of nodes and switches, whether that's an entirely hardware-driven structure, or whether their employer – company or government agency – has moved beyond into the world of virtual machines and containers.

In that sense, employers often want network administrators to have a lot of those soft skills that they also look for in developers, engineers and architects – they want the good communication skills, the team-building skills, the ability to report well, the ability to do math and understand algorithms.

To some extent, there's still a focus on traditional network administration, where some calls for working on the more virtualized and abstracted systems utilize the term ‘system administrator’ instead. In that sense, the network administrator is still the old-school guardian of the actual intranet and whatever that consists of. But there’s so much more to keep track of than there used to be!

Cybersecurity

Describing the job of a network administrator is not complete without at least dipping a toe into that deep pool called cybersecurity. In fact, many of those who talked to us about the job had a lot to say about cybersec.

“Network administrators … install, test, and monitor firewalls, they regularly check log files for any errors, warnings, (or) suspicious activity, so they can alert information security engineers and together solve problems before they become threats to organizations' servers,” Mihai Corbuleac, Information Security Consultant at StratusPointIT, says, also citing work on disaster recovery plans and more. “When a patch is released, network administrators check how it applies to the overall system, taking the necessary actions to apply the patches when required. Very often, along with information security professionals, they create and maintain a role-based security system, monitoring critical services, and conducting vulnerability and penetration testing.”

“In today's connected world with cyber attacks rampant, network administration responsibilities are as critical as ever to keep businesses protected,” says Bob Herman, Co-founder and President of IT Tropolis. “Some key job duties include: ensuring security appliances/firewalls are configured properly with malware scanning, intrusion detection and content filtering functions updated and monitored … network administrators should configure these devices to send alerts for critical events; all endpoints must have malware protection with network admins ensuring the anti-virus product is updating regularly and sending out alerts for found issues; all endpoints must be patched as critical updates come available, both OS and software applications; backup systems must be in place for all critical data, managed to ensure data can be recovered in the event of a breach.”

All of this is a tall order, so, as many top managers would admit, if you find a good network administrator – you want to keep him or her on board! Stay tuned for more on IT job roles in the new year.