Outback Sysadmin

You may have heard of the Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service, an organization that flies out to remote communities across the Australian outback providing medical services to people who are more than a couple of hours (and sometimes a couple of days) drive from the nearest clinic. In Australia, the RFDS isn’t the only group that provides services to remote outposts. I recently met a couple of blokes whose job involves driving across the outback in their 4 wheel drives to reach remote cattle and sheep stations where they support small business server deployments. Although you might not realize it, mining operations, cattle and sheep stations in the Australian outback can employ the same number of people as an urban SME. Just because they work and live hundreds of miles from the nearest traffic light doesn’t mean that they don’t need their Exchange server tuned, their updates applied or their backups regularly checked.

Next time you think about the frustration of having to wait 24 hours for a critical part to arrive from the vendor via FedEX, consider the guys that have to consider a 2 day drive if they want to replace a failed hard disk in a RAID array!

Many of these sites get their internet connection through a satellite dish. A lot of their employees are seasonal and want reliable access to resources such as email and the web when they come in from a hard day’s work so that they can communicate with the people back home. The satellite connection allows IT workers to perform a lot of administration tasks remotely. When you have to travel as far as these guys do to get out on site, you do your best to automate as much as you can and try to solve as many problems over the phone as you can. Just as is the case with other SMEs, there isn’t enough work to justify having someone on site all the time, but unlike other SMEs, getting someone in when something does go wrong can require a bit of planning.

Being an IT Pro who services a remote area requires a lot of organization. For one, you’ve got to carry a lot more equipment with you in your car! Replacing a wireless access point isn’t a matter of spending half an hour ducking out to Fryes to get a new one as the nearest electronics store might be a couple of hundred miles away. The guys that do this for a living are excellent at planning ahead and try to get a good idea of what they might conceivably need before they set off from their home base. I know in my own work I’ve preferred to make an assessment of the extras I might need when I’m on site. I’ve never turned up on site with a spare router in the trunk “just in case”. Unfortunately that sort of thinking isn’t a luxury these guys have. Just in case is par for the course.

Because of the distances involved, IT pros that do this sort of work schedule on-site visits weeks in advance. When you work in an urban environment you have the opportunity to drive over to the client’s site pretty quickly when a problem crops up. It is easy to keep everything running when your furthest client is only an hour away by car. Think how happy the people you support would be if you told them that the earliest you could get to see their urgent problem was in three and a half weeks? In one case I was told about, the owner of a sheep station was so desperate for a fix he had one of his employees put a server in the back of a pickup truck and drive it for five hours down to my colleague’s office. Unfortunately the server hadn’t been strapped in as well as it could have been and my colleague spent more time repairing the damage from the five hour drive than they did restoring the server from the component failure that caused the problem in the first place!

Working in an urban environment probably means that you won’t have to camp out for a few days because the road you were taking was cut off by a flash flood and you probably don’t need to carry an extra can of gas on the back of your car in case you have to take a different route home. However, even with all the challenges, the guys I met who do this sort of work really love their job and wouldn’t swap it for an air-conditioned office park environment for the world

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