If you were to make a list of IT buzzwords for 2022, here's a term that would almost certainly not be on it: sysadmin.
Indeed, for nearly a decade now, folks have been saying that the system administrator role is "dying" and that the future is in cloud administration, DevOps, site reliability engineering (SRE), or any other number of functions that fall beyond the scope of traditional sysadmin work.
But are sysadmins really going away? Or is the sysadmin role just less trendy — and therefore subject to less hype — in the era of cloud-native, DevOps-centric, API-first IT?
My overall sense is that no, the role of sysadmin is not dying — but system administrators do need to adapt to changing trends in IT if they want to maintain healthy career prospects.
Why the Sysadmin Role Is Not Dying
The most obvious data point that refutes any notion that sysadmins are descending the great blue tunnel into the afterlife is the fact that there are still thousands of jobs for sysadmins. Clearly, employers still want to hire system administrators, even if their role seems less relevant or trendy than it did 10 or 20 years ago.
Plus, it would be pretty hard to argue that sysadmin skills are no longer important. Someone still needs to provision infrastructure, deploy applications, manage incidents, apply patches, and so on — and that someone will, in many cases, be the local sysadmin.
Threats to the Sysadmin Role
However, even if sysadmins are clearly not going away, there is evidence that the 2020s are a difficult time to be a sysadmin, for several reasons.
1. Low Sysadmin Salaries
One reason is that sysadmin salaries are among the lowest in IT today. System administrators earn less than $65,000 on average, according to PayScale.
In contrast, DevOps engineers earn well into the six figures. Site reliability engineers, cybersecurity experts, and other practitioners in specialized roles earn more than that. Even IT operations engineers, who are on the lower end of the IT pay scale, earn a bit more than people with "sysadmin" job titles, even though they do very similar work.
So, while companies may still be hiring sysadmins, they are not paying them as much as they are paying for other types of IT practitioners.
2. DevOps and SRE Are Crowding Out Sysadmins
Part of the reason why DevOps engineers earn so much more than sysadmins is probably that DevOps encompasses many system administration tasks (such as provisioning and managing software environments) while also addressing other needs that sysadmins don't typically handle (such as helping to optimize application delivery).
SREs, fall into a similar boat. They do most of the things sysadmins have traditionally done, but they do other work to boot.
What this means is that, to the extent that sysadmins are becoming less and less valuable to modern businesses, it's because their role is becoming redundant for companies that also employ DevOps engineers or SREs.
3. Sysadmin Is for Smaller, Simpler IT Needs
The redundancy between DevOps and SRE roles and system administration ones also probably means that sysadmins will be more important to businesses that haven't fully gone cloud-native — or whose IT needs are too simple or small-scale to require the expertise of DevOps or SRE practitioners. These companies will continue to hire less expensive sysadmins, while businesses with complex IT requirements will invest in DevOps or SRE.
Going forward, then, expect sysadmin to be associated with smaller businesses that have less going on IT-wise — as opposed to companies aspiring to do IT as efficiently as the FAANG crowd.
4. The Cloud Is Changing Sysadmin Job Requirements
Large-scale migration to the cloud is another reason why sysadmins may be less and less relevant to some businesses.
You certainly still need to administer systems in the cloud. But administrative tasks in cloud environments are different in many respects. For example, you may not need to patch software in the cloud, because you could be using software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps that are automatically patched by the cloud vendor.
Administration tooling is quite different in the cloud, too. Instead of mastering things like Active Directory, cloud administrators have to work with IAM frameworks. Rather than knowing how to set up RAID arrays, they have to learn how object storage services work. And so on.
All of this means that people with conventional sysadmin skills are not necessarily equipped to administer cloud-based environments. They can certainly learn, but they will need to upskill themselves a bit.
In short, the sysadmin role isn't dying — sysadmins are still relevant in 2022. At the same time, however, sysadmins are less important to many businesses than they were before the era of the cloud, and before the rise of DevOps and site reliability engineering attracted companies to IT professionals who could code as well as administer systems.
The good news for sysadmins, however, is that it's easy enough to expand upon a conventional system administrator background by learning additional skills — such as cloud administration — that will open up new, better-paying career paths than traditional sysadmin jobs.
About the authorChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, "For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution," was published by MIT Press.