By Doug Lowe

Simply put, network administrators administer networks, which means that they take care of the tasks of installing, configuring, expanding, protecting, upgrading, tuning, and repairing the network. Network administrators take care of the network hardware, such as cables, hubs, switches, routers, servers, and clients, as well as network software, such as network operating systems, email servers, backup software, database servers, and application software.

Most importantly, network administrators take care of network users by answering their questions, listening to their troubles, and solving their problems.

On a big network, these responsibilities constitute a full-time job. Large networks tend to be volatile: Users come and go, equipment fails, cables break, and life in general seems to be one crisis after another.

Smaller networks are much more stable. After you get your network up and running, you probably won’t have to spend much time managing its hardware and software. An occasional problem may pop up, but with only a few computers on the network, problems should be few and far between.

Regardless of the network’s size, all network administrators must attend to several common chores:

  • Equipment upgrades: The network administrator should be involved in every decision to purchase new computers, printers, or other equipment. In particular, the network administrator should be prepared to lobby for the most network-friendly equipment possible, such as network-ready printers, ample network disk storage, and an adequate backup system.

  • Configuration: The network administrator must put on the pocket protector whenever a new computer is added to the network. The network administrator’s job includes considering what changes to make to the cabling configuration, what computer name to assign to the new computer, how to integrate the new user into the security system, what rights to grant the user, and so on.

  • Software upgrades: Every once in a while, your trusty OS vendor (likely, Microsoft) releases a new version of your network operating system (NOS). The network administrator must read about the new version and decide whether its new features are beneficial enough to warrant an upgrade. In most cases, the hardest part of upgrading to a new version of your network operating system is determining the migration path — that is, how to upgrade your entire network to the new version while disrupting the network or its users as little as possible. Upgrading to a new NOS version is a major chore, so you need to carefully consider the advantages that the new version can bring.

  • Patches: Between upgrades, Microsoft releases patches and service packs that fix minor problems with its server operating systems. (Other software vendors also regularly release patches and service packs, so it isn’t only Microsoft software that must be kept up to date.)

  • Performance maintenance: One of the easiest traps that you can get sucked into is the quest for network speed. The network is never fast enough, and users always blame the hapless network manager. So the administrator spends hours and hours tuning and tweaking the network to squeeze out that last two percent of performance.

  • Ho-hum chores: Network administrators perform routine chores, such as backing up the servers, archiving old data, freeing up server hard drive space, and so on. Much of network administration is making sure that things keep working and finding and correcting problems before any users notice that something is wrong. In this sense, network administration can be a thankless job.

  • Software inventory: Network administrators are also responsible for gathering, organizing, and tracking the entire network’s software inventory. You never know when something is going to go haywire on Joe in Marketing’s ancient Windows XP computer and you’re going to have to reinstall that old copy of WordPerfect. Do you have any idea where the installation discs are?