Linux, politics, and other interesting things
I think that a major deficiency in Computer Science degrees is the lack of sysadmin training.
The first thing that needs to be added is the basics of version control. CVS (which is now regarded as obsolete) was initially released when I was in the first year of university. But SCCS and RCS had been in use for some time. I think that the people who designed my course were remiss in not adding any mention of version control (not even strategies for saving old versions of your work), one could say that they taught us about version control by letting us accidentally delete our assignments. :-#
If a course is aimed at just teaching programmers (as most CS degrees are) then version control for group assignments should be a standard part of the course. Having some marks allocated for the quality of comments in the commit log would also be good.
A modern CS degree should cover distributed version control, that means covering Git as it’s the most popular distributed version control system nowadays.
For people who want to work as sysadmins (as opposed to developers who run their own PCs) a course should have an optional subject for version control of an entire system. That includes tools like etckeeper for version control of system configuration and tools like Puppet for automated configuration and system maintenance.
It’s quite reasonable for a CS degree to provide simplified problems for the students to solve so they can concentrate on one task. But in the real world the problems are more complex. One of the more difficult parts of managing real systems is dependencies. You have issues of header files etc at compile time and library versions at deployment. Often you need a program to run on systems with different versions of the OS which means making it compile for both and deal with differences in behaviour.
There are lots of hacky things that people do to deal with dependencies in systems. People link compiled programs statically, install custom versions of interpreters in user home directories or /usr/local for daemons, and do many other things. These things can have bad consequences including data loss, system downtime, and security problems. It’s not always wrong to do such things, but it’s something that should only be done with knowledge of the potential consequences and a plan for mitigating them. A CS degree should teach the potential advantages and disadvantages of these options to allow graduates to make informed decisions.
I’ve met many people who call themselves computer professionals and think that backups aren’t needed. I’ve seen production systems that were designed in a way that backups were impossible. The lack of backups is a serious problem for the entire industry.
Some lectures about backups could be part of a version control subject in a general CS degree. For a degree that majors in Sysadmin at least one subject about backups is appropriate.
For any backup (even backing up your home PC) you should have offsite backups to deal with fire damage, multiple backups of different ages (especially important now that encryption malware is a serious threat), and a plan for how fast you can restore things.
The most common use of backups is to deal with the case of deleting the wrong file. Unfortunately this case seems to be the most rarely mentioned.
Another common situation that should be covered is a configuration error that results in a system that won’t boot correctly. It’s a very common problem and one that can be solved quickly if you are prepared but which can take a long time if you aren’t.
For a Sysadmin course it is important to cover backups of systems in remote datacenters.
A good CS degree should cover the process of selecting suitable hardware. Programmers often get to advise on the hardware used to run their code, especially at smaller companies. Reliability features such as RAID, ECC RAM, and clustering should be covered.
Planning for upgrades is a very important part of this which is usually not taught. Not only do you need to plan for an upgrade without much downtime or cost but you also need to plan for what upgrades are possible. Next year will your system require hardware that is more powerful than you can buy next year? If so you need to plan for a cluster now.
For a Sysadmin course some training about selecting cloud providers and remote datacenter hosting should be provided. There are many complex issues that determine whether it’s most appropriate to use a cloud service, hosted virtual machines, hosted physical servers managed by the ISP, hosted physical servers purchased by the client, or on-site servers. Often a large system will involve 2 or more of those options, even some small companies use 3 or more of those options to try and provide the performance and reliability they need at a price they can afford.
Covering the basic coding skills takes a lot of time. I don’t think we can reasonably expect a CS degree to cover all that and also give good coverage to sysadmin work. While some basic sysadmin skills are needed by every programmer I think we need to have separate majors for people who want a career in system administration.
Sysadmins need some programming skills, but that’s mostly scripting and basic debugging. Someone who’s main job is as a sysadmin can probably expect to never make any significant change to a program that’s more than 10,000 lines long. A large amount of the programming in a CS degree can be replaced by “file a bug report” for a sysadmin degree.
This doesn’t mean that sysadmins shouldn’t be doing software development or that they aren’t good at it. One noteworthy fact is that it appears that the most common job among developers of the Debian distribution of Linux is System Administration. Developing an OS involves some of the most intensive and demanding programming. But I think that more than a few people who do such work would have skipped a couple of programming subjects in favour of sysadmin subjects if they were given a choice.
Did I miss anything? What other sysadmin skills should be taught in a CS degree?
Do any universities teach these things now? If so please name them in the comments, it is good to help people find universities that teach them what they want to learn and help them in their career.