Review: Analytical Network and System Administration

Posted on November 25, 2005, under general.

After spending about 2 weeks on my desk, I finally got around to reading Analytical Network and System Administration, by Mark Burgess. It’s an excellent book, and a useful resource for all system administrators, but it might not be entirely what you expect.

Unlike Burgess’ previous system administration books, or indeed any other book in the field, this is a true academic textbook and approaches system administration from a more formal perspective that has been sorely lacking. This book fills all of the gaps between what a real B.Eng. would typically teach and what a CompSci course usually covers. It explores and explains the science behind systems and networks.

If you already know things like process control theory, information theory, set theory and boolean algebra, digital signal processing, statistics (of all manners), queuing theory and so on, you’ll hit the ground running and find this an excellent text which will help you apply those utilities to greater effect within your systems. If you’d like to learn any of those things, and get a real feel for what makes complex systems tick and let applying the scientific method to systems empower you this is a great book for that too, though you might need some other texts to help explain some of the theory. This book is not afraid of real maths, and it’s reasonably difficult to open a page that doesn’t have an equation or graph requiring at least some third-level mathematical education to digest.

There are some ommissions, there isn’t much real network theory for example. Spanning tree, Dijkstra and Floyd get less than a sentence each and there’s not much discussion of how queueing theory affects network utilisation. Likewise, the coverage of variable co-dependence and the effect on experimental observations doesn’t mention the Taguchi method. Although the Nash equilibrium is covered later in the book. It strikes a balance between overwhelming a reader and introducing real practical analytical methods.

On the whole, the book is an amazingly thorough collection of the theories applicable to systems. A strong theme throughout the book is that systems interact with humans and vice versa, and that this has to be borne in mind. The book is subtitled “Managing Human-Computer Systems”, and this even goes so far as to take into account the periodicity of daily usage patterns, and by the end of the book, you might even want to run that through a Fourier transform to see if there are any other underlying patterns. (incedentally, our MRTGs show at least 3 such frequencies; daily, academic-yearly and calendar-yearly).

System Administration right now is very much an ad-hoc haphhazard art, and truly formal best-practise has yet to emerge. But this book is the best start yet. Rather than vague handwaving and hunch-based estimates, this book presents a real metric-based approach to system administration. It shows that although these are complex systems, the mathematical tools do exist to monitor, mesaure and refine them, and that we can and should put them to use.

The book is naturally aimed as a text for academic programmes on System Administration, something we should see more and more of, but it is still a very useful reference for any engineer who has found themselves in the field. If you know what a steady-state process looks like, what hysteresis is, who Claude Shannon was, why bitwise operations are relatively quick and can calculate a standard deviation, you should buy this book right now. If you’d like to know those kind of things, it’s still a good buy and its excellent but terse introductions to each area will serve you well as insight into the usefulness of these theories as you learn them.

What I’d love to see next is for someone to bridge the gap between what an MBA usually teaches and what a system adminitrator does. There are an awful lot of commonalities between system and financial administration, particularly in how to perform audits in a robust and repeatable manner and how to analyse the efficacy of adminstration. The business world has developed a lot of theory for the management of people and processess, and not all of it is nonsense. It’d be great to see that book written too.

3 Replies to "Review: Analytical Network and System Administration"


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Roger  on October 22, 2006

Hi, this book seems to be what I need since I am by profession an Internetwork Engineer for a Financial organization. I will also check for and updated version.

Thanks for the blog.

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