What do I need to know about getting into OS X system administration?
May 15, 2009 9:06 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to know about getting into OS X system administration?

This is phrased broadly, so please feel free to give any advice. I'm coming at this as a potential career path, but I don't have a lot of professional knowledge. I am self-taught on PCs and Macs from a young age and have fiddled around behind the scenes a little (played with mysql, macports, apache, etc.) but don't have a lot of experience in a unix environment. I read slashdot and daring fireball and etc. Basically I am loosely plugged in to the IT world, but no more so than the next guy, so I need help developing expertise and finding out if this is worth pursuing. Originally trained in architectural design, urban planning and real estate, so those aren't going to be a huge help, except that I use computers a lot and I am the de facto fix-it guy wherever I go. Questions:
  • I know OS X isn't a big market (right now), but I look at it as a stepping stone/complimentary skill to unix administration and I like working in the OSX environment. is this a valid direction?
  • Is there job potential for a 20-something guy with intelligence but not professional experience? Job security? Money? What does the job market look like going forward? If you must know my secrets, I'm looking especially toward higher education and potentially design firms (when autodesk gets around to an OSX version of autocad)
  • Is it worthwhile to pursue the apple professional certifications? What other professional networks/certs/etc. knowledge should I be checking out? who/what should I know? What should I read? What should I focus on?
  • If you have personal experience in the field, what other advice would you give? What's the career like?
Thanks in advance!
posted by Chris4d to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
1. While there are definitely simularies between Unix and the OSX kernel, there are fundamental differences as well. Apple started, and then sharply veered off the path in a lot of critical places. You can definitely learn a lot, but there will be a lot of surprises moving back and forth.

2. It's all in who you know. Networking (as in people networking) is critical in all fields and increasingly so in IT. Speaking from experience, Mac's are gaining in popularity in higher education but, in most cases, are still a relatively small part of the overall landscape.

3. Certifications not only help with knowledge they can also provide that crucial networking piece. If you've got no other job leads then pursuing the certification is certainly a good place to start.

4. I'm not a front-end guy on this field, I look after staff who are responsible for these areas. My advice is that adaptation is key. Specifically, Apple likes to throw a lot of curveballs with both their OS and hardware upgrades with very little (and in most cases no) advanced notice. You'll often find that images developed for hardware that was available the week before no longer work. You'll get caught in a lot of licensing snags. Apple support is virtually non-existent in enterprise spaces especially when you're trying to integrate services across platforms (you'll use a lot of community resources).

It is fun though. When you see the shiny new Xserve, iMac, or Macbooks show-up on your doorstep you know that there will be challenges but they're worth it in the end*.

* That being said, I still prefer administering Windows workstations in an enterprise environment.
posted by purephase at 9:43 AM on May 15, 2009

First of all you must realize that you will never find work as a Mac expert. Companies do not have the luxury of hiring such a specialized person. Go and learn Windows and LINUX.

Do not limit your job search to traditional Mac shops. I know of a major multinational Pharma/Bio that is 60% Mac. Nearly every large company would have Macs in in-house design.

Experience counts. Certifications may make the difference between equally qualified candidates. However you being so young you're probably looking at positions where you'd be working under someone with the certs.

Do a job search using Mac or Macintosh support. look at the list of qualifications. If you feel confident that you can BS your way through an interview, apply. Be prepared for $17.00 to $20.00 per hour. YMMV
posted by Gungho at 9:53 AM on May 15, 2009

Best answer: It depends on what kind of systems you want to admin for. OS X Servers are more likely to require Unix skills. Individualized desktops for trusted users (e.g., a design firm) require more of a troubleshooting / Mac Genius skill set. Homogenized desktops for untrusted users (e.g., a computer lab) require a particular security focus: preventing a user with physical access to the machine from compromising it and containing the damage when they inevitably do.

The most important thing is to actually do all of these things. Reading books is not enough because the books are out of date the moment they are written. Real comfort and familiarity only comes with doing.

For servers the essential skills are security, data backup, clustering and failover, and application support (e.g., setting up the database, web server, and application server stack, possibly spread across machines or clusters of machines).

One way to learn those skills is to get two Macs and set up a bunch of different environments: Apache, MySQL, PostgreSQL, PHP, Python, Perl, Java; two servers clustered for load balancing; one server acting as a failover for the over; one server running the database while the other runs the web server and app server, and so forth. Learn how to run the latest versions of the relevant software - you can't always rely on Software Update to provide security patches on time.

Learn how to setup a backup system that can handle live backups of the email system, databases, and the rest. Then, simulate disaster recovery by trashing a lot of important files and then restoring from the backup. Verify that everything still works. The hard part of backup is usually not the backup, it's the restore.

Also consider buying a PC, installing Linux on it, and introducing it to your server environment. Being able to work in a heterogeneous environment is important and a lot of the Unix administration skills are transferable.

For individualized desktops I think the certification program is worthwhile. Depending on your current employment you might consider working as a Mac Genius, specifically as one of the techs that works behind the scenes. For at home training, set up one of your Macs as a file & print server and set up the Mac, the Linux machine, and a Windows PC to use it.

For homogenized desktops you need to learn how to lock down a system and contain damage from users that get around the lockdown. For lock down, the first step is user permissions, which only starts with application whitelisting. For some environments it's enough to have a minimal 'guest' account. For others, you need to have an authentication server and store home directories on the network.

For this: learn every combination of Mac as authentication and file server, Mac as client, Windows server, Windows client, Linux server, Linux client. You have to be prepared to jump into any environment.

For containment often the system has a hidden partition with a 'known-good' image or such an image is kept on a server. The boot partition is refreshed using the known-good image either on a schedule or every time the system reboots. Alternatively the desktops can boot over the network. A working knowledge of AppleScript is more important for this kind of environment, though a lot can be done with regular scripting languages.
posted by jedicus at 10:01 AM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Apple support is virtually non-existent in enterprise spaces especially when you're trying to integrate services across platforms (you'll use a lot of community resources).

This is a good point. I started out as a strictly Windows admin, and am moving towards Mac since that's where my employer is going. One of the nice things about Windows is they have good technet support, and with the ubiquity of Wintels, I could solve most my problems with a simple Google search.
This is not the case with OS X. Errors messages are more cryptic than Windows and on clients, error messages can be nonesistant- things just won't work. Thus, the console is your friend. Learn to interpret and read it.
Even when I know what the problem is, Google searches are much less helpful because a) Apple online support sucks, particularly for all but basic server setups and in comparison to Microsoft, and with the lack of Mac usage, there's less help in general.
posted by jmd82 at 10:07 AM on May 15, 2009

Response by poster: Errors messages are more cryptic than Windows and on clients, error messages can be nonesistant- things just won't work. Thus, the console is your friend. Learn to interpret and read it.


First of all you must realize that you will never find work as a Mac expert. Companies do not have the luxury of hiring such a specialized person. Go and learn Windows and LINUX.

thanks all for your input. This is actually a tick in the plus column for me; there are so many windows gurus out there already that I don't see as much opportunity. Any windows admin can post their problem to experts-exchange and get a solution within the hour. I'd rather know the stuff that everyone else doesn't know -- that's my value add.
posted by Chris4d at 10:22 AM on May 15, 2009

I spent 15 years finding plenty of work as a Mac expert, actually. While OS X may not be terribly dominant in the enterprise world, there's plenty of other opportunities out there. I've worked for IT consulting companies, school districts and universities and got paid pretty well doing it.

That doesn't mean you wouldn't need to work with PC and Unix stuff too, but there is work out there for OS X oriented admins.

Jedicus has it nailed about the skillset.
posted by ursus_comiter at 10:50 AM on May 15, 2009

I'll only add this: Ignore everyone who says you can't get full-time work with it. Don't insult the platform by treating it as an "adjunct" or "a side thing." Separate yourself from the people who have been doing Windows for years and are just tacking this on because they kind of "have to" because "that's where the business is going." (No offense to jmd82.) Be unabashedly a totally Mac person, and don't be ashamed of it. I have clients who genuinely appreciate this about me.

People who say it's not practical, it's a niche, etc. are dinosaurs and will be proven wrong down the line. Let them stick with their dying platform because it seems so stable and happens to pay the bills this year, next year, and the following . . . because it won't be there forever. If there's one lasting truth about IT, it's that nothing is a lasting truth. "You can always find work as a Windows admin" is one of those allegedly "lasting truths." Let the people who you're going to be up against for job interviews, consulting gigs, etc. keep right on thinking that. It shows an amazing lack of vision, and they can go right ahead competing against hundreds of people for every opening while you're competing against 10-15. (For now.)

Yes, I said it: Windows is dying. (Cue the old Slashdot cliche.) UNIX/Linux has a much more solid, stable future, but I wouldn't use OS X as a "stepping stone" on your way there. If that's what you want to do, just start doing it now with a hobby box at home, etc. OS X and OS X Server are their own thing, and you do a better job working with them if you really learn the Apple-specific quirks and features and master them.

(FWIW, I bought into Apple when it was $9.50 a share, adjusted to today's prices. Everyone thought I was a moron back then. They tend not to nowadays.)

/Proudly Mac-only independent consultant since 2002
posted by CommonSense at 12:05 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

First of all you must realize that you will never find work as a Mac expert. Companies do not have the luxury of hiring such a specialized person. Go and learn Windows and LINUX.

I hope you didn't misread me. I meant to say you should learn Windows and LINUX as well as Mac. In the current job market the more skills you have the better your chances, and the broader you can cast your net.
Windows people won't learn Mac because they think it is infantile, If you have both you're better off.
posted by Gungho at 12:32 PM on May 15, 2009

Gungho, I've always advised potential techs and sysadmins to do what they enjoy and, if possible, to specialize in an area of technology. Nobody can be a specialist in everything. The tech industry simply moves to fast. My advice is that you specialize in one area, and *really* gain expertise in it, and then have a working knowledge of the rest of tech and how it interacts with your specialty.

So you wanna be a Mac tech? Then be a *great* Mac tech, but have knowledge of Windows and Linux. You want to be a Windows tech? Fine, be a great one and gain a working knowledge of Macs and Linux. Learn about networking protocols and wireless systems. Learn about security models and best practices. Learn about inventory control systems and solutions that can help your area of expertise integrate or interact with other areas of tech. There are far far FAR too many Windows techs out there that *only* know the Microsoft way of doing things and when presented with anything that deviates one iota from the MCSE gospel is met with fear, derision, and rejection. One could argue that there are a few Mac techs out there that are this way with Apple stuff, but in my opinion, most of them died out with Mac OS 9.

Be a versatile and agile troubleshooter. Learn how to read quickly and synthesize vast amounts of text into nuggets of infomration...mailing list threads, for instance.
posted by mrbarrett.com at 1:09 PM on May 15, 2009

That is exactly what I meant to say...
posted by Gungho at 3:00 PM on May 15, 2009

There are majority Mac environments left in education and publishing.

My advice is not to look at it as a stepping stone to unix administration. Although I can't speak for other commercial unixes, administering OS X is very different than administering freebsd or linux.
posted by PueExMachina at 6:12 PM on May 15, 2009

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