From HelpDesk to Admin
June 12, 2009 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Best background builder(s) for a nascent server administrator position (without the schedule flexibility to take courses?)

I am currently employed as the helpdesk admin for IT in a medium-sized company with several physical locations across my state, somewhere between 500-900 employees. I've been here just under a year. I was brought onboard as the helpdesk guy, but I have recently been told I will be moving up in the IT department.

The department currently holds five people, and my immediate supervisor is the CIO of the company. He is the server admin currently, and has been bringing servers in-house from a third party for the last several months. Thankfully I have been somewhat involved in the process and am starting to get a feel for the infrastructure (my days are filled with remote redirected printing issues, troubleshooting remote applications, handling terminal services issues, permissions, etc.) but I certainly don't have a background in server administration.

I'm not afraid that I will be put in a position "above my head" because the CIO has been very helpful and walks me through everything I need to be able to do. That being said, I would like to make my life a lot easier and familiarize myself with the world of the server/network administrator.

My main strengths are in general troubleshooting and the Windows user experience (the CIO says I'm better than he is with this.) I don't have any programming or development experience, but I don't think I would need it anyway given what I've seen. We're using Hyper V and Server 2008 currently, running lots of remote accounting apps and, in the next few months, an Exchange server along with several others. Everything's virtualized across three physical servers, and it all seems relatively intuitive so far. My schedule (and budget) does not permit me to take courses currently. (I know some of you will suggest I should ask my company to send me to courses, etc, but that is not a viable thing right now given the recession.)

Are there any general-scope books/resources out there that would give me a better foundation to build on as I learn these skills? Best practices, background information, etc?
posted by Phyltre to Computers & Internet (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The Microsoft Technet library, while a bit dry, is loaded with best practices, deployment information, etc.

Having a boss that's willing to mentor you is invaluable. It's also a good opportunity to have a clean install of Exchange coming up. First time I installed an Exchange server I blew the entire thing away three times and redid it before moving it into production.
posted by IanMorr at 10:18 AM on June 12, 2009

From a MSFT/Cisco dude:

If you're a cisco shop Network Warrior is good. I was given it as a gift because of the goofy title but it's really good real-world stuff.

I've yet to find a similar resource for Windows land. Your favorite flavor of MCSE training books + technet + google is what I use.

I'll disagree with you on programming. Learning programming, even powershell or VBscript will help immensely with understanding how the system works at the lowest levels; Com objects, network sockets, WMI, function calls etc etc. Always a good thing. Plus it's a huge asset to be able to whip a script up to automate some mundane task or as a solution for some issue and will look great on your resume.

Practice lots with whatever your backup solution is and be able to do a bare metal restore. That will save your ass some day at 3am.
posted by anti social order at 10:32 AM on June 12, 2009

I would strongly suggest to look over CCNA material and see if you're at that level. It is basic stuff, pretty easy, but if you don't have a strong understanding I can imagine you'd face a lot of frustration.

Do you have a subscription to Safari Books Online? It is a good price, even if you have to pay for it yourself, and certainly is a lot easier than scouring torrent sites for a particular book. Can you swing a TechNet subscription too? I'd be surprised if your company doesn't have an MSDN or TechNet license but I found having all of MS's products completely invaluable. This is also reasonably priced if your company won't pony up, and again a lot easier than scouring torrent sites.

I learned everything I know by bringing home a server* and practicing various setups. Start with a physical server, install hyper-v and add your guest operating systems. Build a complete deployment, with AD, DNS, everything. Add in an Exchange server, try putting roles across different virtualized guests, do the various configurations for clustering (or whatever they're calling it now). Take snapshots every step of the way, you screw up, go back to the snapshot. For your first time I'd spend time just getting used to the technology, setting things up (I don't know how familiar you are with deployment). Then I'd do a by the book deployment. Make sure you do everything right. Keep an Excel spreadsheet and document IP addresses, passwords and the various configuration options. As you go through the deployment you'll get a handle on things you keep referring to and things you don't need to document.

Is all this necessary? Yes. First if you can build it from scratch you'll remember certain steps that aren't intuitive and the MSDN can a lot of times be obtuse. This is invaulable to troubleshooting. Second, you never really have time to get to know a production environment and this often results into what I call as a natural instinct to not violate the IT Hippocratic Oath ("First, Do No Harm"). Rolling back snapshots, playing around with things is great.

I also would recommend scripting everything you can in PowerShell. Even tasks that seem trivial and don't take up much of your time. Create a script that takes a CSV/Excel file and deploys a new user in AD based on correct permissions and sets up a mailbox. Sure this seems easy to do without a script, but reducing redundancy was a huge time saver for me. Does HR already tell you when to setup a user, the permissions and such? Hand them an Excel spreadsheet (or better, Sharepoint site!) that let's them do these things.

I didn't fully "get" PowerShell until I realized that it exposes classes from .Net applications and that all of MS's recent products have these special classes that you can play with (if this is the right terminology?). I've used PowerShell extensively to minimize all my little tasks which has basically marginalized any sysadmin part of my job to near nothing (I consider this a good thing).

I hope this helps. I have no formal computer science background so I kind of approached this as an engineering task and found that as with a lot of engineering tasks, experience always trumps any sort of theory.

* If you cannot beg, borrow or steal a server you can setup a deployment on your workstation, but I find it better to work with the actual bare metal hardware when setting up test labs.
posted by geoff. at 11:23 AM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I highly sugegst joining technet. Yes $250 -$299is a lot but it gives you access to all microsofts documentation.

It also gives you free copies of all microsofts software (yes including things like windows 2008 server).

Once you join i suggest downloading windows 2008 and setting it up at home. This is how most of us got to know our stuff. For me school was just the paper.

Also with your technet subscription it gives you 2 free microsoft tech support calls wich can come in very handy at work if you come in oneday to a blue screen with no real problem immediately evident.

You might even get work to pay for the subscription.

Plus technet gives you betas for things that arent out yet.
posted by majortom1981 at 11:30 AM on June 12, 2009

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