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Random musings from a UNIX Administrator


Breaking into your Solaris Server

One of the main themes of my Solaris UNIX Training online course is that reality based learning beats training that you could get out of a book or from an online manual. Along those lines, I wanted to share an experience I had on the job, what I learned from it and how I resolved the problem.

I was on a job for a major telecom company in Northern Virginia and I was working on an Enterprise 450 server. Luckily, the server was dev (a server allocated for development, not production). Anyway, I wanted to change roots shell to the Korn shell because I like the Korn shell and it makes me a much more effective administrator because of things like command completion and command line editing.

I opened the passwd file with vi (vi /etc/passwd) and changed sh to ksh for roots shell. What I neglected to do was change the path to root's shell. The default shell for root is a special copy of the Bourne shell located in the /sbin directory. I changed /sbin/sh to /sbin/ksh, saved the file with :wq! and thought I was good to go. /sbin/ksh doesn't exist! (If you don't believe me, check on the lab server.) /bin/ksh exists, but /sbin/sh doesn't.

I logged out and tried to log back in and got a scary message:

          User root not allowed because shell /sbin/ksh does not exist

At this point theres no way to get logged in as root. Regular users are still ok, but root can't login nor can a regular user su (switch user) to root with "su - root". Another scenario that you may face is where you have forgotten roots password or someone else changed it on you. Either way, whether it be an improperly defined login shell for root or loss of root's password, one day you will be called upon to "break into your own server". Check out the movie below to learn how to get back into your server as root if you find yourself in this situation.

Breaking into your Solaris server ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Basics

The value of the basics. Sometimes students want to start learning Sun Cluster or Veritas Volume Manager before they can quickly and reliably use the find command. Although I appreciate their enthusiasm, I cannot stress how important the fundamentals are. When you are being evaluated for a job or getting eyeballed by new co-workers, your ability to navigate the file system, change permissions, add users and groups and generally how comfortable you are at the command line are the skills that will shine through.

In the free prep class, I cover the basic commands and concepts and most importantly teach students how to figure out the other couple thousand commands as you need them. The ability to get answers is far more impressive than memorizing hundreds of commands and their options. I would much rather hire a UNIX Admin who knew about 30 commands cold and knew the tricks and techniques necessary to figure out the rest than a person who knew a couple hundred but couldn't get the job done if the job required going outside their comfort zone. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


The Fallacy of Certification

Another issue that I feel strongly about: Certification.

Back in the early through mid 90's, a few certifications were golden tickets. MCSE and the Novell certifications used to get you a job, even if you didn't know what you were doing. The IT tech explosion, or IT bubble of the mid through late 90's had no shortage of paper tigers. When the bubble burst, countless MCSE's hit the market and found out that the honeymoon was over. They had to go back to school, take pay cuts, get out of the industry or go in a new direction. I had hundreds of MCSE's tell me how no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't get back to the good old days. They kept getting asked the same question: Do you have any UNIX experience ? After running into that roadblock repeatedly, they started showing up at my door. I taught from my experience, told them the way things really were and they started getting jobs or big raises. Then they referred friends and family members. That's where it's at. Taking care of yourself through knowledge so that you can in turn take care of your family and have a better quality of life.

Getting your SCSA certification from Sun Microsystems never hurt anyone. I personally never bothered to get mine done till January of 2008 when I was required to have it to teach a Solaris 10 BootCamp. I have worked for scores of clients as a UNIX Admin consultant and have taught a couple thousand people over the years. I have never heard of an instance where a person got a job because they had their SCSA from Sun or any other certification for that matter. Passing the two exams from Sun should be on your radar, but not in the beginning. Become a good UNIX Admin first. Then get the certification if you really want to. If you are already in the field and truly just want that piece of paper (which is actually a credit card sized piece of plastic), buy a book. Search amazon.com and grab a $30.00 or $40.00 book, read it about three times. Then, spend $400.00 on the two test vouchers, schedule your exam with Prometric, take and hopefully pass the exams.

Just don't think that the SCSA certification by itself will help you reach your goals. You will be very disappointed and frustrated. And unemployed. Get certified fast programs are in the same boat as get rich quick schemes: They simply don't work. Sometimes people get so fixated on what they think their goal is that they never actually pick out a valid goal to begin with.

I figure it takes about 500 hours of guided work to become a good UNIX Administrator. There is no magic spell, shot or pill to get there. What you need is hands on practice (lots of it) and a mentor with lots of experience who can prevent you from wasting your time on things that you won't need on the job.



Writing Things Down

When I was in high school, my best friend Brett grew up in a very wealthy family. I grew up in a modest middle class neighborhood in Greenlawn, NY. Money was not really an issue, especially in the later years of my child hood. A short stint on food stamps when I was about 6 and chronic hand me downs of things like boyscout uniforms and bicycles was the extent of our "poverty". We always had food on the table and new clothes at the beginning of the school year, but money was tight sometimes. Brett on the other hand grew up in an environment of pool tables, pinball machines, 8 or 10 cars in the driveway (Rolls Royces, two of them) and always a yacht down at the marina. One of the things I liked about Brett was that he couldn't possibly care less about the money. He was and continues to be my best friend though I don't speak to him as often as I feel I should.

What the hell does this all have to do with "Writing things Down" or Solaris for that matter? Nothing. Just some background to explain where I'm coming from before going into my rant about writing things down, a lesson I learned from Brett's Dad, Harvey. The one with the yachts.

One day I was talking to Harvey and somehow we got to talking about goals and what I wanted to achieve in my life. He taught me something that has made a major impact in my life. He told me that if I wanted to achieve something, all I had to do was write it down. That's it. Just write it down on a piece of paper, long hand. He explained that writing down what you're going to achieve and when you are going to achieve it is the hardest part of getting what you want in life. It still sounds absurd to me, just like it did in Brett's living room circa 1987 or so. Harvey went on to explain that most people don't have the courage to put it in writing. Doing so forces you to really face your fears of failure as well as your fear of success. It brings your wants and needs into sharp focus. You'll find that as you begin writing, your goals will change slightly. We all think that we want to be rich and have mobs of attractive people of the opposite sex (or the same sex, depending) chasing us down as we ride off in our Rolls Royce with the steering wheel on the "wrong" side, or the one with the steering wheel on the "right" side, or in our Cadillac, or our mint condition '56 Ford Thunder-bird or your WW2 era tank or perhaps in the mini submarine. Yes, Harvey had all of those things, probably still does. One of his kids was mortified when he picked them up from High School in the tank, or it might have been an amphibious assault vehicle. Either way, Harvey was and still is a unique individual.

Brett was and still is chronically late, so I had several of these chats with Harvey. He gave me the write it down gift. He also forced me to address what was really the most important thing in life: Family. I'm sure Harvey would have lent me one of his expensive cars, but what he have me has been so much more valuable. If you want something, write it down. Ultimately, no matter what you drive or own, nothing matters unless you balance your time getting a Rolls Royce with the steering wheel on the "right" side with raising, taking care of and spending time with your family. I doubt that your piece of paper, (you know, the one with your goals written on it) is nothing but a long list of toys. I'll bet it has things like giving your family a better life, having more time to relax, less worry about getting a well paying job. Go ahead, write down what you really want in life. I make my living teaching people so they can check off the items on their list. There are many other ways to get there. Whether you grow and achieve through education or some other method, just make sure you write it down. Write it and it will happen.



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