Introducing the Guide to Sysadmin Body of Knowledge (SABOK)

[Originally published on SysAdvent Calendar, 2 Dec 2013.]

PURPOSE: Protect and support a humanity increasingly dependent on computers by creating a Body of Knowledge for professional and effective computer systems administration.

Problem Statement

Humanity is increasingly dependent on computers. More and more computer systems are deployed; the number of professional sysadmins is not growing equally fast and there is a shortage.

Modern policy-based configuration management tools drastically change the sysadmin to computer ratio, enabling a single sysadmin to handle thousands of computers.

Sadly, most sysadmins in the field are not familiar with these tools, or are just starting to learn about them. Tell your coworkers about configuration management!

Bottom line: the computer technology explosion is such that we need more and better sysadmins to keep humanity's computer systems online and the economies flowing.


Let's list what a sysadmin should know and be able to do.

We could then use this list to:

  1. Train new sysadmins, and

  2. Verify knowledge and skills of existing sysadmins, and close any gaps.

Formal definition and acceptance of this list, ideally done under the auspices of professional association and with academia involved, would establish our Body of Knowledge.

What is a Body of Knowledge?

Body of Knowledge (BOK or BoK) is a term used to represent the complete set of concepts, terms and activities that make up a professional domain, as defined by the relevant professional association.

While the term body of knowledge is also used to describe the document that defines that knowledge - the body of knowledge itself is more than simply a collection of terms; a professional reading list; a library; a website or a collection of websites; a description of professional functions; or even a collection of information. It is the accepted ontology for a specific domain.

-- "Body of Knowledge", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

What is "ontology"? Wikipedia gives us this:

Ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

-- "Ontology", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

I found a better definition in a recent paper What's Wrong with Knowledge Management? And the Emergence of Ontology by Mark Burgess.

Technically, an ontology is defined as "a set of specialized concepts within a domain" (from the Greek logos (talk about) and ontos (that which exists)). It is the term used for describing domain knowledge.

A BOK could serve as a foundation for a common cirriculum. A BOK should be useful to both academia and industry.

Clearly defining our Body of Knowledge is the next step in maturing systems administration, the next step on the journey to Profession.

Prior work

In 1997-1999, Geoff Halprin drafted a SA-BOK delineating Key Areas of Responsibilities of a systems administrator and providing a site assessment checklist.

In 2000, Mark Burgess wrote Principles of Network and System Administration, an introductory college text. The publisher's book description reads:

A single, comprehensive resource that responds to the high demand for specialists who can provide advice to users and handle day-to-day administration, maintenance, and support of computer systems and networks. Author approaches both network and system administration from the perspective of the principles that do not change on a day-to-day basis. Shows how to discover customer needs and then use that information to identify, interpret, and evaluate system and network requirements. New coverage includes Java services and IPv6.

Also in 2000, Rob Kolstad and the LISA community kicked off a sysadmin taxonomy project, an attempt to build an ontology of systems administration concepts. By 2002, progress has been made but the work was not completed.

Meanwhile, in 2001, Addison-Wesley published Tom Limoncelli's and Christine Hogan's The Practice of System and Network Administration, a comprehensive overview of the practical aspects of system administration.

In 2011, Aleksey Tsalolikhin compiled a Guide to the System Administration Body of Knowledge, a round-up of Normative Literature. Normative literature describes agreed upon norms or standards. Such literature is essential for standardizing and maturing systems administration. This compilation has grown into the SABOK Reading List and the web site.

Current efforts


Inspired by the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK), we registered and rounded up materials:

None of the above is intended in an authoritarian fashion. It is a draft we can edit and build agreement on.

The ontology needs the most work and is the hardest part of putting together a SABOK.

A large community effort is needed to create an ontology. We are working with LOPSA to formally establish a Professional Content Committee to move this forward as a community. We are also in communication with academia through the ops-education Google Group.

Making ontologies today requires knowledge of ontology tools or involvement of ontologists:

Judging both from my own personal experience and from existing research, ontologies are notoriously hard to create for a number of reasons, see Dicheva & Dichev (2005); Moench et al. (2003). They typically represent domain expertise, they need to be populated with knowledge by domain experts; however, the technologies for doing so are not user-friendly and so these trained experts need other experts (trained knowledge engineers) to make the models on their behalf - experts, requiring more experts.

-- Mark Burgess

There is an alternative to designing and managing an ontology as a tree.

In What's Wrong with Knowledge Management? And the Emergence of Ontology, Mark Burgess describes using promise theory to let ontology emerge as a network. Everyone contributes. Each contribution is labeled with provider. Others then vote / agree / disagree or add their own perspectives. From this network, basic patterns will emerge. This approach allows handling of greater degrees of complexity than a managed tree.

Ops School

An important related effort is Ops School. In June 2012, Avleen Vig et al. started Ops School to create complete curriculum materials for training Ops Engineers.

How to contribute

Feedback and contributions are most welcome. Feel free to comment here, email or send a pull request.

  1. Notes from LISA 2012 "Ops Education" workshop

  2. Notes from the USENIX LISA 2010 Knowledge Management Workshop

  3. Ops School - In June 2012, Avleen Vig et al. started this project to create complete curriculum materials for training Ops Engineers.

  4. League of Professional System Administrators - professional association for system administrators