Monday, April 11, 2011

How to be a Hacker: Sys Admins of the Class of 2011

Setting out to discover what it is to be, and in the process how to become, a hacker is one of those situations where the first step is the hardest. This is not due to the technical difficulty of the process but is more to do with trying to determine where to start with such a large and varied field.

Maybe a history lesson would be appropriate? But at which point in the long history of hacking should the lesson begin? Do we go back to the 1960's when the leaders of the open source software movement began their tinkering? Or to the origins of the Internet perhaps? Then again, can any history of hacking really commence without a discussion of the word itself? Is this hacking in the media sense of the word, bringing to mind the idea of a solitary computer expert sitting alone in a darkened room illegally accessing a government or corporate computer network, or should this be a history of the pure meaning of Hacking and therefore should we look at ancient Egypt and their technological endevours?

Figuring out where to start gets hard and can in no way please everyone, so in the best traditions of the Bond movie, lets begin with a song!

Back in 1999 there was, for a brief moment, a popular song that caught the zeitgeist of the eve of the Mellenium just right - the Sunscreen Song. The song was actually a speech published in the Chicago Tibune, written by one of their journalists a couple of years previously, which was then put to music. As with most popular things, someone on the Internet made a parody. Here's the video for the original and the lyrics to the Sys Admin version. Below that is a look at the different terms used in the parody version.

Sysadmins of the class of '99:

Wear a Leatherman.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, having a Leatherman would be it. The long-term benefits of a Leatherman have been proved by BOFHs, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of root. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your root access until it's taken away. But trust me, when you need to kill a runaway process, you'll think back to the scripts you had and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how much you could do. You are not as powerless as you imagine.

Don't worry about the Y2K bug. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to mount an old chain of Exabyte tape drives by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles on your network are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that get you called in at 4 a.m. on some weekend when you were supposed to be recovering.

Do one thing every day that scares the lusers.


Don't be reckless with other people's files (if it can be traced back to you). Come down like a ton of bricks on people who are reckless with yours.


Don't waste your time on lusers' backups. Sometimes you're ahead on patches, sometimes you're behind. The race to maintain an up-to-date system is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Log the insults in a database, cross-referenced on date, time, reason and luser. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how (and ftp me the binary).

Archive your lusers' old web caches. Throw away your logs.

Drink Jolt.

Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your old glibc libraries. The most interesting sysadmins I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their systems. Some of the most interesting 40-year-old BOFHs I know still don't.

Get plenty of UPSes. Be kind to your power supplies. You'll miss them when they're gone.

Maybe you'll recover, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll have lusers, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll become a PHB at 40, maybe you'll dance on the head of your boss on your last day before you wipe the servers. Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's. But at least you can read their email.

Enjoy your network. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own. No matter what the PHBs think.

Compile, even if you have nowhere to do it but on your laptop.

RTFM, even if you still use 'tar -xvf' rather than 'tar xvf'.

Do not read NT magazines. They will only make you feel ill.

Get to know your hardware suppliers. You never know when they'll go out of business. Be nice to your PFY. They're your best link to your past and the people most likely to play along when you kill the electrician with a power spike.

Understand that lusers come and go, but with a precious few you should wring their necks as soon as possible. Work hard to bridge the gaps in their knowledge and Clue, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were nasty, and had a real mean temper when roused.

Live in your office once, but leave before it makes you arrive too early for work. Live in the machine room once, but leave before you start to whistle at 28.8. Travel without moving with a line into the CCTV system.

Accept certain inalienable truths: hardware prices will rise. Lusers won't learn.You, too, will get old. And when you do, you'll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, lusers were just as bad but sometimes they respected their sysadmin.

Only respect your ass.

Don't expect anyone else to support you when you purchase a Starfire. Maybe you have photos of the Boss with a secretary. Maybe you'll have a wealthy company with more money than sense. But you never know when either one might run out, or they'll find out about the camera in the boardroom.

Don't mess too much with your chair or by lunchtime you won't be able to sleep in it.

Be careful whose software you buy, don't be patient with those who supply it. Software is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the minds of bad programmers for the 'really neat' ideas, wiping them off, painting over the ugly parts and selling it for more than it's worth.

But trust me on the Leatherman.

Ben (the original author)

Why on Earth start with a song like this, you may ask. Well, the role of Systems Administrator really lends itself to the computer hacker personality and many hackers find themselves in such a day job. A job like this allows you to tinker with all sorts of technology and deal with a variety of problems that help teach more and more about computing, networking, security, and so on. Many fine books have been written on the subject, but none capture the playful hacker spirit as well as the above parody of the Sunscreen Song.
And so, the definitions, which I hope will either refresh your geek vocabulary or add to it:

Sys Admin: aka Systems Administrator, the main man (or woman) responsible for a given computer system, usually a network in an organisation like a business. The job of choice for loads of hacker types, that often leads to a higher paid specialisation.

Leatherman: A multi-purpose tool, like a non-lethal version of the Swiss Army knife

BOFH: Bastard Operator From Hell, an internet based series of funny stories about a Systems Operator (the old name for a Systems Administrator that was primarily associated with Unix systems) who is, as the name suggests, quite the bastard. In the stories he passes the time by pricking about with the various systems under his control in order to mess with the heads of the users and his boss. The idea was picked up by The Register website who still publish BOFH stories based on the originals.

ROOT: The superuser account on Unix based systems, including Linux, the equivilent of Administrator on a Windows system. This user account has the power to do everything on the system unlike standard user accounts that are limited in their powers.

Runaway Process: A process is an instance (that is "an occurrance") of a program that is being run. Therefore, a runaway process is a running program that won't stop. This can be caused by a variety of things but usually boils down to bad programming or bad luck.

Y2K Bug: Either the greatest man-made disaster ever avoided or the best money-making scheme ever devised, no-one can be sure which.

Mount: Primarily a function of Unix type operating systems but features in Windows too, to mount a drive means to attach a filesystem source (something like a pohysical drive) to a directory so that the contents of the drive can be accessed. This function is one of many unfortunately named computer commands and items that mean something totally different in the real world - Root, I'm looking at you!

exabyte tape drives: A tape drive is, as the name suggests, a computer drive that uses magnetic tapes. These tapes are used for backing up the contents of a computer or group of computers depending on the storage capacity of the tapes in question.An exabyte is a massive amout of data equal to one million terabytes, so in this case the reference to Exabyte actually refers to an old company that used to make tape drives.

Network: Specifically, a computer network, is a collection of computers (and computer-like devices) that are connected to each other. When you connect to the Internet you are connecting your device to an INTERconnected NETwork (hence, Internet). Most companies who have two or more computers connect them into small networks so as to be able to share resources like files or printers. Networks, and the care thereof, are the whole point of having Sys Admins in the first place.

Recovering: Not entirely sure what was meant in this context, but I'm going to run with the notion that the auther meant recovery in the sense of time off for the administrator, a.k.a. the weekend, as opposed to the use of the word to describe the process of restoring data from a backup medium like a tape or disc (see Backups below).

Lusers: A derogative term for the users of a computer system

LART: Luser Attitude Readjustment Tool, aka Clue By Four, a device used to knock sense into a User

Nerf: A brand of toy gun that shoots foam darts. Fun to have in the office and unlikely to cause serious property damage or harm to co-workers (unless you insert pins or paperclips into the tips of the darts)

Backups: Copies of data used in the event of damage (in whatever form) occurring to the original. Backups are a real pain in the arse for many admins and warrent their own song which I'll publish when I find it again. A good backup can save your arse in the event of something going wrong or can hang you if you've done something you shouldn't have - too many admins have left incriminating evidence on backup tapes.

Patches: Patches are fixes to programmes. In the Windows world they are more commonly known as Hotfixes. Patching a system is an important responsibility as many patches relate to system security. Patch information is also a great learning tool for the hacker due to the many security related patches.

Database: A piece of software used to collect data in an organised and structured manner. This is a really basic definition, so for more click here

ftp: File Transfer Protocol

binary: In this instance, binary refers to a type of file that can be run on a computer - in Windows terms this would be referred to as an executable (.exe file).

archive: A store of old data

web cache: A web cache is a store of web pages that are held in order to make browsing faster. Holding onto a users web cache means that you could know what sites they were visiting and can therefore use this knowledge against them (not that you would of course as that would be naughty!)

logs: In computing, as in every other walk of life, except the lumber and swerage industries, a log is a record of things that happened. Computers tend to write them automatically, ships captains have to write them up manually, starship captains get to dictate them to the ships computer.

Jolt: A type of high-caffine content cola that's popular among those wishing to stay awake for long periods (hackers, college students, lorry drivers). More potent than standard issue coffee and has the added benefits of being served cold in a can or bottle and is therefore quicker and easier to prepare. Has been usurped (in Ireland anyway) by Red Bull.

glibc libraries: These are the parts needed to develop programs using the C language on computers usually running linux though they are platform independant. They are part of the GNU project, hence the "g" part of the name.

UPS: Uninterruptable Power Supply

PHB: Pointy Haired Boss

Server: Usually a computer (or other device) with a specific task or tasks that "serves" the requests from clients on a network.

read their email: Oh baby! This is one of the serious perks of the job when you're a systems admin, the ability to read others e-mail. This can be a massive invasion of privacy and borderline illegal depending on where you are in the world, however, not only can it be enourmously fun it can provide you with an insight into what's really happening in your organisation. Reading mail in this fashion will quickly prove the old adage about how information is power!

compile: The process of turning computer code written in a language that humans can understand (like C) and converting it into a language that the computer can understand (machine code)

RTFM: Read The Fucking Manual

tar -xvf tar xvf: tar is a piece of software for collecting files into a package file of sorts.

NT: Shorthand term for Windows NT, the version of Windows before 2000, which was before XP, which was before Vista, which was before Windows 7. The NT stood for New Technology as it was quite a departure from the old DOS based Windows systems that preceeded it. NT was the first serious attempt by Microsoft to compete with the big iron Unix systems.

PFY: Pimply Faced Youth

kill the electrician with a power spike: The accidental death of utility workers being caused by IT people is far more common than is ever reported. Luckily most sys admins during the course of their careers will not actually kill someone but are more likely to give themselves low level electric shocks as they attempt to repair equipment in a hurry and thus ignore the safety guidelines. It's about this time that most sys admins learn how electrical fuses work.

Clue: As in sense, something that really isn't all that common and is practically non-existent when most people get in front of a computer, as can be evidenced by the low number of people who read error messages before clicking the button to get rid of them and then wonder why the computer won't work.

Machine Room: Aka the server room or comms room, the place where all the main computers and their associated gear live. Famous in civilain circles for the low temperatures maintained to enable all the fancy gadgets to work at their best.

28.8: 28.8kbps or 28,000 bps was a common speed for modems. Since modems MODulated and DEModulated digital signals into signals that the phone system could transmit there was sound involved in the range of human speech, hence the idea that it was possible to whistle at 28.8. Whistling at certain frequencies was an important part of the hacker culture, especially the part dealing with phone systems. Read this to find out more about just how important it was.

CCTV: Closed Circuit Television. Big Brother is watching you, which can be unnerving until you become Big Brother, in which case it's excellent.

Hardware: Physical things, in this case, computers, printers, network gear (switches, routers, etc).

Starfire: Starfire was the codename for a big-assed server from Sun Microsystems.

Your Chair: The device between your arse and the floor. One of the more important factors in a sys admins life as a good portion of a day is usually spent sitting on one, unless you're one of those admins who are always chasing around the place at the beck and call of every users little whim. If that is the case, you might want to consider another line of work or, at the very least, grow a pair. Your Chair is not to be confused with a users chair which, along with the users computer, provides the bookends between which many problems reside, hence the term PEBKAC - Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair. I've honestly seen admins nearly come to blows over chairs, they're that important!

Humour plays a big role in the world of the Hacker; the whole point of undertaking any hacker type activity is all about having fun.While it's easy to get caught up in the technology or darker aspects of the culture it's important to stop every now and then and have a laugh, or at least crack a smile while no-one's looking if you're one of those super-serious sorts.

Wikipedia page on The Sunscreen Song: