How Unix systems administration is like filing your taxes

linux 1040

It's almost our least favorite day of the year -- Tax Day! And with a good portion of us e-filing and some of us even expecting a refund, maybe it's a good time to review how what we do as Unix sysadmins is not all that unlike what we have to do to prepare and file our tax returns every year.

First, completing a Form 1040 has never been my favorite thing to do, but I've learned that it can be a nightmare or just another opportunity to pull numbers together from a variety of resources and expect that the end result will be manageable. In comparison, administering Unix systems can be exceedingly tedious, but I take a certain pleasure in automating as much of the process as possible so that the answers that I need come to me rather than me having to go hunting for them when I'm under a lot of stress.

The right records

One of the key issues in preparing your tax returns is whether you can locate all of the supporting documentation that you are going to need. If you've been sloppy with your paperwork during the year, that week before April 15th can be one of the most stressful you'll ever experience. In a similar manner, if you can't lay your hands on the numbers that provide a reliable picture of how well your Linux systems are performing, managing a crisis can be very difficult and time-consuming. I often tell people that if you don't know what normal performance looks like, you won't know how bad things are when performance starts to break down. And, if you wait until a system is failing in some major way to start looking at the log files and the numbers, you are going to have a hard time getting it right.

The terminology

Another issue for tax season is all the terminology that you're going to have to grapple with. Terms like adjusted gross income (AGI), alternative minimum tax (AMT), capital gain, capital loss, capital expenditure and earned income credit are all going to come at you with an expectation that you know exactly what these terms mean and how they play a role into your overall financial picture. Unix terms might seem cut and dried by comparison, but understanding how swap space and virtual memory impact performance, what tools can help you diagnose application breakdowns, and how your servers are connecting and communicating within your network on a good day, you may be able to avoid asking yourself "Now how is this supposed to be working?" when you should be asking "What just changed?".

Audits and reviews

Whether looking at your tax filings or your Unix systems' performance, you want to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb. You don't want to be the subject of an audit and you don't want your systems to be the focus of anyone's complaints or evil intents. Knowing where your systems are vulnerable -- and where your tax situation is likely to invite the most scrutiny can be invaluable.

Getting credit

Way ahead of tax time, you should know which of your expenses are going to be deductable. Even when it comes to charitable giving, some charities are tax deductable and others aren't. In a similar manner, it's a good idea to know which of your administrative practices measure up to best practice and which don't. This kind of insight will help you to pinpoint where you may need to focus your efforts to increase the reliability and availability of the systems you manage.

Disaster recovery planning

Whether it's tax season or time to ensure that your Unix systems will be able to withstand some variety of catastrophe, you need to prepare well in advance. If you're going to end up in the "taxes owed" or the "servers down" category, you will want to be sure that you can withstand an emergency outage -- financial or systems wise. What resources have you stockpiled and what options do you have to cover yourself in an emergency? Do you have the means to go into overdraft on your checking account, take out a quick loan, or move your Unix services to an alternate site? Can you trust your backups? Can you get to them in an emergency? Have you practiced your recovery strategy?


I have never been an IRS agent or even spoken to one, nor have I managed to do much more than get my taxes filed every year, often with the help of online tax software that determined which forms and lines to drop my answers into. But I've been preparing my taxes for more decades than I care to recall and survived several audits ... but not the IRS kind (sorry, think ISO 27001). So don't take my advice above as anything more than my take on what is required to get through tax season without giving yourself ulcers and have confidence that the systems you manage are probably in good shape.

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