Matthew Rosewarne on 9 Jan 2008 19:03:38 -0800

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[PLUG] Config Files and Steam Engines

In this thread, the role of the sysadmin has been brought up in several 
replies.  This makes me think of steam engines, or more specifically, the 
engineers that kept them rolling.

Early steam engines were dangerous, unpredictable, and overwhelmingly 
difficult to use.  They only became widespread because the service they 
provided was immensely useful, namely, moving lots of things around.  These 
mechanical beasts were manned by engineers, who was given total control over 
his engine so long as he could assure his boss that his train arrive safely 
and on schedule.  The engineers were deeply involved in the progression of 
engine designs, in many cases tinkering in the nearby metal shop to make 
almost every locomotive unique.  A good engineer spent his life in his 
engines and over time gained an intimate knowledge of its temperament and 
quirks.  He knew enough that he could drive pretty much any other engine too, 
though rarely with the same degree of proficiency.

With the engineers at the helm, the railroad industry sprawled across the 
globe.  More railroads meant more engines, and more engines required more 
engineers.  What was once a trade practised by an elite few now became a more 
widespread occupation.  Some of the new engineers had the same level of 
passion and skill as their predecessors, some did not.  Engines themselves 
became more homogeneous, making them far easier for any one engineer to 

The steam engine was now the symbol of a new era for humanity.  An engine 
could go anywhere there were rails, though only if those rails were the 
correct size.  The importance of using one size for rails became apparent 
during the American Civil War, allowing one engine to make a complete journey 
without any changing of cargo.  The steam engine could run on nearly any 
fuel, including abundant natural wood and coal.  Still, due to the inherent 
design of the steam engine and the tendency of humans to make mistakes, 
breakdowns and accidents were frequent.

Early in the 20th century, a company called General Electric began producing a 
new kind of locomotive, powered not by a steam engine, but instead by a 
diesel engine that generated electricity for an electric motor.  These new 
locomotives gave up some of the advantages of the steam engine, such as the 
ability to use nearly any fuel.  They were entirely mass-produced, unlike the 
customised steam engines, and had only a fraction of the controls, with most 
of the driving done with a single throttle control.  Due to the lack of 
high-pressure steam, the diesel engines were far safer and soon became much 
more reliable.  The role of the engineer dwindled to that of a mere driver, 
no longer the master of all aspects of his trade, and the number of support 
staff required to assist him dropped to zero.  The overall result of the 
diesel-electric engine was a massive increase in the scale of railroads with 
fewer and less severe accidents.  Nowadays, a diesel-electric locomotive can 
operate without a human driver, instead using wireless communications and 
simple computer software.

Similarly, with the massive proliferation of computers, the design of the 
systems they run becomes ever more crucial.  If the system requires a 
highly-skilled sysadmin to continuously maintain it, it becomes extremely 
difficult for it to reach widespread use.  If the systems do not share common 
infrastructure, it will be an awkward impediment to their utility, since 
someone must be in between to facilitate the transitions.  As the system 
becomes more widespread, the sysadmin, like the engineer, will inevitably 
have to relinquish some control over its design, and instead make more use of 
common designs, which will ultimately result in the system requiring less 
skill to operate, more reliable, and ultimately more useful.

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