So You Want To Be a Network Administrator

Network guy setting up a network

Every day millions of computer, tablet and mobile users go online to browse the Internet, check emails, follow the news and connect to friends. But what makes all of these devices and networks work in concert? It's a large number of IT systems integrated to deliver such capabilities. The one critical component of these myriad IT systems is the network infrastructure.


The need for skilled network professionals is currently very high and, as the Internet of Things (IoT) sweeps the world, the demand is only going to increase. Currently, there are 25 billion internet-connected devices in the world. This number will climb to 50 billion by 2020. Imagine the demand for reliable and huge network infrastructures to facilitate the communication 50 billion devices. Imagine now the increased demand for skilled network professionals.


What do network administrators do?

Network administrators fill a variety of job roles depending on the size of their organization. For small to medium-sized organizations, the network administrator usually is responsible for maintaining network devices as well as supporting all of the other computer systems including servers, desktops, laptops, printers, mobiles, tablets, and so forth. In this instance the network administrator acts as an IT guru who supports all things IT, or at least most of them.


In larger organizations, these roles are typically divided among a number of administrators with different specialties like maintaining network devices, including routers, switches, firewalls, wireless access points and any other networking systems.


An organization's core business also plays an important role in determining the needed skill level and job responsibilities of a network professional. Network administrators working for an organization whose core business is something other than information technology generally act as business facilitators — they facilitate the work of other employees. In an organization where the core business is information technology, network administrators become key players in the business.


What does it mean to administer a network?

Anyone can buy a switch and a router, connect them, and operate a network in less than 15 minutes. This is not network administration! Network administrators perform many practices to maintain efficient and effective data communication between a myriad of devices. These practices include the design, implementation and operation of the network. They are also done on a continuous basis to ensure a stable and high-performing network infrastructure that can easily be expanded according to business needs.


The most important characteristics of a network infrastructure are availability and reliability. Successful administrators are the IT pros who can design, implement, operate and maintain highly available and reliable network infrastructures.


Network availability is the percentage of time in which a network is actually available to perform data communication compared to the total time it's expected to function. This is usually measured over a one-year period and the golden number here is "9." The availability of 99.99 percent (called four nines) means that the network was up for at least 99.99 percent of the time during the year, and that it was unavailable for a total of no more 52 minutes and 35 seconds. (Hopefully, nothing really important needed to be done during those 52 minutes and 35 seconds.)


Similarly, an availability of 99.999 percent (five nines) means the network was unavailable for only 5 minutes and 15 seconds. With today's high dependency on network infrastructure by business, four to five nines of network availability is expected.


Network reliability is the ability of the network to consistently perform according to its specified capabilities and designed capacity. For example, a reliable network that offers 1G bps transfer rate between a user and a server is expected to satisfy this transfer rate all of the time and without errors.


The most critical phase in achieving network reliability is the planning phase, when the network is designed and devices, vendors and technologies are decided upon. Careful pre-planning during this stage will save an administrator, the organization, and the users a great deal of difficulty down the road.


A good network administrator's goal is to achieve a highly available and reliable network.


Becoming a network administrator

I'm assuming that, after reading his far, you're excited about networking and want to know how to become a certified administrator. The good news is that you don't need to have a computer science degree from a university — the field is open to anyone, regardless of their educational background. I myself have a good friend who is a network administrator and his degree is in tourism! He did a career shift three years ago, and is now a very successful network administrator. Regardless of your age and experience, it's never too late to start a career in the networking field.


Two tools for the networking field

Woman using a computer

I hope you enjoy reading, because that is the first tool. Administering a network requires a solid understanding of many different protocols and concepts. Beginning to configure network devices without gaining the required knowledge is like scuba diving without the proper diving tools. It's expected that network professionals have a very solid foundation of technical knowledge. You must read and learn all about the multitude of networks and their accompanying devices.


Practice is the second necessary tool for learning network administration. Reading all the networking books in the world without physically accessing a router will not make you a good network administrator. It's like practicing driving a car to master the driving skill — you can read all about it, but until you actually get behind the wheel, you aren't driving.


Internship jobs are a very good option for younger professionals pursuing a networking career. This allows them access not only to operational network devices, but also to experienced network professionals who can be a rich source of information.


Building a practice lab is another good option, but can be somewhat costly. Fortunately, there are many free network simulators today that can be installed on a normal PC. These simulators enable you to build and simulate a real network. One great simulator is GNS3. This is an amazing simulation tool that's been used for years by exam candidates and experienced network professionals. Cisco Packet Tracer is another alternative for creating networks and practicing troubleshooting scenarios.


Networking certifications

Certification programs are the shortest path to mastery of networking. They are also the industry norm as a way to verify skills and knowledge. Choosing the proper certification depends on the role of the job you want to fill.


Working in a large organization with specialized professionals is going to require a deep understanding of networking concepts and devices. Cisco offers some great courses to help you develop your networking skills and understanding. The CCNA and CCNP certifications are considered the Industry standard for network administrators. Although these certifications are vendor oriented, they include a great deal of information about network concepts and technologies. A very solid, vendor-neutral certification choice is CompTIA's Network+.


On the other hand, working for small and medium size organizations with diverse responsibilities requires understanding of other computer systems including PCs and servers. In such a situation, Microsoft's MCSA/MCSE is a very good choice to enrich your knowledge.


Final thoughts

Information technology is a fast-paced industry, technologies change and evolve daily. Successful professionals are the ones who cope with this quick change and adapt to it. It's very important to follow technology updates through industry news websites — again the reading. As a result, it becomes a priority to check these websites regularly to ensure being updated with any industry shifts. And remember the second tool — practice as much as you can, because practice makes perfect.


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About the Author
Ahmed Badr

Ahmed Badr is a network consultant with more than 10 years of experience designing, implementing and operating large scale network infrastructures. He holds a BSc in Communications and one in Electronics Engineering, and a Master of Business Administration. He also holds a CCIE certificate in Routing and Switching since 2008. Ahmed can be contacted at: