Do system administrators have too much power?


Yesterday, Laura brought a thread from last week to my attention, and the old-school ISP admin and mail geek in me felt the need to jump up and say something in response to Paul’s comment. My text here is all my own, and is based upon personal experience as well as those of my friends. That said, I’m not speaking on their behalf, either. 🙂
I found Paul’s use of the word ‘SysAdmin’ to be a mighty wide (and — in my experience — probably incorrect) brush to be painting with, particularly when referring to operations at ISPs with any significant number of mailboxes. My fundamental opposition to use of the term comes down to this: It’s no longer 1998.
The sort of rogue (or perhaps ‘maverick’) behavior to which you refer absolutely used to be a thing, back when a clean 56k dial-up connection was the stuff of dreams and any ISP that had gone through the trouble to figure out how to get past the 64k user limit in the UNIX password file was considered both large and technically competent. Outside of a few edge cases, I don’t know many system administrators these days who are able to (whether by policy or by access controls) — much less want to — make such unilateral deliverability decisions.
While specialization may be for insects, it’s also inevitable whenever a system grows past a certain point. When I started in the field, there were entire ISPs that were one-man shows (at least on the technical side). This simply doesn’t scale. Eventually, you start breaking things up into departments, then into services, then teams assigned to services, then parts of services assigned to teams, and back up the other side of the mountain, until you end up with a whole department whose job it is to run one component of one service.
For instance, let’s take inbound (just inbound) email. It’s not uncommon for a large ISP to have several technical teams responsible for the processing of mail being sent to their users:

  • the aforementioned system administrators (who are responsible for running the operating system and base-level support applications — but not the hardware; that’s handled by the hardware team),
  • the application administrators (who manage the process(es) that handle the actual SMTP transactions),
  • and the database administrators (this volume of mail most likely not happening strictly using flat files.) (Oh, and the database hosts have separate hardware administrators and system administrators, too.)

You’ll note that none of these groups have taken responsibility for saying what actually gets to be delivered. In most cases, at most large ISPs, it’s simply not their job. Their jobs are simple: Keep their piece of the machine up and performing within acceptable technical parameters.
The decision to block (or unblock) messages (whether by IP, domain, content, or any other criterion) is made by an entirely different team, with a different set of marching orders. At many ISPs, these people don’t even report into the same organization as the guys listed above. These folks go by many names, but I’ll use the term ‘Postmaster’ here. Postmaster teams have a weird job that’s both science and art.
The science part is pretty easy, as it’s supported by data provided by users. For instance: how many complaints are we getting about a sender and what percentage of messages we receive from the sender results in complaints? (It’s important to remember that those are two very different things.) Since this part of the job is is so data-driven, it is often at least partially automated, or at least streamlined via tools. As dashboard displaying messages from suspected senders or those containing suspected content, with links to or copies of the supporting data would allow the Postmaster team to proactively review inbound messages that may not have yet triggered automated systems, but that are likely to in the near future. (Oh, and this dashboard was probably written by a tools team (still not the system administrators!) who have access to the hosts where the logs are kept (… need I even say it?))
The ‘art’ part is where things get tricky, and is one reason actual system administrators shy away (or run screaming) from this type of work. There are potential legal ramifications to this sort of thing, particularly when blocking on message content (as opposed to message source). What percentage of messages that generate complaints is acceptable? What if nobody (for whatever reason) ever complains, but the message contains illegal content? What happens if a small, but vocal, number of people complain? Do we have a partnership (it happens) with the sender that in any way changes our response to complaints about their messages? Do we attempt to work with the sender prior imposing a block, or simply block the incoming stream without warning? What is the best way to block this sender? Should we attempt to block similar messages? If so, how do we identify these messages?
These are all squishy, unquantifiable things, many of which can be (more or less) legally defined, but not necessarily implemented via a particularly elegant piece of code. Human intervention is required. Actual people actually looking at messages and complaints, taking them in context, comparing that context against the minimal guidelines provided by the various technical (host, system, database) admins, as well as the more nebulous legal and policy guidelines provided by any number of groups: sales, marketing, legal, etc. Calls (like, actual phone calls, not decisions) need to be made.
I have a number of years as a system administrator under my belt, most of them spent at large ISPs, and I speak from experience when I say I know of very very few people who sign up to be a system administrator who want anything to do with this kind of work.
(All of that was my long way of saying that any ISP with a significantly large number of users is long past the point where such unilateral decisions can be made. Or, if they can be made, systems are assuredly in place that they cannot be made without being noticed. Any single player who decides to block all mail from ‘Opposition Candidate’ had best be ready to have technical- and policy- based reasoning at the ready, because actions will need to be justified, and in short order.)

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  • The people concerned are often in the “abuse” team, which is often made of the people lowest in the pecking order who get stuck with the scut work. Back when I managed technical operations at a midsized European ISP, the department secretary handled it, and when she got tired of it, we got her an intern to deal with them.

  • This all sounds right to me, too.
    I also note that most of the people complaining about their mail being blocked vastly overestimate how much the recipients care. Informally, if I ask whether they’d be willing to lose all their commercial mail if they’d also lose their spam, the usual response is the look one gives a person who has asked an incredibly dumb question.

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