The subject matter of systems administration includes computer systems and the ways people use them in an organization. This entails knowledge of operating systems and applications, as well as hardware and software troubleshooting, but also knowledge of the purposes for which people in the organization use the computers.
The most important skill for a system administrator is problem solving. The systems administrator is on call when a computer system goes down or malfunctions, and must be able to quickly and correctly diagnose what is wrong and how best to fix it. In some organizations, computer security administration is a separate role responsible for overall security and the upkeep of firewalls and intrusion detection systems, but all systems administrators are generally responsible for the security of the systems in their keep. (Encyclopedia.com, 2011)
What is a computer network? According to McGraw Hill Online Learning Center, "a network is two or more computers connected so that they can communicate with each other and share information, software, peripheral devices, and/or processing power." (McGraw Hill, 2011) Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems said in 1988 that "the network is the computer," a view that was self serving for Sun, but it doesn't help in the quest to separate the two.
A network administrator is responsible for the deployment, configuration, and maintenance and monitoring of active network equipment and software. Activities attendant to this role may include assigning network IP addresses to the devices connected in the network, assigning routing protocols, and authorizing directory services. This suite of activities gives the network administrator a measure of control over the personnel wishing to utilize the services of the network. He knows who is on the network at any time and who is responsible for using specific resources. This knowledge is useful for security purposes as well as for internal cost accounting. (Wikipedia, 2011)
The actual duties of a network administrator vary widely from organization to organization and may include physical maintenance of network assets such as CPUs, storage backup devices, printers, routers, Local Area Networks, VPN gateways, firewalls, and intrusion detection and protection software. (Wikipedia, 2011)
An important duty of the network administrator is providing technical support to the organization. A tiered response system with "trouble tickets" is usually employed. The initial incoming call reporting a malfunction is most often handled by a help desk operator. If necessary, the help desk will pass the trouble ticket on to a tier two technical specialist in the particular area of the fault. In case of non-responsiveness or inability to resolve the problem, the ticket may be referred to the network administrator as tier three, the top of the technical support pyramid. As a general rule, the network administrator should not be dealing with the end users on a regular basis. If the call gets to tier three, it becomes an organizational management issue and requires a measure of diplomacy as well as superior technical prowess. Several certifications are available for network administrators from Juniper, Cisco and Microsoft.
Reading through the descriptions of the functions of Systems Administrators and Network Administrators, the distinctions become somewhat clearer. The specific job activities tend to be assigned to one or the other depending on the size of the host organization. In a small outfit, it would not be surprising to see one person handling both jobs. In a large organization the System Administrator deals with the servers and the Network Administrator deals with the communications aspects of the network. Again, depending on the size of the organization, a Network Administrator may report to a Systems Administrator, but probably not the other way around. If Scott McNealy was right that the network is the computer, then even medium size organizations would be well served to cross train their it personnel so the distinction between these two job titles is immaterial.
Armstrong, L. (1995), Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
Dignan, Ars Technica, Jan 28, 2001, post 305, http://arstechnica.com/civis/viewtopic
Encyclopedia.com - Information Technology- accessed 2011/1/14
Hegel, G.W.F., the Phenomenology of Mind, (1807), translated by J.B. Baillie, New York, Harper & Row, 1967
Kipling, Rudyard (1865 -1936), the Ballad of East and West, a Victorian Anthology (1895),
Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833 -- 1908).
McGraw Hill, Online Learning Center, I-Series Computing Concepts, http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072464011/student_view0/chapter6/glossary.html