Automation Myths

The NSA Can't Replace 90% of Its System Administrators

In the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA’s domestic surveillance activities, the NSA has recently announced that they plan to get rid of 90% of their system administrators via software automation in order to “improve security.” So far, I’ve mostly seen this piece of news reported and commented on straightforwardly. But it simply doesn’t add up. Either the NSA has a monumental (yet not necessarily surprising) level of bureaucratic bloat that they could feasibly cut that amount of staff regardless of automation, or they are simply going to be less effective once they’ve reduced their staff. I talked with a few people who are intimately familiar with the kind of software that would typically be used for automation of traditional sysadmin tasks (Puppet and Chef). Typically, their products are used to allow an existing group of operations people to do much more, not attempting to do the same amount of work with significantly fewer people. The magical thinking that the NSA can actually put in automation sufficient to do away with 90% of their system administration staff belies some fundamental misunderstandings about automation. I’ll tackle the two biggest ones here.

1. Automation replaces people. Automation is about gaining leverage–it’s about streamlining human tasks that can be handled by computers in order  to add mental brainpower. As James Turnbull, former VP of Business Development for PuppetLabs, said to me, “You still need smart people to think about and solve hard problems.” (Whether you agree with the types of problems the NSA is trying to solve is a completely different thing, of course.) In reality, the NSA should have been working on automation regardless of the Snowden affair. It has a massive, complex infrastructure. Deploying a new data center, for example, is a huge undertaking; it’s not something you can automate.

Or as Seth Vargo, who works for OpsCode–the creators of configuration management automation software Chef–puts it, “There’s still decisions to be made. And the machines are going to fail.” Sascha Bates (also with OpsCode) chimed in to point out that “This presumes that system administrators only manage servers.” It’s a naive view. Are the DBAs going away, too? Network administrators? As I mentioned earlier, the NSA has a massive, complicated infrastructure that will always require people to manage it. That plus all the stuff that isn’t (theoretically) being automated will now fall on the remaining 10% who don’t get laid off. And that remaining 10% will still have access to the same information.

2. Automation increases security. Automation increases consistency, which can have a relationship with security. Prior to automating something, you might have a wide variety of people doing the same thing in varying ways, hence with varying outcomes. From a security standpoint, automation provides infrastructure security, and makes it auditable. But it doesn’t really increase data/information security (e.g. this file can/cannot live on that server)–those too are human tasks requiring human judgement. And that’s just the kind of information Snowden got his hands on. This is another example of a government agency over-reacting to a low probability event after the fact. Getting rid of 90% of their sysadmins is the IT equivalent of still requiring airline passengers to take off their shoes and cram their tiny shampoo bottles into plastic baggies; it’s security theater.

There are a few upsides, depending on your perspective on this whole situation. First, if your company is in the market for system administrators, you might want to train your recruiters on D.C. in the near future. Additionally, odds are the NSA is going to be less effective than it is right now. Perhaps, like the CIA, they are also courting Amazon Web Services (AWS) to help run their own private cloud, but again, as Sascha said, managing servers is only a small piece of the system administrator picture.

If you care about or are interested in automation, operations, and security, please join us at Velocity New York on October 14-16. Dr. Nancy Leveson will be delivering a fantastic keynote on security and complex systems.

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