Speaking Frankly

Frank Crawford has been working with computing technologies for nearly 40 years. During that time, he has seen a lot of change but holds a strong opinion that, in some ways, traditional IT professional roles are as relevant as ever despite technology evolving at break-neck speed.

As a kid growing up in Newcastle, Frank Crawford always loved technology. He started playing with programmable calculators at high school in 1974 then went on to study Maths, Computing Science, and Physics at Newcastle University.

In addition to managing and trouble-shooting complex enterprise infrastructure-as-a-service environments to earn a crust, these days, he runs a lot as preparation for the half-marathons and marathons he competes in.

A perfect start

As a graduate, Crawford found employment straight away in Sydney working at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) which was the forerunner to today’s Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Helping expand the use of computers in nuclear science research and development was a dream introduction to the industry for a self-confessed geek and, since then, Frank has only had “four or five jobs”, all of which have been “playing with computers and solving problems”.

“I’ve only ever really had one career, systems admin,” Crawford said. “Systems have changed, architecture has changed, and the skills required to earn your keep have changed but, at the end of the day, it is still a battle of wits against machines to get the best out of them and make them as stable as possible in the face of potential chaos and imperfect predictability.

“A lot of the work I have done over the years has been involved with leveraging technology to support research through creating supercomputing and connected environments. Trouble shooting is very much my forte. I do my best to get an overview of an entire system looking for good or bad patterns.

“My entire career has been one of change. I may have only worked for a few different organisations over the years, but they have all been defined by their ability to move with the times and be at the forefront of information technology.

“When I started, we were working with a few disconnected machines all of which were unique. This was followed by the introduction of standardised operating systems, internal and external networking and now onto virtualised everything.”

Networking pioneer

Having begun his IT career before there was today’s networking or email, Crawford still remembers the thrill of helping to set-up Australia’s first connected computers based on modems and links through central hubs.

When AAEC linked to a global academic network through Sydney University, it was amazing that they could contact someone in the US and get a response the same week.

“Today we take this interconnectedness for granted,” Crawford said. “Similarly, we take the standardisation of systems for granted but once upon a time all systems were individual.

“A competent systems admin person needed to learn multiple languages such as Pascal, FORTRAN, COBOL, Lisp and SNOBOL just to do their job.

“These days, with virtualisation, the process to bring a system into play is basically to roll out a number of the same configuration and just use them as needed. Worse, now there isn't even any real machine to touch.

“There is still hardware somewhere, but it is all very antiseptic with the real work being done by images that just shuffle around from one piece of hardware to another, depending on all sorts of factors.”

In a world where systems have become commodity items, Crawford says that now “all the fun” is more in the architecture of the whole service. “It is about working out the best way to cater for redundancy, load and performance across multiple tiers,” he said.

Supporting research

Crawford’s career in IT has been an interesting journey that has continually placed him at the forefront of technical advancement.

His current role carries the title of Technology and Infrastructure Manager for AC3 a managed services provider supporting systems for NSW government agencies and other companies which evolved from a supercomputer centre (ac3) that serviced researchers from all NSW universities.

He was the fifth person employed by the original ac3 supercomputer centre which now employs over 140 people as a player in the MSP market.

“These days I have numerous roles including team lead for the Unix/Linux cohort and for the Datacentre Facilities team, but my responsibilities extend to Security Manager, host master, certificate wrangler, and keeper of lots of historical information,” Crawford said. “Basically, if you stay around anywhere for 17 years, you accumulate a lot of ancillary roles.

“Over my career journey, I've gone from working on wire wrapped boards, to boot a DEC LSI 11/20 system in something like 20 x 8-bit instructions, to building what was the fastest computer in Australia at the time and amongst the fastest in the world.”

He also worked on an experimental network, before Ethernet or even token ring, where he wrote a kernel driver for it and went on to put vampire taps in the original big thick blue Ethernet cables. Then there were the supercomputers that set new benchmarks for storage capacity and computing power.

This included a Pyramid 90x on a combination of both BSD and SysV followed by a Qantas subsidary’s SMP super-minis and then a Fujitsu VP2200 (“a real live vector supercomputer”). He also helped with establishment of the NSW Supercomputing Centre where he was the prime architect for a Beowulf cluster based on 155 x Dell 1750 servers (“this was the first computer in Australia to sustain over a 1TFLOP”).

But that was then. As he said himself, though innovative at the time, those systems did “less than a raspberry pi” and the early datacentres had less storage and grunt than the computers he has at home today.

Administering managed services

More recently Crawford has been involved in the transition of AC3 from research support centre to commercial MSP.

“The massive increase in virtualisation has dramatically changed the care and feeding of systems,” he said. “Where systems admins once used to carefully tend to individual systems, we are now looking after large herds, often with little thought of any single machine.

“This has brought in a need for automation, and an understanding of how to do it. Of course, change is going to continue happening and at an increasing rate.

“Cloud computing is another technology that is not yet fully mature. Certainly, big companies are investing, but it is still early days. It will get significantly bigger and more ubiquitous before something new comes along.

“Past that, I would expect that the move from computers in the home to internet devices, and even IoT, will move up a gear.  We will end up with computing anywhere, any time, by everything and by anyone.”

“However, contrary to some opinion, I don’t think the need for systems administrators in all forms is diminished at all. Technologies will evolve but there will always be the need for people to care for and feed all this new computing infrastructure.

“Clearly, security is also going to become more important as a systems administration-type role, so people who understand security will find themselves in demand. They are valuable skills to acquire.”

Crawford said that he is still excited by new technology and marvels at the power of each new generation of personal device.

“Our smartphones are amazing pieces of technology,” he said. “In effect just about everyone, of almost any age, has access to whatever information, and whatever community they want.

“These devices possess computing power that far exceeds what was available to most companies and groups when I started work and they have made all sorts of information that was previously unavailable easily accessible from the palm of your hand.

“Naturally, there are negative sides to this connectivity, including 24x7 interruptions and fake news to name a few.  These are things that we are still grappling with. It will probably be a generation or two before we sort it out.”

The value of community

Crawford said that he technically never “joined” the original SAGE-AU which has transformed into ITPA as we know it today.

“My original membership number in 1992 was F0002,” he said. “I was one of the original five entrusted with establishing it. I was on the AUUG executive at the time, when Hal Miller and Greg Rose asked to make some presentations about SAGE, which was being formed in the US as part of USENIX. 

“I quickly saw the need for it and pushed for its creation as part of AUUG but the majority of those involved wanted a separate organisation, and, as it now stands, that was a good choice. It has been a great forum for IT professionals to share knowledge ever since.”

Crawford is very proud of being involved in SAGE-AU’s foundation with Miller, Rose, Glenn Huxtable, Peter Gray, and Keith Haberle. He was an active contributor in those early years serving as the Interim Secretary, the official Secretary until 1997 when he stepped into the Vice-president position for a short stint.

More recently he has taken on the position of Assistant Returning Officer a few times and granted Life Membership of SAGE-AU and being part of President, Robert Hudson’s committee which reviewed plans for the transition from SAGE-AU to ITPA.

“The contacts I’ve made over the years and the information shared with those fellow systems administrators has been invaluable to my career,” Crawford said. "To this day, whenever there is a technical issue I am stuck on, I can efficiently turn to the collective knowledge of the group via online forums and generally find solutions or ideas.

“I think it is really important for the next generation of IT professionals to have a mechanism to filter useful information from the uninformed, marketing hype or just plain wrong advice that is abundant in the industry.

“Being able to find trusted sources of knowledge from people that have been in the same position before and discuss how they addressed the issues is invaluable.”

As well espousing the value of being involved in collective of professionals to have a voice, Crawford said that the best way any newcomer to the IT industry can ensure they have a long and rewarding career in IT is to keep learning.

“We are in an industry that is continually changing, and you need to keep up with it,” he said. “My example is a little unusual in that I've been working for the same company for nearly 18 years, but it has never remained static.

“That organisation has change every 2-3 years, and I've had to keep up with it. You just keep on keeping on and try to enjoy what you are doing.  If something isn't working, change it up, be it technical or in your wider life.

“Very rarely can you just drop something entirely, but what you can do is get other people to help you out.

“Another thing which I think is going to be very valuable in the future is ITPA’s certified practicing member program. Not only is it good for your soul to keep learning new things but it is also good for your career to be able to show employers that you have completed studies and that you are enthusiastically looking to advance your career.”