Death from the Datacenter: These are the ways that system administration will kill you!
Despite the famously fat salaries, ubiquitous tech vendor schwag and all manner of other job related perks, there is actually a dark side to system administration.. the ever present danger and increasingly rapid approach of DEATH! The Grim Reaper is looking over your shoulder, scythe in hand, preparing to punch your clock, cut your cables and unplug your router for the last time, to dispatch you to IT heaven (where all the help-desk jockeys go).
But what are the ways that system administration can kill you and is there anything you can do to prolong your life (and career)? Read on, if you want to live.. 😉
The Dreaded DVT
Being a sysadmin often entails sitting on your rapidly expanding arse in front of a monitor (or multiple monitors) for way too many hours every day at work, not to mention extra hours sat on your arse in front of the computer when you get home, whether it be for working on your own projects or gaming or just hanging out on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or wherever else takes your fancy or is flavour of the month on the interwebs. In all seriousness – this is deadly.
You’ve no doubt heard of DVT or Deep Vein Thrombosis and that being sat on cramped planes for long-haul flights is a major risk factor, right? But the fact is, just being sat at your desk all day every day is also a major contributor to DVT, as well as plenty of other ailments which can ruin your day or end your life. According to recent studies, each hour spent sitting without getting up increases the chances of blood clots by 20 per cent! All this lack of activity will also contribute to obesity, muscle degeneration and generally poor health and is effectively a ticking time bomb.
Many people believe that going to the gym every day or three times a week is enough to maintain health after a long day at the office but sadly that is not the case, it is simply not enough as the damage is already done long before you ever get to the gym. However the good news is that it is actually quite simple to protect yourself from the ravages of DVT and other sedentary lifestyle health problems – just get up off your rear end at frequent intervals throughout the day and take a quick walk around for a few minutes to get the blood circulating again.
The Life Saving Tomato
When you’re engrossed in your work, the time can fly by and before you know it you’ve been sat still for 8 hours and you are beginning to meld with your chair, so it helps to have something which will remind you when you need to take a break. There are many apps and systems for this and they are usually free so you have no excuse not to use one!
My current favourite is a Pomodoro timer, typically used for the Pomodoro productivity technique, which makes you work in 25 minute chunks and then take a 5 minute break (sometimes longer) and as the name implies (if you speak Italian 😉 ) involves a tomato – you can actually buy specially made red plastic tomato timers to plonk on your desk (basically a kitchen timer), or you can download a Pomodoro app – I use one on my android phone.
Personally, I find 25 minutes to be too short as it always seems to disturb me when I’m right in the middle of a thorny problem and also tends to make co-workers think you have a bladder problem, so I have it set to 45 minutes instead which works well for me. In my 5 minute breaks I walk up and down the stairs in my office block.. so far I’ve avoided death or disability so I think it works.
If you actually work in a datacenter and are forever walking around the racks fixing and installing servers then perhaps you get to move around enough to avoid these problems. But being sysadmins, we like to automate everything possible and sit back in comfort while relying on tools such as an RMM to keep us on top of matters and minimize any actual physical contact with the racks, so the very nature of system administration leads to these health problems.
Stand Up, Sit Down!
Another tactic which is gaining popularity is to use a standing desk which many people swear by, claiming it helps them concentrate as well as being better for health. However, being stood up all day can also be problematic and ideally you’d want to switch between standing and sitting at various times throughout the day.
Fortunately there are quite a few standing desks around these days, such as the varidesk, which can switch between standing and sitting modes at the push of a button or pull of a lever. These types of desk are well worth the price, although some models seem to cost rather a lot so make sure to shop around – worst case you could just use a stack of Linux manuals to jack up your desk.
Many sysadmins also have to work night shifts and there is much evidence to suggest that people who work the night shift actually die younger than their day shift colleagues. The exact reasons for this effect on life expectancy is much debated but whatever the reason, the reality seems to be that working nights or shift work is not conducive to a long and healthy life. Of course, driving home late at night while barely able to keep your eyes open, brings with it an increased risk of wrapping your car around a tree.
Lack of sleep is also well known to cause health problems as well as accidents and working night shifts often results in poor sleep, first of all because it is not natural for us to sleep during daylight and secondly the noise (and light) of the daytime often intrudes on our attempts to get some quality shut-eye.
Poor posture is another inherent risk, albeit generally not too fatal, for those of us who spend our working lives slouched in front of computers and brings with it the threat of future back problems such as worn disks (not the computer kind) and pulled back muscles which can cause extreme pain. Lifting an old 7U fully loaded blade chassis in the datacenter doesn’t help with already weakened backs and dropping on toes is also not going to be a lot of fun.
A regular exercise program will help with strengthening the important back muscles, improve posture and prevent injury, but you should still be aware of your posture and ensure you don’t fall into bad habits. Also, make sure to always use correct technique when lifting heavy servers and pay attention to ‘health & safety’ guidelines – some of them actually make sense!
Worship the Sun
Being stuck inside a windowless datacenter all day (or all night and sleeping all day) every day can also cause Vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight – we really do need sunlight. It may cause skin cancer if exposed to excess but we’ve evolved to rely on the sun and our health very much depends on getting enough of those rays!
If you find that it is always dark when you are on the way to or from work and you just don’t seem to get enough access to daylight then start using your frequent 5 minute breaks to go outside for a short walk, even go up to the roof of your office block and walk around on top so you combine the blood circulating benefits of exercise with the vitamin D bestowing benefits of the sun!
The End is Nigh
Don’t go ignoring your health when you are engrossed in sysadmin stuff, sooner or later it will get you and the damage may be too much to fix by that stage. Eat well, exercise regularly, take frequent breaks at work and go easy on the overtime. Ultimately make sure to have a good balance and separation between work and home life and take remedial action sooner rather than later – think of your body like a server which you are monitoring for signs of hardware failure – you don’t want a fatal crash or kernel panic!
Last but not least – that big bright red heavy duty power socket on the wall in the datacenter near your racks.. don’t, I repeat do NOT stick your finger in that socket to see what happens, no matter how tempting it may be – you must resist – it is exceedingly detrimental to your well being!
Hat tip to the infamous Bad Astronomer.