Why don’t we buy sysadmin books anymore?

Don’t you love it (or hate it) when someone says something that makes you question your grip on reality because it challenges your assumptions?

This morning, I got such an email from a gentleman who works in the publishing industry. He saw my article in ;login: about sysadmin training, and basically asked me why sysadmins aren’t buying books anymore.

Well, I can tell you that I nearly dropped my bagel and coffee coolata. Sysadmins not buying books? Hogwash. Poppycock. (inserts monocle)

Then, of course, I thought about it. The last paper book that I bought was Pulling Strings with Puppet…and before that? I’m honestly not sure. In fact, the only reason that I bought Pulling Strings was because it wasn’t available on O’Reilly’s Safari…OK, there might be something to this…

I considered the reasons that I haven’t been buying books all the way to the office this morning, and I came up with what I think are some possible reasons. I’m going to share them, but I would really like to hear what your stance on this is. Aside from the fact that I’m writing a book, and thus have a very direct interest in this subject, I think it also has ramifications on the larger community, because for a long time, books have been our go-to source of information. If that truly is changing, then it’s a not-insignificant alteration, and everyone is going to have to deal with the ramifications of that.

Personally, I haven’t bought books lately because I currently own books on the core utilities that I referenced when I was originally learning them, and now refer to them almost exclusively in odd corner cases (or more frequently, refer to online forums or sources).

I also feel like the existing books on the techniques that I’m using (Enterprise Storage and Virtualization) are written for people with the budget to leverage the full strengths of the platforms, rather than the limited subset that I’m using because I’ve got the free (or low end) solutions in place.

In addition, from a 10,000ft view, I suspect (and this is pure conjecture) that the profession of system administration is probably maturing. The older sysadmins already have copies of “Essential Systems Administration” and “The Practice of System and Network Administration”. Younger sysadmins either “grow up” in an environment where they have elders to learn from (and thus, probably access to the same books) or they’re on their own in small shops which won’t pay for books, so if they don’t buy it personally, they don’t have it.

Those are my suggestions, but I really do want to hear yours. Please visit the site and comment. You have a voice in this discussion, too.

This is also a Slashdot submission. Please vote it up if you’re interested in the subject!

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  • Hi,

    I still buy books, but mostly for getting a starting point on new topics or to get some new ideas on topics I already have some knowledge about. When I know what information I need to solve a problem at hand, I use the internet. Even when I know I have a book which contains the information I need, it is much easier to get the information with a search engine and the internet.

  • Andrew

    I don’t fully agree with the statement that “Sysadmins don’t buy books anymore”. I’ve definitely moved on to buying books about development books as most of the sysadmin books these days seem to be “Beginning X” type books.

    I’d redefine the statement as: “Sysadmins don’t buy sysadmin books anymore.”

    Last book I bought (and I’m still waiting for the dead tree version to arrive) is: Web Operations, by John Allspaw and Jesse Robbins. The book is definitely sysadmin orientated, but also has a developer focus. Perhaps the current focus on devops is an indicator of how the role is changing?

    I’m happy to believe that I’m not “normal” having worked in a bookstore for many years, while paying my way through University, and learned UNIX from the books on the shelf.

  • um. The internet?

  • I still find myself buying books from time to time. In some ways I prefer it over online reading. There’s still something to be said about actually holding the material in my hands plus it is easier on my eyes.

    That being said I’ve also noticed that I’ve got a small collection of books that are getting covered in dust. I usually read parts of them when I first get them then they end up sitting on a shelf. When I am in a hurry to get information I hit the old web most of the time.

    Ending statement from me is that I do buy less books then I used to….partially due to knowledge….partially because I feel guilty that I already have books that I don’t read. But I do still love getting them from time to time and if the book is relevent to something I’m working on and the price is right then it’ll probably end up on my shelf at my office or at home.

  • @Christian @Nathan
    Yeah, I completely agree that the internet has superseded the printed word in terms of information that’s up to date and malleable.

    That’s an important distinction to make too, but why do you think that today’s up-and-coming sysadmins aren’t buying “DNS and Bind” if it’s still the undesputed champion of DNS (and if it isn’t, why aren’t people buying books on the new #1?).

    I think it’s undisputed that the future of books (and everything else, pretty much) is going to be electronic, but books still need authors. There is a lot of online documentation that has been produced for free, and some of it is very good. There is also a lot of very bad.

    I’m worried that the quality of available online documentation will fall when we no longer have editors to review the documentation, when there’s no one to create indexes, when the only translations available are machine translations, and when there’s nothing at stake by the authors other than reputation.

  • @AJ L
    I’ve got the same thing going on (and not all of the dusty books are tech. Being busy means not being able to ready ANYTHING, not just tech docs)!

    I use most of the books that I’ve got for reference when the online documentation is spread across dozens of text files and howtos. Having it in one place is great.

  • There’s definitely no single answer to this problem, but it’s a question I’ve thought about a couple of times and some of the things I’ve come up with are definitely intriguing. I’m ignoring the obvious stuff like “the Internet makes people buy books less” and focusing more on the systematic things central to system administration as a profession.

    The first thing is that most organizations are moving away from a siloed model into a central IT model in which different people have responsibilities distributed over different technical areas, rather than different business areas. This happens through diversification and outsourcing. Through diversification, we have a messaging engineer dedicated to email for six departments, instead of six department sysadmins who happen to touch email. Through outsourcing, we have the SaaS/cloud model (Postini, Salesforce and Google Apps) and the Managed Service Provider/contract consultant model. All of these result in people touching fewer applications and therefore needing to buy fewer technical books.

    The second is that most of the intensive business applications that people are using have matured to the point where they don’t really need the level of documentation they did in the past. Exchange 2010 is a good example — it has one clustering model and you never have to actually open the Microsoft Clustering console to manage it, because everything is handled automatically. In addition, when these products have been around for so long, you have a lot of people with a lot of accumulated knowledge on the product, who only need to learn the new functionality from release to release. There’s not much point in buying entire sets of new books for that alone.

    The third is that if people aren’t using the highly-established software above, they’re probably using stuff that’s changing so rapidly that anything put into print is rapidly out-of-date. Puppet and Chef are great examples — I picked up a copy of Pulling Strings With Puppet and within two months we had real expression support. It’s just not feasible to purchase anything on these topics, because it’s a waste of money.

    Finally, the current climate of technology startups relies on heavy software engineering rather than the use of any pre-existing components. Especially in the burgeoning fields of social media and advertising, it’s much more common to see some Hadoop applications running off a Cassandra or Mongo backend with a bunch of low-latency memcached nodes running as a content cache than it is to see someone tuning the crap out of their MySQL backend using High Performance MySQL like they would have in the old days. I’d wager that in this particular market, you would see a direct correlation between the drop in sysadmin books and the increase in development books.

    The landscape is changing, and it’s changing fast. When commercial technologies start catching up with what people actually want to do with them, we may see this begin swinging back in the other direction.

  • Now that we can bring our netbooks to the toilet we don’t need paper books.

  • Claire

    I still buy books, especially on new topics. But it seems like the majority of the books that have been available for a while don’t get updated, and it’s rare to see new books on those “old” topics. I’ve also been really disappointed with the last couple of recent sysadmin-oriented books I’ve bought from O’Reilly, which makes me think hard before I buy other newer books from them.

  • @claire

    That’s interesting…do you have any examples?

    The worst one that I can remember was Designing Large Scale LANs, I picked it up at a yard sale and still got ripped off ;-) The worst part is that it could have been a really great (and useful!) book if it was redone, but with the state of things, it probably won’t happen.

  • Mike

    Lately the kind of stuff I’ve been managing is pretty volatile and changing too much to bother spending money on paper books. Lots of open source stuff, and as previously mentioned there’s good and bad documentation for it… I’d rather not invest in hard books for that kind of thing when I can more easily manage revisions and updates virtually. And really, a lot of it is hands-on experimentation or installation, so I’d just rather have an electronic version open on the screen while I work, instead of bouncing back and forth to a book.
    And part of it is just the convenience of e-books – much easier to throw the stuff on a memory stick and be able to transport it to multiple places (office, home, portable). I save the physical hauling around of books for leisurely reading, like novels.

  • I still buy books, but rarely. I even find myself rarely referencing old books and in fact I have even started giving some of them away as they seem to only collect dust.

    For me the issue is things being out of date and lacking ability to search. I still prefer to read on paper, but the benefits of reading on a screen tend to out weigh. I can search, and new information is readily available. I could see myself buying more books if when I bought a book I had the right to a free heavily discounted electronic copy in an open format that my epaper/tablet/phone/workstation could all read.

  • I don’t usually buy books. Either they exist at the company I work for, or I have to buy them myself. I’ve worked for some pretty well off companies, but they did not purchase any books for our I.T. Department, let alone training or events… For me I suppose its always been about self sustainability in this particular field. Now a days there is a lot of information around the web and I’m usually content with what I find. Now that you’ve brought this up, I actually want to head to my local book store and see what I can find!

  • @Mike: I know what you mean. Even with puppet, there’s only “Pulling Strings…”. It’s not a good book, but it’s the only one that exists, and I’ve found much better documentation online for it. Printed books have no chance, as you say.

    @Nick – I’ve given a lot of mine away over the years, too. There are a couple, though, that are so precious that I don’t think I could bear to part with them. As an aside, I have seen a few books that mention free online versions available as PDFs. Make sure you check the small print. I know things like that are available.

    @Rick – Oh man, I’ve been in that boat, too. I worked for an ISP in WV where I had to buy my books too (and training was so unheard of that I never even thought of it). It’s so frustrating that they want you to do great work but won’t help you at all.

    You really should go check out what your local book store has. If you can find a used book store that has a lot of turnover, those places can be gems for cheap computer books.

  • Because my wife took away my credit cards and BN membership card priviledges when my son was born. /JK

    All kidding aside, I did buy a lot of books as I’m only a few years out of college and very knowledge hungry. My purchases, though, tend to be limited to a few categories:
    1. OS Books like Resource Kits, Inside Out books and Administrator’s Companions for recent operating systems
    2. Infrastructure-related Applications Administrator Books (SCCM, Exchange)
    3. Certification materials

    Outside of this, I have a few programming and SQL books that I bought for a project that I never did anything with. Most of these books are just reference materials now, but I do call upon the newer ones as I need them.

    For many of the questions I have, though, it is sometimes faster and easier to go to the web, and I’ll often get a better or more clear explanation than I could from some of the books out there.

  • Eying the bookshelf behind me, I can say that the only reason I buy sysadmin books is to pick up a new skill. I don’t use them for break/fix type research since the internet is much better for that, and only rarely use them for best-practices research after the initial read. My entire office seems to follow a similar pattern.

    There also seems to be an age bias as well. Our most experienced administrators, the ones who started when RS232 knowledge was critical to IT, have shelves full of ’em and regularly buy new. Our newest administrators are almost entirely book-free, with a few select reference tomes kept for various reasons and dusty books purchased years ago and never looked at. I can only speculate on the reasons for this. BIND DNS administration is a fairly static topic (unless you’re digging into DNS SEC) so a book there is a good investment, which is why both of our DNS guys have it. Getting a book on Exchange is less relevant since best-practices can change between initial release and what the community learns the hard way, which makes that kind of book age out really fast; making such a book not seem worth the purchase price.

    On the greater topic of sysadmin learning, I’ve done a fair amount of mentoring and educating over cube walls. The fact that I work at a University and we have sysadmin-aspirant students lurking about just enhances this. I suspect the Q/A model of learning is really gaining ascendancy over the lecture-mode of books. The Q/A model leads to really specific specialization, fixing broken stuff is how a lot of us figured out how things probably worked in general. Contrast this with the lecture-model, where general in-depth knowledge is the goal.

    Witness the success of serverfault. The top users there are generalists in their respective fields and have a lot of depth. The kinds of people who could probably write books if they felt the need. So long as people like that are willing to give answers, and better yet answers with the whys of them included, Q/A learners don’t need to spend the hours reading a book to get what they want to know. It’s a changing world.

  • John_M

    I find that I have been purchasing books that give me a 10k foot view of the subject at hand, and the Internet for incident/issue with topics.

    I have bought books for projects that I have attempted, and never cracked them again.

    I tend to use any and all sources available to me (Books, Peers/Coworkers, internet, etc) to grow my knowledge base.

    Bottom line: As I grow older and mature in in my field, I have less use for books as a primary source of information.

  • I find that I’m being much more selective recently in my book buying. Electronic copies aside (Amazon, O’Reilly), there seems to be very little out there that addresses every sysadmin topics at an advanced-enough level to be worth my while. I’m pretty sure the last technical book I purchased in dead tree form was Limoncelli’s “Time Management for System Administrators”, and that would have been at the end of 2008. These days, it just seems easier and faster to either Google what I need, get an electronic copy of a book, or read the documentation that’s already online. This is especially true once we get down to a level of individual vendors… who’s even seen a book focusing on BlueArc storage, for example?

  • CP

    I still buy sysadmin books, and I’m a young junior systems administrator (I’m 24 and I’ve only been a “systems administrator” for about a year and a half.) I’ve capitalized on a really great deal not too long ago, where I got something like seven or eight O’Reilly books for $30;

    With that said, I find a lot more value in texts such as “The Practice of System and Network Administration” than, say, “UNIX System Administration Handbook,” mostly because I can just look stuff up on Google if I need to do a specific task that goes beyond what I already know in a UNIX environment. If I need to brush up on any new concepts, I either look at various blogs, LISA conference abstracts, or SAGE booklets for inspiration. But usually, I look stuff up on Google for any specific technical information.

    And I believe you’ve hit the nail right on the head: there’s a greater population of more experienced SA’s who can mentor new guys like me, so it’s much easier for junior sysadmins these days to get advice and technical help without referring to a book.

  • Dan Udey

    The reason I don’t buy sysadmin books is because the problems I come across that I might need resolved are almost never covered in books, and when they are they’re out of date before they hit paper.

    For that matter, one of my biggest gripes about Google, until recently, was Googling a problem and coming up with results from 2006 or earlier, which don’t apply at all to the software anymore (and which may be completely re-written).

    The last major problem I had was setting up rsyslog, but I had quite a few bugs cropping up that weren’t working. Would a book have helped? Nope. Turns out the problem was a bug that’s been there for years, and CentOS just ships an old version of the software.

    Last night I fought for hours against an L2TP-over-IPSec VPN. I copy-pasted some stock configs, tweaked them for ages. Come to find out it was the result of a bug fixed in recent versions. A simple update fixed the problem, and off I went.

    I guess what it really comes down to is that books I’ve read typically either provide you with a general case (which may not be very detailed) or a specific case which may not apply to you. On the internet, thousands of other people might have solved the same issue as I face, with a thousand different variations of environment and configuration. I’m bound to find something close enough to what I’ve got to figure things out.

  • Honestly, almost the only books I buy anymore are computing-related. I mostly do development now, so they tend to be development books, but all the same – if I need to get started with a new technology or application, I’ll generally buy the book on it straight away.

    But I think I do this out of habit. The “old classics” – Cricket & Liu, Zwicki, the Camel book, Sed & Awk – were well-written, had a substantial quantity of meaty, useful information, and have withstood the tests of time. But it seems that the newer books are just verbose recapitulations of the existing documentation — the old “to Frobnicate a Foo, click the ‘Frobnicate’ button on the ‘Foo’ page” crap. To pick unfairly on the most recent technical book I’ve bought, the O’Reilly Amazon Web Services book falls squarely into this “useless zone” – it doesn’t have a well-indexed appendix of Amazon API calls and their parameters (the aws site has that), yet it doesn’t go into depth about any of the deeper topics like how to deal effectively with eventually consistent storage or how to build a self-monitoring computing cloud.

    So I wonder if people don’t buy computing books anymore because the industry has done what cable TV did: replace a limited supply of valuable content with a surfeit of mediochre slop in hopes they could charge for quantity instead of quality.

  • I do. I pay for them myself when I can (so I can take them to my next job), or get work to pay for it when I can’t. (I work at a university, so there’s not only my regular budget but also training funds to draw on.)

    The pace at which I buy books has slowed, I suspect because I’ve gained experience and there’s less I need to inhale in one go. But I still keep an eye on the latest releases from No Starch and O’Reilly, and Michael Lucas’ Netflow Analysis is next on my list.

    Inciidentally, I prefer paper ones. When O’Reilly had their sale recently on ebooks, I picked up 3 on Python. I still haven’t read them. Okay, sure, one of them is “Python in a Nutshell”, but when I was starting as a sysadmin I read “Unix in a Nutshell” (3rd edition, baby!) all the way through. Ebook readers still aren’t there for me yet, which means I can only read them on the laptop…which means I don’t read them. It’s far easier, and more convenient, and more robust, to throw a book in my packsack and go than to worry about battery life, another bag to carry and how much space I’ve got on the bus today.

  • I’m a new sysadmin and I have to say that I still buy books. I just bought four books in June (two sysadmin- and two developer-oriented books), but they were all used. I also have the highest level subscription to Safari online.

    One thing I have noticed is that lots of newer technologies have top-notch online documentation. Django and jQuery, for example, have online docs that are so good that they have completely wiped out the need for beginner-level books and reference-style books.

    Also, now that print media has more competition with online docs, blogs and how-tos, the cream of print media will rise to the top. I think I good example of this is “Learning Perl.” Both “Learning Perl” and “Programming Perl” are books that I think elevate the standard for technical writing. These books are still recommended enthusiastically by the Perl community. They’re also really easy to find cheap used copies in good condition.

    I don’t think anyone who is serious about this profession can thrive without reading books, but the necessity to buy a brand new copy of some poorly-written tome that you’re going to reference less than a dozen times disappeared years ago.

  • David F

    There are bunch of reasons I rarely buy books anymore.

    – Availability. I can only find the titles available online. I like to flip through a book before I buy it. Test driving it so to speak. So this lack of accessibility it is a handy cap.

    – Pricing. I live north of the border, so when there is a 30% price jump on hard copy, it makes me think twice.

    – Dated. A lot of the time the book I find can be years behind. Not a deal breaker for some topics, but it can be for others.

    – Online availability. Quality online documentation is becoming more and more available. Some authors are providing electronic copies of their work on their home pages free of change. Add in books.google.com and friends, and well.

    – Time. Usually I’m trying to fix a specific problem or task. Searching for the answer online is usually easier, can be more up to date, and usually gives multiple solutions.

  • Anthony

    Part of the problem with books is that at the speed things are changing in IT, the books are out of date before they hit the shelves.

    However the internet isn’t much better. Documentation seems to be the last thing on developers minds.

    Most of the time I don’t buy books because they either don’t exist for the subjects I’m working on yet, or because they don’t portray the information in the way that I need it.

    The “beginner” type books are great when you’re starting from scratch and trying to learn something new. However once you get working with something you don’t typically want to read through twenty pages of introduction in order to get to what you want. There just doesn’t seem to be many books out there organized in a “this is the typical type of thing you’ll be needing to do to maintain this product” type of way. In other words, I want a manual of common tasks – the things that I’m going to end up doing every day to maintain the stupid thing I’m working with. Something I can hand to my ‘backup’ when I go on vacation, or something I can look at when I come back having forgotten everything.

  • Claire

    @Matt The two I see in my office are LDAP System Administration and Kerberos: The Definitive Guide, both of which stop a bit short of actually answering everything you need to get things going, and both of which spend a lot of space discussing programming details that (1) I don’t care about; (2) were probably out of date on publication; and (3) would probably be more accessible from online sources.

    I’ve bought several books from Apres over the last few years that have been a lot more useful, maybe because they’re more tightly focused on getting things done and less about some of the theoretical stuff. For Web-related topics, some of the New Riders books have been quite good.

  • @Anthony: as a developer, I have some pushback for the issue of documentation being the “last thing on developers minds”

    If you think of the community around an OSS project as a pyramind, developers are pretty much at the pinnacle – a limited resource which should be used to best advantage by writing code. However, that next layer of the pyramid is full of expert users who, for whatever reason, are not able to contribute code. These folks are often most active on the mailing list/irc, but they are also the perfect folks to be writing documentation!

    Now, the structure of the project can affect how well this works – if writing documentation means commit access and knowledge of nroff, it’s going to be hard. Texinfo’s a little bit easier. And wikis are even easier. But of course, there are tradeoffs.

  • Luke T

    I still buy books, but they’re usually developer-oriented. The sysadmin books are generally out-of-date and of poor quality compared with the dev books. I’ve been disappointed every time I’ve bought one. Not so the developer books.

    Tom Limoncelli’s book was the best I’ve found in the past few years, but it’s not a technical book. If someone could write the equivalent with a technical perspective, they would do v well.