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This is part of a set of questions on how Server Fault defines "professional" system and network administration. For additional information, see:

There is this thing about ServerFault I've just accepted and did not question - its focus on the sysadmin audience and not a topical area. Given the recent discussions about the site's dynamics and contour, I started to wonder why this is so. As the site did not go through the proposal/incubator process of Area51, I had trouble finding much on this topic.

What is so specific about the system and network administration topic that this Q&A site would not work outside of a "professional" scope compared to, say, coding. Or photography. Or Unix. Or IT Security. All sites' communities (including Stack Overflow's) seem to cope well with a wide variety of skill levels and topics, so why is Server Fault calling for an exception here?

Are there historical posts (Blogs or Meta) documenting the reasoning or a discussion about why SF has been targeted at "professional" sysadmins? Who made this decision? With what rationale?

What I could find so far indicates that the community originally has been imagined significantly broader than what it is being defined as currently. For example this announcement of the public beta which incidentally contains this section:

Richard and Greg talk to Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame about being a developer who also maintains infrastructure.

And this announcement from Jeff Atwood's blog which explicitly invites exactly those "half-professionals" to the site who are being declared non-grata lately:

So if you're a bona-fide BOFH, or just a wanna-be BOFH luser like me, join us on Server Fault. Who knows, maybe we lusers can learn something from each other.

Please note that I am not asking the questions to imply that some of the regulars of this community are redlining too much (although there certainly are days where I am under this impression), but because I really would like to hear the arguments to get a better understanding of what is going on.

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    The point is to get the experts to the site, and keep them here. Do you think the experts will stay if the front page was filled with questions about how to forward ports on their crappy home linksys router? – Zoredache May 18 '13 at 10:11
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    @Zoredache I do not know. The experts seem not to be repelled by the other SE sites front pages. Maybe the experts would not even look at the front page in the first place but use customized views or an RSS reader so the looks of the front page would not matter to them. Should I just go over to Meta.SO and ask? – the-wabbit May 18 '13 at 11:35
  • @syneticon-dj Have you SEEN the customized view of Apache questions lately? Every single one of them is a candidate to be bludgeoned with the manual... – voretaq7 May 20 '13 at 15:52
  • @voretaq7 I tend to omit Apache questions and surely do not look at the corresponding tag views. But from the question tags I read, indeed a large part can be answered by reading the fine manual or another type of reference documentation. People just don't know where to look. This does not make the questions illegitimate or less valuable, though. – the-wabbit May 20 '13 at 22:44
  • To add to what Zoredache is saying, I certainly enjoy -not- having to look at superuser.com worthy questions all day on the serverfault.com front page. I don't have a very impressive rep here, but I wouldn't stay if the two sites were merged. – gparent May 24 '13 at 20:28
  • @gparent running without the "professional" requirement would not mean that the sites would merge. I do not see many SAN or Exchange questions on Superuser. There might be significant overlap in networking, but consumer-grade stuff is run in small businesses too and we get similar questions here. A mere topical separation probably would hurt much and likely not lower the overall quality of questions and answers on the site. – the-wabbit May 28 '13 at 12:16
  • The sites wouldn't merge, but we'd have no basis for which to move the amateur questions anymore, and a lot of them definitely hurt the site to a certain extent. – gparent May 28 '13 at 14:14
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In the very beginning, as you found out, SF was a site created by devopsy people as a way to create a community that didn't have all the problems of those that came before it in very much the same way that SO did the same for programming. It worked at first, as has been mentioned a lot.

The scope originally included what both RobM and syneticon-dj have pointed out: interested amateurs who may be professionals in other IT-areas asking questions.

As memory serves, by August 2009 we had a sense of community and enough standards to be indignant about them. I wasn't a mod then, but it was around that time that SO/SF/SU started getting some developer focus on mod-tools. We didn't get our very own meta until 2010, so the meta.so record is light; people who found SF post-beta and didn't know about SO simply didn't know about meta.so as the place to talk about things.

Enough history


ServerFault is not the first place on the Internet purpose-built to be a home for professional systems administrators to talk amongst themselves without having to deal with the clueless hoards who just want a step-by-step HOWTO written for deploying a Wordpress site on a Drupal instance running in an Amazon AWS micro instance. Oh no, we are not the first.

We may be the first open access such site. In elder years we had Usenet (barrier to entry: knowing it was there) and IRC (barrier to entry: knowing it was there, and putting up with the culture), neither of which was terribly discoverable. In the web era there have been several closed-access attempts to do just what we do, but they all died out or are very obscure because they lack discoverability.

As the creators of SO found, SO is a very big Google-magnet when it comes to Programming related things. And when people noticed that a lot of good answers started coming from that one site, they dropped in themselves directly to ask questions. And a community was born. SO became the canonical programmer's resource because it was:

  • Discoverable (which maximizes exposure to potential target market)
  • Open Access (which minimizes the barriers to entry, so new people can participate much faster)
  • Concise (which means people don't have to wade through pages of drivel to get to the good stuff)

The closed-access sites that came before us completely failed the discoverability test and partially failed the open-access test, which meant that they grew by word-of-mouth not word-of-Google. That's why so few people knew of them.

I give partial credit to Experts-Exchange for being discoverable and concise. We've all heard of them, they show up in search results often enough that such is pretty much guaranteed.

Being open access and discoverable exposes us to this problem:

Surly target market http://sysadmin1138.net/mt/blog/2012/09/08/surly-target-market.png

Note: Log-scale used.

For SO, this isn't a problem. People at the very front, the complete newbs, are actually welcome. Their questions may get dup-closed within 20 minutes, but they probably won't get snarked at to hire a professional.

For SF, this is a problem. There are more, a lot more, interested amateurs looking for tips/howto then there are actual professionals in the field. If they've done some research and tried a few things before coming here, we'll welcome them (only the exceptional will fit).

Back in 2009-2010, our discoverability was actually pretty low. I remember cheering when I started seeing SF questions in search-results because it showed we were doing our jobs. Because of that, the ratio to clued-to-unclued askers was very good and we grew a good community of answerers. SF was doing it's job! We had a good site!

We still lost users due to perceptions to too-many-newbs, but we were gaining more people than were leaving in disgust.

Fast-forward to now.

We are discoverable, as proven by the Quantcast traffic numbers (click 'all' to get a nice chart of traffic to the site as it has increased over the years).

The ratio of leaving-in-disgust to attracting-good-answerers has now tipped in the wrong direction in very large part because of the open access policies.

Systems Administration, like programming, is balkanized into domain-knowledge silos. To answer questions relating to Cisco router/switch configuration you need a good population of experts to provide those answers. The same goes for Fibre Channel maintenance, Exchange issues, highly transactional database infrastructure building, large scale video transcoding, and thousand-node-plus configuration-management issues.

You don't get to the point where you can answer questions in things like that without being in the industry for a while, which is why attracting the clued is so important. This is where in a professional capacity comes into play, as it's our attempt at a filter for attracting just that kind of user.

ServerFault has never had true critical mass for some of the deep-knowledge areas, we had a very small handful of people in these tags who did nearly all of the heavy lifting and if a question came in when these people were in bed they just went ignored. Because of that, we didn't get a reputation for:

You know, ServerFault is a great place to talk about Storage Area Networking.

What mass we had has been dribbling away over the last year as the perception of, ServerFault is a place for professionals has been eroded away by the combined forces of the increased numbers of un-clued and the perception by the clued that questions on deep-knowledge areas would go unanswered.

In a professional capacity is a very much needed filter for keeping these deep-knowledge experts around and fed with enough quality questions to answer they like being here. That's why it's there. It's just not working so good anymore.

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    I will always +1 anything with that chart in it. – MDMarra May 18 '13 at 23:09
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    +1 for the Limoncelli laugh. – TheCleaner May 20 '13 at 13:16
  • Thank you for taking the time - I did gain some valuable insights - especially from the history and the quantcast link. So the significant difference between Stack Overflow where the scope is at least as wide but without the "professional" constraint and Server Fault would be the critical mass? If so, isn't this kind of a chicken-and-egg problem? And why did Stack Overflow ever manage to overcome this barrier whereas no confidence is put in Server Fault to do the same? – the-wabbit May 20 '13 at 22:09
  • @syneticon-dj I think it's a matter of high specialization. While the subject of programming can be divided into languages, if I pick a language that isn't dead, the number of people on SO who can contribute to a discussion regarding it are high. On the other hand, how many SF users can have a meaningful debate about the fine details of Exchange? What about the fine details of DNS, a topic that few understand holistically unless forced to? These are the topics that get drowned out by the signal to noise ratio. Our numbers are not enough to warrant individual SE sites. This is our SE site. – Andrew B May 21 '13 at 2:58
  • Thinking more on what I just wrote, I think it boils down to this: you could potentially justify the numbers on Area51 to generate successful SE communities based on individual programming languages, but the same cannot be said of the topics comprising specialized system administration. You could break up SO, there's just not much point. You cannot break up SF. – Andrew B May 21 '13 at 3:04
  • @AndrewB I can't see this as a mere "numbers" thing. From my news participation ("oh no, not again!") I have seen extremely fragmented structures with micro-communities (newsgroups have been created if the traffic exceeded 100 posts a month, and that's "posts", not "questions") work out neatly because the regulars were able to cross-participate in several of them rather easily. You can break up SF and this is even evidenced by the secessions of DBA, U&L, Security and Network Engineering. – the-wabbit May 28 '13 at 7:37
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The other answers are great, but very long. The short answer:

Nobody here wants to be Help Desk for the Intertubes. That's what SuperUser is for.

Seriously, anyone wanting to help the clueless masses can wander over to SU anytime they want. They're here to avoid those clueless masses, while engaging in problem solving and discussion with people who are relatively equal in ability and knowledge.

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    I did sorta write a novel there. Thanks. – sysadmin1138 May 18 '13 at 14:51
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    This is certainly the short version of it -- I know my participation on the main site has dropped sharply mainly because wading through the sheer volume of utter crap to find an intellectually stimulating question to answer (or even a basic one that's not "HALP! IZ BROKENS! YOU FIX FOR ME?!") requires more charity than I'm capable of on an ongoing basis. Other regulars have left citing the same reason. – voretaq7 May 19 '13 at 2:07
  • This is surely good for a laugh, but the important question remains unanswered: why do the others manage where we think we would not? The topicality seems always to be a problem to newcomers plus we've basically lost the entire network design & administration sector to Network Engineering recently because the coverage of SF is not being understood. If the goal is to get "interesting questions", all of this is inherently bad and needs to be dealt with. Now. – the-wabbit May 20 '13 at 22:19
  • For those who feel similarly to voretaq7 and haven't abandoned RSS, tag feeds are pretty useful. Set them up for the tags you can answer best and let the questions come to you. – Andrew B May 21 '13 at 3:14
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It's a fine line to walk - there are plenty of sites around that allow "non professionals" to ask geeky questions of professionals but by the time I joined this site, about 4 years ago, a large part of the drive at the time was to attract IT professionals to the site explicitly because there wasn't any other place for professional-to-professional level help.

That's a large part of what attracted me here - not merely knowing that the responses I'd get to any question I had would contain far less naieve and useless speculation but knowing that the standard of questions I'd get to see and maybe respond to would be of a higher level.

In order to attract and keep good professionals, the site needs to provide an environment they want to be in. While SE could indeed redefine the purpose of the site to allow anyone to ask questions of any standard, doing so could (and already has in some cases) cause the very people they need around to answer those questions to leave the site or greatly decrease the time they spend here.

This isn't talking about keeping newly minted professionals out of the site - it's possible to be a professional and be new to your job (A medical doctor on their first day of work is still a medial doctor, a new lawyer is still a lawyer, for example). To me, developers and devops type people are perfectly welcome here if they're asking on-topic questions in a professional manner but regardless of who's asking, "give me teh router configz and tell me if my server is big enuff for my youtube clone!!!111!!one!one" is just as annoying to us as "give me teh codez" is to Stack Overflow -they'll give you short shrift for the latter every bit as harshly and quickly as we dispense close-hammer justice for the former.

To me, it's not about keeping anyone out at all, but rather about setting a standard for what type of questions we expect to see here, both in terms of what's on topic and how much effort people should be making to produce a clear, well written question.

I especially wouldn't take Jeff's comment too literally - he was asking for "BOFHs" and yet when he was part of SE, he was one of the first people to (rightfully) pop up and tell us to behave if we started behaving too much like actual BOFHs.

  • I think I can see the rationale behind focusing on "professionals" to ensure high-quality questions. So the current effort to narrow down the "professionals" group is the direct result of the very failure of a wider group of "professionals" to produce high-quality questions? – the-wabbit May 18 '13 at 11:35
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    @syneticon-dj The wider group of professionals aren't System/Network Admins/Desktop Support professionals so that makes them amateurs which is evident from the (generally) low quality of the questions. My wife is a professional buyer but that doesn't make her a professional within the meaning of Server Fault which is the implication of your comment. – user9517 supports GoFundMonica May 18 '13 at 12:06
  • @Iain what I meant was that the "professionals" definition for the scope of SF has been much broader in the past as the site has been created and a couple of years thereafter and is being narrowed down lately. You would not agree this is connected to the discussion about the quality of questions? – the-wabbit May 18 '13 at 12:35
  • "and is being narrowed down lately." - I'm not sure that's the case. If anything, getting people to acknowledge that some of the people who are not professional sysadmins can still ask questions to a professional standard, which is a discussion that happened in here in meta fairly recently, represents a widening of the scope of the site compared to how it was when I joined, which must have been mid-2009 or so. – Rob Moir May 18 '13 at 12:55
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What I'm about to say may seem harsh, and I expect to get downvoted heavily for it. But I think syneticon-dj has asked a damn fine question here, and that it is getting bad answers, which (imho) basically evaluate to 'if you're not a sysadmin, you can't understand why sysadmins have persistent superiority complexes'.

That may be an oversimplification and uncharacteristically snarky of me to boot, but it is why, although I was a beta user of this site and was getting a nice little rep score for myself, I slowed and finally stopped participating here. When this site started up I had hopes that it would attract and keep the open, inclusive, explanatory kind of sysadmins I always worked hard to be.

Instead I saw (both here and in The Comms Room) a group mentality emerge where people who 'just don't get it' were shut down as quickly as possible - often with professional-sounding justifications in the Q&A column and rather scathing personal comments in The Comms Room and the Vote To Close room. I don't know if that's still going on, because this is my first visit in, I dunno, months. I hope things have mellowed, I really do. But given the answers I've seen so far, they've really just progressed to a better grade of self-rationalization.

Again, this has been harsh, but it's basically how I feel. I realize it may not even be fair anymore, since I haven't been around for awhile. I hope that's the case, I really do. I also kinda doubt that I will stick around to defend/argue/explain what I've written here, and that may be a cop-out, but there you go.

Whatever happens, I do wish the best of luck to all who ask or answer questions here!

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    So, basically, you are (a) insulting us (b) say that you don't know what you are talking about anyway, as you don't use the site anymore and (c) don't want to subject yourself to a discussion about your post. Way to go! Do you have anything constructive to add - maybe a reason why it's a bad thing to not to answer amateur questions on a site for pros if there is a whole network of sites dedicated to do just that: Answer questions from amateurs? – Sven May 27 '13 at 11:12
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    @SvW Can you point out the insulting part of his statement? By telling him he doesn't know what he's talking about, you are doing exactly what he is stating in his post. "If you don't agree, get out of here...". So that's what more and more users are doing, leaving. Ironically enough, there's quite a lot of discussion in Meta about how to keep users and get new ones to stick around. – Alex May 27 '13 at 13:20
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    @Alex Saying that people active on SF have superiority complexes is pretty insulting. And SvW isn't saying quux should get out of here because he disagrees, he's just pointing out that the answer amounts to "I think you guys do bad stuff, but I'm not going to explain exactly what I mean by bad..." – Ward May 27 '13 at 13:53
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    Ironically, by defining a group you aspired to see here as "open, inclusive explanatory" then defining what happened here as "instead" without going on to explain why or having the good grace to stick around and discuss the matter, you're essentially shutting those of us who do use this site down because "we just don't get it". I'm not suggesting that myself or anyone else here is perfect but before attending to the splinter in our eyes you might want to do something about the beam in your own. – Rob Moir May 27 '13 at 14:00
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    Guys, I think my statement stands on its own. It's by far not the first time this or similar observations have been made. I saw them when I was more active here and, doing a quick browse of meta and closed questions, I still see them. But in the end, turning it into a big debate is a waste of all our time. It's just one person's opinion, I thought it needed to be said, and I'll butt out now. – quux May 27 '13 at 14:03
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    You're entitled to your opinion, the same as all of us, but what you've said has done nothing to move the discussion forward. It's not much short of a personal attack on many of the regulars and now you don't even have the basic respect for others to stick around and back it up? I'm sorry but the way you present your opinon is a open running sewer straight through the middle of the "open, inclusive, explanatory" principles you claimed to be missing in others here in your reply. – Rob Moir May 27 '13 at 14:08
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    +1 because this is the elephant in the room. On all the other SE sites, the voting system works fine, and quality surfaces. If people don't want to be the "helpdesk for the intertubes", then they don't have to answer newbie questions, and those will be duped or whatever pretty quickly. I'm not saying admins all have flawed characters, but there's a power that comes from having root, which can corrupt, in the sense that all arguments spiral down to "because I'm the guy with root". This is an observable phenomenon, so I think this answer adds to the debate, if only in airing the issue. – Dominic Cronin Apr 27 '14 at 18:09

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