What is a Network Administrator vs. a System Administrator?

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at AIU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

If you're thinking about pursuing an online IT degree program and are researching career opportunities in the IT field, then you may have discovered similar job titles and are unsure of the subtle differences between each. For example, one might question the differences between a network administrator and a system administrator. At first glance, the role each plays in an organization can be unclear and the two may seem interchangeable.

There is reasonable demand for both positions, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting 6% job growth for network and computer systems administrators through 2026 (about the same rate as the national average).1 Yet while there is some overlap in typical job descriptions, there are key differences in areas ranging from daily responsibilities to certification paths. Knowing these differences can help you clarify which option may fit for your experience, interests and career goals.

Network Administrators Focus on Computers Working Together

A Network Administrator's main responsibilities include installing, configuring, and supporting an organization's local area network (LAN), wide area network (WAN), internet systems, and/or a segment of a network system.2 Daily job duties may depend on the size of a company's network. For example, at a smaller company, a network administrator may be directly responsible for performing updates and maintenance on network and IT systems, as well as overseeing network switches and setting up and monitoring a virtual private network (VPN). However, at a larger company, responsibilities may be more broad and managerial, such as overseeing a team of IT specialists and working with network architects to make decisions about equipment and hardware purchases and upgrades.3

System Administrators Work Directly With Computer Hardware and Software

At the most basic level, the difference between these two roles is that a Network Administrator oversees the network (a group of computers connected together), while a System Administrator is in charge of the computer systems – all the parts that make a computer function. A Computer Systems Administrator's responsibilities may include software and hardware installation and upkeep, data recovery and backup, setup, and training on user accounts and maintenance of basic security best practices.3,4

As with Network Administrator positions, specific daily job duties may depend on the size and scope of a company's computer systems. At smaller businesses, the System Administrator may handle all IT duties, and thus maintain and update all computers as well as ensure data security and backup. Larger corporations may divide system administrators' responsibilities into more specific sub-roles, therefore resulting in specialized positions like database administrators or security administrators.4

Do These Positions Ever Overlap?

While the fundamental differences described above still apply, the specific job titles of "network administrator" and "systems administrator" can potentially mean somewhat different things depending on the company. The overlap between these two roles may start with the local area network – a network that is company-based or includes surrounding buildings. The smaller the organization, the more likely you'll find a system administrator taking on both system and network responsibilities.4

For those entering the field, seeking a position in a smaller organization may offer you exposure to a wide range of experience in both system and network administration. You may find that you'll interface with departments and be part of project teams you might not normally be part of in a larger organization. However, as an organization grows, the roles may become more defined. 4

Education and Certifications for Network Administrators

If you're interested in pursuing a career path in network administration, a bachelor's degree in computer science or information technology, or an online network degree, can help you prepare and work to develop the fundamentals needed to start out in IT and in this field. Companies may require their administrators to obtain certification in the products they use in their daily work. Certification programs may be offered directly from vendors or from vendor-neutral certification providers. Certification helps validate the understanding and the use of best practices required of network and computer systems administrators.5

So, what certifications should you consider pursuing? This can depend on your role and the company. To start, the CompTIA A+ certificate provides a vendor-neutral certification in many fundamental skills needed in the field.6 For those looking for more specific certifications in network administration, the CompTIA Network+ certificate focuses on network-specific skills, while the CompTIA Security+ certificate may be relevant for those looking to work in cybersecurity and data protection.7 You may also want to research whether the companies and organizations you're interested in working for run on a specific type of system in order to help determine whether a vendor-specific certification (like a Cisco or Microsoft certification) would be useful in pursuing your career goals.

Education and Certifications for System Administrators

Similarly to a Network Administrator, a degree in information technology or computer science may be required to become a system administrator. An organization may run on some kind of Microsoft or Linux system; hence, common certifications split into two paths: Microsoft and Linux (or a variation of Linux, Red Hat) system admin certification. Other certifications, such as a CompTIA certificate, are also an option for those working in system administration.

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If you still have questions about how to prepare to pursue your career goals or the degree you want to pursue, feel free to contact one of our advisors or request information on one of our information technology degree programs.

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1. “Network and Computer Systems Administrators.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/network-and-computer-systems-administrators.htm (Visited October 4, 2018). This data represents national figures and is not based on school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.
2. “Summary Report for Network and Computer Systems Administrators.” O*Net Online. Retrieved from: http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/15-1142.00 (Visited on October 4, 2018).
3. “Network and Computer Systems Administrators: What They Do.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/network-and-computer-systems-administrators.htm#tab-2 (Visited October 4, 2018).
4. “Roles in the Mainframe World: Who Is the System Administrator?” IBM Knowledge Center. Retrieved from: https://www.ibm.com/support/knowledgecenter/zosbasics/com.ibm.zos.zmainframe/zconc_sysadminrole.htm (Visited October 4, 2018).
5. “Network and Computer Systems Administrators.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/network-and-computer-systems-administrators.htm#tab-4 (Visited October 4, 2018).
6. “CompTIA A+.” CompTIA. Retrieved from: https://certification.comptia.org/certifications/a (Visited October 4, 2018).
7. “CompTIA Security+.” CompTIA. Retrieved from: https://certification.comptia.org/certifications/security (Visited October 4, 2018).

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