Network Engineer vs System Administrator: Exploring Differences

Diana Ipacs

October 10, 2023

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Network Engineer vs System Administrator: Who does what? Let's take a closer look at tasks, skills, career advancement, compensation & more!


How do the responsibilities of a Network Engineer differ from those of a System Administrator?

To answer that question in a nutshell: while Network Engineers concentrate predominantly on the organization’s network infrastructure, focusing on the design and security of the networks to ensure smooth communication, System Administrators are more concerned with the operational aspect of internal servers and systems.

Essentially, Network Engineers handle the organization’s data communication networks, while System Administrators maintain the servers and systems that run on those networks. The roles may overlap, but each has distinct areas of concentration and responsibility in managing an organization’s IT environment.

Let’s compare the responsibilities and areas of focus for each role, taking a closer look at particular tasks, necessary skills, career advancement opportunities, compensation, and more!

Network Engineer vs System Administrator – Bluebird Blog

Network Engineers Vs System Administrators: Key Differences

Network Engineers and System Administrators both play pivotal roles in the IT infrastructure of an organization, ensuring the seamless operation of technological systems.

Network Engineers primarily focus on designing, implementing, and managing networks. Their role encompasses the establishment of both local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs). They are tasked with ensuring reliable connectivity, configuring hardware like routers and switches, and continuously monitoring network performance to prevent and solve any issues that arise.

System Administrators, on the other hand, are responsible for setting up, maintaining, and optimizing the servers and systems that run applications and store data. They manage software updates, ensure data integrity and security, and address technical issues related to software and hardware. Their responsibilities extend to user account management, systems backups, and possibly even some database management, depending on the organization's structure.

While Network Engineers lay the foundation of communication pathways, ensuring efficient data transfer, System Administrators ensure that the IT systems, including servers and applications, are running optimally and securely. Their roles, though distinct, often intersect in many organizations.

In many IT departments, Network Engineers and System Administrators work in close proximity. The smooth operation of an organization's IT environment often hinges on the collaboration between these two roles. While they each have their own set of specialized tasks, their joint efforts ensure that an organization's technological infrastructure is robust, secure, and efficient.

Network Engineer

System Administrator

Primary Focus

Design, implementation, and optimization of computer networks.

Installation, support, and maintenance of servers and other systems.

Main Responsibilities

- Designing and implementing new networks and systems.

- Monitoring network performance. - Troubleshooting and optimizing existing networks.

- Managing user accounts.

- Maintaining system security.

- Installing and updating software.

- Performing backups.

Key Skills

Network design, troubleshooting, in-depth understanding of networks and protocols.

System management, troubleshooting, understanding of the organization's IT infrastructure.

Technologies Used

Routers, switches, firewalls, various networking tools and software, and network protocols.

Operating systems (Windows, Linux), server hardware, virtualization technologies, system management tools.

Interaction with Users

Limited direct interaction; mainly focused on ensuring network services are available for users.

Regular interaction, as they address user issues, provide support and ensure users can access resources.

Network Engineer Responsibilities

Network Infrastructure Development: Network Engineers primarily ensure the development and maintenance of robust, secure, and efficient computer networks that support organizational operations.

Network Optimization: They guarantee that networks function properly and efficiently by actively monitoring and addressing network performance issues and optimizing for reliability and speed.

Network Security: A significant part of their role involves implementing and maintaining security infrastructure, including firewalls, anti-virus systems, and intrusion detection systems, to protect organizational data.

Performance Monitoring: They're responsible for continuous operation and reliability of networks, making sure that data is transmitted smoothly across various network devices and interfaces.

Network Engineer: Task Examples

  • Design and implement network architectures and configurations.

  • Troubleshoot and resolve network connectivity and performance issues.

  • Develop and maintain network security policies and protocols.

  • Actively monitor network traffic and performance to ensure availability and reliability.

  • Participate in disaster recovery planning and implementation to safeguard network data.

  • Continuously learn about new networking technologies and protocols to improve network performance and security.

System Administrator Responsibilities

System Maintenance: System Administrators primarily handle the installation, support, and maintenance of servers and other computer systems within an organization.

User Account Management: They are responsible for managing user accounts, permissions, and system security, ensuring that authorized users can access the resources they need.

Software and Hardware Management: A crucial aspect of their role involves installing, updating, and maintaining software applications and hardware devices used in the organization.

Security Compliance: System Administrators enforce security protocols, protecting organizational data and computer systems from unauthorized access and malicious attacks.

System Performance Monitoring: They continuously monitor and optimize the performance of computer systems and applications, ensuring that they function smoothly and efficiently.

System Administrator: Task Examples

  • Install, configure, and update software applications and hardware devices.

  • Manage user accounts and permissions to ensure security and accessibility.

  • Implement and maintain system backup and recovery procedures to safeguard data.

  • Collaborate with network engineers and other IT professionals to ensure the seamless operation of organizational IT infrastructure.

  • Address and resolve issues related to system performance, hardware, and software, optimizing for reliability and efficiency.

  • Stay updated with emerging technologies and best practices in system administration and actively incorporate them into maintenance and support processes.

Network Engineer vs System Administrator: Which Path to Choose?

If you're contemplating a career decision between a Network Engineer and a System Administrator, consider the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities of each role to determine the best fit for your skill set and long-term professional growth.

As a Network Engineer, you'd be designing, implementing, and managing networks. The position is hands-on, often involving real-time problem-solving to ensure organizational connectivity and network security. This role is ideal for individuals who enjoy working with hardware, understanding complex network topologies, and troubleshooting connectivity issues.

On the other hand, System Administrators predominantly work with software and system configurations. The role entails ensuring servers run efficiently, updating and patching software, maintaining user accounts, and providing IT support to staff. This position would resonate with individuals who have an inclination towards understanding operating systems, working with databases, and ensuring seamless software functionality.

In essence, if you find the prospect of working closely with hardware, designing and troubleshooting networks appealing, the Network Engineer pathway might be more aligned with your career aspirations. However, if you're more inclined towards software, server management, and ensuring smooth system operations, then the role of a System Administrator could be a better fit.

Practical exposure, internships, or even short courses can also offer a tangible sense of each role's responsibilities, assisting in making an informed career choice. Each role offers different challenges and rewards, so understanding and aligning with what excites and motivates you in the tech field is imperative for a fulfilling and successful career.

Read more: Network Administrator vs System Administrator: What's the Difference?

Network Engineer Vs System Administrator: Career Progression

Career Progression for Network Engineers

  1. 1
    Entry-Level Roles: Individuals often start in roles like Network Support Technician or Junior Network Engineer, where they gain hands-on experience with network hardware, software, and protocols.
  2. 2
    Network Engineer: With additional experience, they take on more responsibilities, managing and configuring networks, troubleshooting issues, and ensuring optimal performance and security.
  3. 3
    Senior Network Engineer: In this phase, individuals are responsible for designing and implementing complex network solutions, often overseeing the work of junior engineers and technicians.
  4. 4
    Lead Network Engineer/Network Architect: At this level, they take on leadership roles, planning and designing network infrastructure while ensuring it aligns with the organization’s business needs and goals.
  5. 5
    Director of Networking/Chief Network Architect: Individuals at this stage oversee the organization's entire network infrastructure, making high-level strategic decisions and leading teams of network professionals.

Career Progression for System Administrators

  1. 1
    Entry-Level Roles: Aspiring System Administrators might begin as Support Specialists or Junior System Administrators, learning about system configuration, maintenance, and support.
  2. 2
    System Administrator: With experience, they take on full responsibility for maintaining systems, ensuring their efficiency, security, and functionality.
  3. 3
    Senior System Administrator: At this level, they manage complex environments, often overseeing other system administrators and planning system expansions and upgrades.
  4. 4
    Lead System Administrator/System Engineer: Individuals in this role assume significant responsibility and leadership, contributing to planning, strategy, and decision-making related to system architecture and technologies.
  5. 5
    IT Manager/Systems Manager: As they move into management, they become responsible for overseeing the organization’s entire IT infrastructure and may play a role in strategic planning and development.

As is the case with many IT positions, however, career progression for these roles is not strictly linear.

Professionals in these fields can move laterally into different IT roles, specialize in niche areas, or advance into managerial positions, depending on their career aspirations, skills, and the organizational structure and needs.

Network Engineer Vs System Administrator: US Salary Comparison

Network Engineers and System Administrators experience different salary trajectories, owing to their distinctive skill sets, the varying demand in the industry, and the unique requirements of their roles within organizations.

In the United States, entry-level Network Engineers can expect to earn starting salaries in the ballpark of $50,000 to $70,000 annually. This range is subject to variation due to factors like location, the size of the company, and the specific industry. On the other hand, entry-level System Administrators typically see starting salaries ranging from $45,000 to $65,000 per year, reflecting the responsibility of maintaining and configuring vital system operations.

As they accrue experience and hone their specialized skills, both Network Engineers and System Administrators witness an increase in their earning potential. Mid-level Network Engineers can anticipate salaries between $70,000 and $90,000, whereas experienced System Administrators may earn in the range of $65,000 to $85,000. For senior or lead positions in both fields, salaries can often exceed $100,000, with exact figures varying based on the complexity and responsibility level of the role.

These salary estimates can fluctuate substantially due to a variety of influencing factors. Geographic location is a very important factor. For instance, tech-centric regions and major cities tend to offer higher compensation levels to attract and retain talent. The size and sector of the employing company are also significant, with larger corporations and certain high-demand industries often disbursing higher salaries. Lastly, an individual's specific skills, certifications, and experience contribute greatly to their market value and earning potential in these dynamic and competitive fields.

Network Engineer Vs System Administrator: FAQ

What are the primary responsibilities that differentiate a Network Engineer from a System Administrator?

Network Engineers primarily focus on designing, implementing, and managing networks, ensuring efficient data communication and connectivity. In contrast, System Administrators are responsible for installing, supporting, and managing the servers and computers within an organization.

Do Network Engineers and System Administrators work together on projects?

Yes, they frequently collaborate, especially in larger projects that involve both system setups and network configurations. Their combined expertise ensures that IT solutions are not only functional but also efficiently connected and secure.

How do the daily tasks of a Network Engineer differ from those of a System Administrator?

While there's some overlap, Network Engineers usually delve deeper into tasks like configuring routers, switches, and firewalls, optimizing network performance, and ensuring network security. System Administrators focus more on managing servers, installing and updating software, and addressing user-level issues.

Is the stress level or workload different between the two roles?

Both roles can be demanding, especially when issues arise that affect company operations. System Administrators might face more immediate pressure when server issues directly impact user access, while Network Engineers might experience stress during larger infrastructure overhauls or security breaches. The exact stress levels often depend on the company's environment, the support structure in place, and the specific challenges at any given time.

When recruiting, is experience or certification more important for these roles?

Both experience and certification are essential, but the importance can vary. For positions requiring immediate proficiency, experience might be prioritized. For roles with training opportunities, certifications with less experience might be acceptable.

What are the key soft skills to look for in candidates for both positions?

Look for problem-solving skills, adaptability, strong communication abilities, and a collaborative mindset for both roles. Additionally, attention to detail and stress management skills are crucial due to the demanding nature of these positions.

We hope you enjoyed our article on the differences between the role of a Network Engineer and that of a System Administrator.

If your company is looking for IT professionals and you are interested in IT recruitment or IT staff augmentation, please contact us and we will be happy to help you find the right person for the job.

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