The traveling sysadmin

By David Mytton,
CEO & Founder of Server Density.

Published on the 10th June, 2011.

I’m writing this from Tokyo, Japan. Last week I was in London, UK and the week before I was in San Francisco. The last few weeks have involved a lot of travel (for work) but I’m taking a holiday back to Japan after my trip last summer.

Although we’re growing as a company, we’re still a fairly small team of 5 which means sharing on-call and as the founder, I’m occasionally checking in anyway. We are hiring a dedicated, full time sysadmin and the eventual goal is to be able to take time off without needing to be connected at all, but in the meantime I’ve found a few tricks which have allowed me to travel but still be available.

Don’t roam – use a portable hotspot

Sprint Overdrive

I have an iPhone with O2 in the UK. They charge £6 (~$10USD) per MB for mobile data access, which is insane. This is definitely still a massive profit centre for mobile providers so I avoid it where possible.

Whilst I was in the US, I borrowed a Sprint 4G Overdrive from my friend, Kord Campbell (CEO at Loggly, a logging as a service product). It gets pretty hot and the battery runs down fairly quickly but it was extremely useful to quickly pull up Google Maps or check my e-mail whilst out and about. I was also able to use Skype to make calls without paying roaming fees.

In Japan I have a GM MiFi which gives me unlimited internet for 300JPY ($3.75USD) per day. It’s very small, the battery lasts for ages, it doesn’t get hot and the internet is super fast – Japanese mobile networks seem much faster than those in the US/UK!

Travel light

There is an art to traveling light and it’s taken me a year of flying around to learn learn what I need and what I don’t (I started fairly small but now have an even smaller bag). The heaviest thing was my Macbook Pro but I have now purchased an 11″ Macbook Air which is ridiculously tiny and light, so I’m looking forward to just being able to take that with me.

One thing to note about the Macbook Air is it has no ethernet port and many hotels will provide ethernet only (such as the hotels here in Tokyo). Apple have a USB ethernet adapter to solve that problem.


Tim Ferris inspired me to take the lightweight approach and “buy it there”, but I’ve rarely found I need to buy things. I’ve been in Japan for over a week now and only needed to buy sunscreen. The main advantage for me is having a single bag as hand luggage and being able to quickly get out of the airport and travel on to the final destination – no heavy suitcase!

For example, Virgin Atlantic give you free socks so that’s one less thing to be taking from home. I have too many of these now!

You can travel for free

I wrote about this last year, so read the post about using airmiles acquired through normal business expenses.


Power Chair

The day I was flying home from San Francisco, I’d given Kord back his wifi hotspot and then received a server alert. I’d yet to hand over on-call so I found the nearest Starbucks (they all have very fast, free wifi) and logged in to get it resolved.

I have a travel power adapter but 2 pin sockets (such as in the US or Japan) don’t provide much support for large adapters such as when you plug in the Apple charger. I ended up using a chair to support the weight!

An iPad with the Apple case (I have the original one, not sure about the smart case) can also work well as a stand.

Don’t run updates

I have a rule where I’ll never update or upgrade my laptop, iPhone or iPad whilst I’m away. I need these to work and can’t be carrying a brick around until I get home. Apple Stores are everywhere now but having to reinstall the OS takes a long time, especially if your backup disks are at home.

The same applies to config changes and new shiny things – hold off until you’re at home and have everything you need in case something goes wrong!

No need for expensive travel gadgets

There are loads of fancy travel gadgets but you don’t need most of them. I specifically bought a lightweight waterproof, a worldwide travel adapter and an MSR pack towel and that’s it.

What else?

Got any tips? These are great for “developed” countries (i.e. San Francisco and Japan are very advanced) so I’d be interested to hear about less developed countries and going out away from civilisation. Add them in the comments!

  • Unlocked phones (nexus s comes unlocked) are also a MUST have. Whatever country you are in you can pickup a prepaid sim card (with data plan!) and forward your phone (for the longer trips using skype forwarding of google voice / grand central can save money)

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