As sysadmins, we are constantly forced to convey complex technical terms and situations to the layman or beginner. I was just wondering what metaphors each of you may have devised to describe things we may see every day.

For instance, remember the infamous water-cooler raid diagram? alt text

I was hoping to have one topic or term in each answer along with it's corresponding metaphor in layman's terms.

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  • 7
    The second one isn't a cluster, it's load balancing. – Massimo Aug 17 '10 at 13:36
  • 1
    So what would the difference between a load balancing and a cluster be? Seems like a 2-node cluster can load balance? – JamesBarnett Dec 29 '10 at 1:20

11 Answers 11


I once used an analogy to explain how RAM is defective to a customer of mine. I started at normal voice level repeating ones and zeroes, then after a few seconds I threw a "TWO!" loudly in there. I then explained that their reaction was how Windows XP/Vista/7 reacts: It freaks out and Bluescreens.

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    I'll have to try that one... – d-_-b Sep 25 '10 at 11:24

My recent favorite is to imagine their computer is a desk at the library. Once you start opening books, you need to close some to make room to open others. If you leave them all open (I'm talking to you, VP who complains about his "crappy" computer because he leaves 35 windows open at all times) you'll have ripped pages, books falling on the floor, and general chaos.

(oh, did you mean complex topics for us? or just simple concepts like RAM, which are complex to the users?) ;)

  • This is perfect. – GregD Sep 22 '10 at 3:45

I have explained to my doctor that my work is like a surgeon's. If I do a mistake when working on a live server, the "patient" will die and the "relatives" (the owners) will kill me.

  • Good one...especially the killing part..... – Software Mechanic May 15 '11 at 11:21

One I have used: Internet or LAN slowness can be thought of like automobile traffic. Some days your commute in to work is faster than others, etc. Just because Monday and Tuesday are quick drives doesn't guarantee that Wednesday will be quick as well.

  • 6
    Wait, I thought the Internet was a series of tubes being filled by dump trucks. :) – TCampbell Aug 17 '10 at 13:52
  • Some days, it sure seems like dump trucks! – Jeff Halley Aug 18 '10 at 0:02
  • Internet service: pipes. The dimensions that matter are the length of the pipe and the diameter; it's an easy way to demonstrate the difference between latency and bandwidth.

  • OSI: mail. Layer 1 is the infrastructure—roads, planes, sorting centers, postal vehicles, etc. Layer 2 is the mailman. Layer 3 is the address and ZIP. Layer 4 is the apartment number within the building. Layer 5 is the "Regarding your letter of (date)" line. Layer 6 is appreciating the inside joke. Not until Layer 7 do you notice that the letter was written in Comic Sans and is about a party next week.

  • HDD vs. RAM (vs. CPU cache): HDD is a file in a folder (see how easy that is?) in a file cabinet, RAM is what's spread out on your desk right now (which also handily explains the block cache), and CPU cache is what you remember off the top of your head.

  • NAT: The UPS Store (neé Mailboxes Etc.). One address, but because "suite numbers" are attached to it, you can have one address with many actual customers inside it. Also useful to explain the concept of private addresses; you can deliver stuff all day long to my UPS Store address, but you'll never realize I actually work out of my home.

  • +1 I like the pipes analogy. I'd previously been using the 2 seater sports car vs 40 seater bus analogy, but since all packets travel at the speed of light, the distance they travel is more relevant to latency than speed. – dunxd Sep 28 '10 at 8:08
  • Glad you like it. To help with the visualization of an individual packet on that one, I sometimes suggest dropping a gummi bear/ping-pong ball/food coloring in on one end. You can also explain why TCP setup takes so long by explaining how you have to reverse the flow of the pipe and completely flush out all the water in it, two or three times (depending on how you're explaining it), in order to complete the three-way handshake. – BMDan Sep 28 '10 at 13:20

Road signs when explaining network routing.

A router is like a crossroads, and the routing table is like a road sign telling you which way to go to get to somewhere (an IP address).

Sometimes you get to a crossroads, and there is no road sign for your destination. So you should just go straight through (default route).

Sometimes there should have been a sign to your destination, but there isn't so you just head straight through and never get there...


To explain the difference between POP3 and SMTP I always emhasize the similarities with the real mail (please think to people that do not speak english and do not understand the jargon)

When you send a postcard you drop it into the public post box, right?

When you wait for a postcard, you look in your letterbox at home, correct?

Email is similar: you put the email into the SMTP server (public post box in the street) and you look for email addressed to you in your POP3 mailbox (your closed letterbox at home).

  • 1
    All my home mail comes and goes through my mailbox. When I send something I put the flag up; and every evening I check for new mail. – Chris S Sep 28 '10 at 12:44

DNS = Telephone book. Looks up name and turns it into phone number.


Users say the darndest things. One of my favorites was, "Why does it take thirty minutes for windows to search my computer, when google can search the whole internet in a second?"

Rather than explain indexing and pointers vs. live search. I described it as "Why can you use the yellow pages to find every coffee shop in town in two minutes, but it still takes you half an hour to find your car keys."


I always liked, in OOP, Classes are nouns, Class Instances are proper nouns, and Methods/Functions are verbs.

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