"Who is my System Administrator?"

Part 2 — Some Background

As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, when your computer talks about a system administrator, it really means whoever knows the password to a user account with administrator privileges.

Everything you are allowed to do on a modern personal computer is based on your user account. User accounts are divided into two general types: administrator and standard.

When you are logged in with an administrator account, you can do everything on the computer. This includes installing new software, enabling peripherals such as a printer or USB drive, and setting when the computer goes to sleep. The administrator can also grant or deny permissions for particular users, like blocking access to a particular website or disabling your ability to run a certain instant messaging program.

Standard accounts can run programs, browse the Internet, print documents, and open and save files just like you do every day, but cannot do the administrative tasks listed above. When you're logged in with a standard account, you will get error messages or warnings if you try to do things you're not allowed to do.

Up until several years ago, everyone used administrator accounts for every day computer use, especially on home computers. This is because it took special effort to create standard user accounts, and then you often found that certain programs wouldn't work if you ran them as a standard user. Just using administrator accounts for everybody was the easiest way to avoid this extra hassle, but it made computers less reliable. Why? Well, a user logged in with an administrator account is more prone to mistakenly change a setting that breaks something in the computer. If the same user made the same mistake while logged in with a standard account, the setting would not stick, and no harm would be done. Also, certain viruses can only get in and infect the computer if they are opened and run by a user who is logged in with administrative privileges, because a virus runs with the privileges of the currently logged-in user.

Because of the risks of running as administrator all the time, Microsoft Windows computers produced since around 2007 automatically set user accounts as standard users. So now it's reversed: It takes extra effort to create and use an administrator account.

By now you probably see where this is going. When you're using anything but a really old computer, and you try to install some software or change a setting, suddenly the computer is bugging you about contacting an administrator, when it you haven't encountered that in the past. Regardless of how the message is phrased, all it wants is anyone with the password to an administrator account. Sometimes it will give you an opportunity to enter the password right there to complete the action you were trying to take, but sometimes a setting has to be changed elsewhere to tell the computer that you are allowed to do what you're trying to do.

In any case, any well-trained computer system manager will know what to do... as long as he knows the password!