Before the advent of a distributed domain name system; networked computers used local files to map hostnames to IP addresses. On Unix systems this file was named /etc/hosts or “the hosts file”. In those days, networks were small and managing a file with a handful of hosts was easy. However as the networks grew so did the methods of mapping hostnames and IP addresses.
In modern days with the internet totaling at somewhere around 246 million domain names (as of 2012) the hosts file has been replaced with a more scalable distributed DNS service.
Systems Administration is changing, with the huge scale of internet company deployments and the popularity of cloud computing. Server deployments are often scaling faster than the systems administration teams supporting them. In order to meet the demand those teams are finding themselves changing the ways they have traditionally managed servers.
One of those changes is automation, where once a sysadmin would need to spend time installing packages by hand (via apt or yum) and modifying configuration files.