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Virtualization skills pay the bills: Essential knowledge for admins

Virtualization may be an established technology, but that doesn't mean it's stopped evolving. In order to keep up, administrators must constantly acquire new virtualization skills.

Virtualization has taken its place in the data center as a mature and essential technology, but maturity should...

not be mistaken for stagnation. Hypervisors, computing infrastructures and supporting tools are constantly evolving. This means getting and keeping a job as a virtualization administrator or expert continues to be a moving target. Whether you're new to virtualization administration, or an old salt looking to reevaluate your marketability to an employer, here are five of the top virtualization skills essential for virtualization experts working in the industry today.

Broaden your virtual horizon with containers

Containers offer an alternative approach to traditional hypervisor-based virtualization. Rather than creating a completely independent virtual instance with a unique operating system, drivers and application workload, a container provides a relatively petite instance capable of holding a workload or application component. Each container shares an underlying host operating system kernel and drivers, allowing fast build up and teardown for a huge number of containers -- an ideal mechanism for private and public cloud applications.

Container experts must be familiar with various container orchestration engines. COEs enable containers to be provisioned, scheduled, organized and managed. Docker is perhaps the most recognized and popular container engine, though Kubernetes and Apache Mesos are among other available engines. Container experts must also understand the security issues and implications of container technology, as well as the automation strategies to manage security in a shared-kernel environment.

Containers are also a natural platform for software development efforts, allowing software to be developed as a series of modular components rather than single monolithic entities and tied together with application programming interfaces. This not only speeds and simplifies software design, it also supports enormous software scalability because it is possible to deploy -- scale -- additional containers to handle software tasks that are most required. Container experts often work closely with software developers and DevOps staff.

Develop a strong automation strategy

Virtualization experts should have a strong background in automation strategies and tools. One of the most compelling advantages of modern virtualization is the speed with which new computing instances can be created and destroyed. A new VM or cloud instance can be provisioned in a matter of minutes. Hundreds -- even thousands -- of containers can be spun up in seconds.

This kind of flexibility offers exciting potential for a business, but it also imposes real strain on the IT staff. It's almost impossible for humans to oversee every aspect of virtual instance creation and integration using manual processes. A virtualization administrator must rely on automation to conduct many everyday operations like provisioning a new VM or LUN, deploying an application to the new instance, taking regular backups or snapshots, perform VM workload balancing across servers, clusters, or data centers, handle workload migration and system power management, and so on.

It's almost impossible for humans to oversee every aspect of virtual instance creation and integration using manual processes.

Automation can perform all of these complex tasks with a single command. This helps to speed up these everyday processes while improving efficiency, which gives administrators time to do more with their day, boosting consistency, reducing errors and mitigating security flaws. All of this enhances corporate compliance.

Automation in a virtualized environment may use an array of carefully prepared scripts run through a command-line interface like VMware PowerCLI or Windows PowerShell. Automation can also use dedicated automation tools such as VMware's Distributed Resource Scheduler, vRealize Orchestrator and many other tools. Automation isn't just about tools. Automation experts must also create and maintain complex policies that drive the tools, and this requires a serious set of virtualization skills and a sound knowledge of underlying business goals and priorities.

Embrace the diversity of virtualization management

In virtualization, automation is basically a tactical pursuit where the "rubber meets the road", but it isn't enough to simply allocate resources, deploy an application and expect things to work perfectly all the time. Virtualization professionals must also be experts on the strategic side by actively managing the virtual environment.

Virtualization management is diverse, often including resource discovery, pooling, organization, allocation and optimization, using only the necessary resources. At the same time, virtualization experts must be able to monitor workload performance and resource utilization, balance workloads and make resource adjustments if needed, all while handling migrations, projecting future capacity needs, analyzing log data, handling reporting and alerting, and so on.

Management is almost universally handled through software tools. Tools are often available through the virtualization vendor such as Citrix Essentials, VMware vSphere with Operations Management or VMware vRealize Operations Insight. Management can also be deployed using many diverse third-party tools, including Dell Foglight for Virtualization, Enterprise Edition, ManageEngine OpManager, StrataCloud Virtualization Management Center and many others. The exact choice of tool depends on the business, management needs and staff expertise.

Explore the opportunities of the cloud

Virtualization technology is a foundation of private cloud computing. In essence, a business adopts a private cloud in order to put users in control of their own business computing efforts rather than relying on IT to provision and manage compute or storage instances. For example, a cloud allows users to create virtual instances, load and run workloads, monitor performance, pay for the resources consumed and, eventually, retire those instances, all without the direct intervention of IT staff. This means the move from virtualization to cloud requires additional services including automation, self-service and reporting chargeback capabilities.

For virtualization experts, the support needed for cloud computing takes on several layers. Staff will need a solid background in cloud infrastructure software, such as open source OpenStack or vendor-dedicated platforms like VMware vCloud Suite, among others. Implementing and supporting such cloud platforms often involves architectural changes to the data center which demands a greater knowledge of server clustering and availability, network design, storage tiering and other engineering considerations. Greater architectural know-how must be matched with conceptual shifts like an emphasis on service delivery from IT, rather than IT providing specific resources like servers or disks.

Another emerging avenue for virtualization experts is hybrid cloud integration -- merging a company's private cloud infrastructure with public cloud providers like Google, Amazon Web Services and others. Successful integration of public and private hybrid clouds allows a business to move workloads seamlessly between public and private resources in order to maximize resource use, cost advantages and other benefits.

Private cloud deployment is a challenging endeavor which can overwhelm an unprepared IT staff lacking comprehensive virtualization skills. Organizations may elect to introduce a private cloud as a small pilot project and build it out over time, while others may choose to staff up with experienced private cloud architects or engineers who can successfully lead such a project.

Build the perfect physical infrastructure

Virtualization doesn't work without underlying hardware such as servers, storage, switches and other physical components. While today's trend is certainly away from hardware, successful virtualization experts should have a strong understanding of the data center's physical infrastructure in order to make the most of system integration, resource pooling, capacity planning and other tasks -- knowing the hardware helps a business make the most of its computing resources and maximize resource availability with technologies like clustering and migration.

One prime example of hardware's importance is the influence of convergence within the data center. Convergence has been an ongoing trend which sought to replace disparate heterogeneous systems with preselected, pre-optimized and pretested hardware integrations. The more recent shift toward hyper-convergence takes this trend to an even higher level. Rather than a vendor pre-assembling systems from varied sources for you, a hyper-converged platform provides a single-vendor solution for servers, storage and network gear.

Such virtualization skills are vital for professionals because hardware selections will affect the availability of computing resources, the cost of those resources to the business and to computing stakeholders, the longevity of those resources within the data center and the vendor's influence over the business' virtualization or cloud ambitions. In short, it's easier to support a virtualized environment when you have mastery over the actual resources that you're virtualizing.

Virtualization is a well-established technology today, but virtualization expertise can still make or break a data center. Today's businesses rely on virtualization experts with a background in emerging virtualization models like containers, automation strategies and tools, management tools, private and hybrid cloud computing and all of the hardware-level infrastructure that make it work.

Next Steps

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This was last published in February 2016

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What virtualization skills and expertise are important in your organization?
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Great article Stephen! Easy read with clear concepts for novice or expert. I know you didn't rank them, but I were pressed to do so, I think containers and the public cloud hold the most opportunity for admins with automation a close 3rd. Convergence would probably be last on my list.
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