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Balance your data center skills to keep up

As technology evolves, data center admins need to keep their skill set up to date or suffer the same fate as most COBOL programmers.

In the technology space, everything has a lifecycle and those that aren't willing to change become dinosaurs. Back in the 1980s, there was a lot of demand for COBOL programmers. A lot of organizations had built internal systems that were coded using COBOL, and they needed people to maintain and improve them.

Moving into the late 1990s and early 2000s, being a COBOL programmer was no longer a hot job opportunity. This hot skill set had moved from the front runner to a corner niche skill. There were still jobs that needed COBOL skills because organizations refused to modernize many of those applications built long ago. But the job pool shrunk over the years. If you were a COBOL programmer who did not learn new skills, you were most likely going to have a long job search ahead of you.

I think that the core data center skills are entering a similar phase that will escalate over the coming few years. In the past and even still so today, many large organizations managed their IT skill sets by grouping them into silos. This means that there are individual teams focused on Windows, Linux, virtualization, storage, network, backup and so on. One or two of these skills may be collapsed into a single team if there is significant overlap, such as virtualization.

The point is that there are still people on these teams in many organizations that show up to work every day and spend all day looking at performance charts from a legacy storage array, creating new LUNs and zoning servers. While these are all very necessary skills, they are not really delivering any value back to the business. There are similar examples for each of the teams that I mentioned, so that the storage guys don't think I'm exclusively picking on them.

There is a clear trend from the hardware and software vendors that are creating products that are installed in our data centers. They are creating products that are getting incredibly easy to install and deploy, and they are also greatly simplifying the operational effort required to keep them running. Most modern storage arrays take a day or less to install on average. Quickly fading are the days when it took professional services a week to install the latest storage array from a vendor. Organizations no longer want to pay those expenses or deal with all of the complications.

We are seeing this trend materialize in the storage space with products that are classified as software-defined storage (SDS) or hyper-converged infrastructure. VMware has a product offering in each of these categories, with VSAN and EVO:RAIL, respectively. Both of these products can be installed easily in less than a day. They are both incredibly easy to manage throughout their lifecycles and there aren't hundreds of reports to sort through. Admins are provided a well-defined set of reports for performance and capacity, with the ability to dig deeper if needed. This reduces the ongoing management effort to minutes per day, rather than full days.

Admins that fall into any of the skill-set silos mentioned earlier should be looking to evolve their skills and move into roles that are increasingly in demand. One possible role is a data center engineer (DCE), with mid-level experience with all of the technologies in the data center. The DCE role will be able to cover several operating systems, as well as virtualization, storage, compute and everyday networking support and issues. In most organizations, there would be a team of DCEs who have similar skills, but the days of relying and waiting on a different team to solve or assist with an issue will be gone.

Another skill that is gaining popularity is focused around the automation and orchestration movement. This is also commonly referred to as DevOps, but not all organizations have development internally. They do, however, have the desire or need to automate and orchestrate processes. VMware has a few products that fit directly in this space, with vRealize Orchestrator (vRO) and vRealize Automation (vRA).

The vRO layer allows admins to build workflows that can automate common tasks and processes to save time and improve accuracy; vRA provides a centralize portal that offers blueprints for defining server and service deployments, along with VM lifecycle management and showback costing.

By elevating your skills from being a pure infrastructure admin, you are able to help provide additional value to the business. These efforts are increasing reliability by removing the risks of human error. There is a learning curve to gain skills in these areas, but they are worth the effort and will ensure that your skills are in demand for the decade to come.

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