How to approach IT staffing in today's data center

Virtualization and tight budgets have changed IT staffing in modern data centers. Find out how to blend skills and technology for the best mix.

At one time, it took a small army of highly trained and experienced IT professionals to run a corporate data center. But the persistent advances of technology and changing business perceptions have changed the nature of IT staffing.

No longer viewed as a bastion of esoteric technology, IT shops have assumed a more traditional role as a cost center -- an everyday element of business operations that contends for diminishing budget dollars just as other parts of the organization do.

Business changes have also converged with technological advances in management tools, improvements in resiliency and the emergence of virtualization. And all of these factors have had a profound effect on the IT staffing needs and skill set requirements for modern data centers.

Trends in today's IT workforce
Organizations expect today's IT staffs to do more with less. Because of that reality, the scope of many IT roles is expanding, often aided by advances in virtualization technology to support many more business systems without more bodies to operate them. It's common to see an IT staff tasked with backup now taking care of SharePoint portals, while systems administrators may now manage storage as well.

The changes are taking place all the way up the corporate ladder. "Senior management roles, such as the CIO and CTO, are evolving at an accelerated rate with very specific alignment to the business line managers," said Allen Zuk, president and CEO of Sierra Management Consulting LLC, a technology consulting firm based in Parsippany, N.J.

Although this evolution of roles may sometimes result in fewer IT positions, the bright side for more experienced IT personnel is that they often get to spend extra time on strategic projects.

"The reality is that once you get past the initial setup and hardening, most of the day-to-day operations are managed by our junior technicians," said Chris Steffen, principal technical architect at Kroll Factual Data, a business information provider in Loveland, Colo.

The reality is that once you get past the initial setup and hardening, most of the day-to-day operations are managed by our junior technicians.
Chris Steffen,
principal technical architectKroll Factual Data

For senior IT personnel, this means a shift toward a supervisory or project management position. It's a trend that Steffen sees increasing among his peers. "IT managers can't really afford to get rid of their 'big picture' people," he said. "They need to have those people around, if nothing else than for compliance reasons."

Steffen's anecdotal observations are reinforced by data from a 2009 survey from the Computing Technology Industry Association Inc., the nonprofit IT trade association known as CompTIA. Its survey, called "Evaluating the State of IT Skills," reports that the number of IT employees within 57% of respondents' organizations is staying the same (see Figure 1), while 24% of respondents indicated an increase in the number of IT employees. Only 14% of respondents indicated a decline in IT staff.

But the median number of open IT positions is down substantially, from five open positions in 2008 to only one open position in 2009. The reduction in open positions is most likely because of a combination of new openings being filled -- or open requisitions cancelled -- and the tendency for businesses to hold the line on staffing levels until the economy shows clear signs of recovery.

Although the average number of open positions may be dwindling, the openings show a significant range of IT responsibilities (see Figure 2), from technical support to application developers. Roughly one quarter of respondents had no open positions.

There is certainly no single formula or rule of thumb for staffing modern data centers. Staff composition will vary dramatically based on the size of the organization, its geographic location, its industry or vertical market and the actual technologies implemented in-house. Still, core staffing typically requires some number of data center operators, a SAN architect, some network architects or administrators, support technicians, application developers and communication engineers.

As an example, Steffen reports that Kroll Factual Data employs approximately 95 IT professionals from the CIO and down -- 12 to 15 in the network operations group, five or six junior technicians, two or three senior IT staff and about 20 people in technical support. The remaining staff generally comprises application development professionals and various managers.

The making of an IT professional
Those who work in the IT profession typically have some amount of college-level coursework, such as a bachelor of science degree in computer science, but a two-year associate of science degree or strong technical training may also be acceptable. Steffen suggests starting with a selection of baseline certifications from CompTIA such as A+, Network+, Security+ and Server+. Although such certifications are not all-encompassing, they demonstrate a basic knowledge that gives a prospective junior staffer an excellent starting point.

At the high end, expect senior IT administrators and engineers to possess advanced Microsoft certifications such as MCSE and MCSA or Cisco certifications such as CCNA or CCIE. Steffen said he considers CCISP and MCIE to represent the pinnacle of IT certifications because of the complexity and scope of each certification's requirements.

'Soft skills,' such as customer service, sales, project management and communication, earned a high rating of importance.

There is, however, a proliferation of other IT certifications, including those from SANS Institute, a cooperative research and education organization, along with other more specialized certifications from vendors like VMware and Citrix, as well as professional certifications such as Project Management Professional, Certified Data Center Professional and IT Infrastructure Library -- depending on the specific needs of the organization.

CompTIA research shows a growing importance of certification for IT employees. In 2008, respondents to the CompTIA survey emphasized the need for internal training and incentives or rewards over certification. In 2009, certification took the top spot over feedback and assessments and internal training as the most used method to enhance IT skills.

Other skills are also essential for IT professionals looking to get ahead. Zuk underscores the value of negotiation and management abilities for tech employees."Broad network and data center management experience is going to be significantly important, as well as the understanding and negotiation of service-level agreements and the ability to manage and work with managed service providers," he said.

"Soft skills," such as customer service, sales, project management and communication, earned a high rating on the CompTIA survey, with an importance level of 6.0 out of 7.0. These skills were considered to be almost as important as hardware skills and knowledge, which garnered only a slightly higher rating of 6.1 out of 7.0.

According to Steffen, entry-level staff should have baseline certifications rather than a set number of years of experience to enhance their value in the job market. Senior-level IT professionals should expect to show at least five years of relevant experience. "Once you're in the door, part of your expectation as an employee would be to obtain more certifications," Steffen said.

Staffing options for data centers
Budget constraints and new technologies are prompting data centers to look at a number of new alternatives to reduce their dependence on full-time employees. Such options are particularly attractive for small to mid-sized organizations where business needs can justify IT projects that current revenue levels simply might not allow.

Outsourcing routine tasks to managed service providers is one well established avenue and supports such core business tasks as website hosting, email hosting or hosted security. MSPs allow clients to pay a fixed monthly fee for needed services without the burden of managing infrastructure and IT staff. In many cases, an MSP uses highly scalable processes and infrastructures that allow them to easily absorb additional clients without adding staff themselves.

VARs, consultants and temporary staffing agencies offer other alternatives where clients can bring in outside talent to perform particular services or projects, usually for a limited duration and limited cost. For example, an experienced VAR might be an ideal choice to install and integrate a new server or storage system, freeing the in-house IT staff to continue their daily routines with minimal disruption.

Similarly, a knowledgeable consultant may be appropriate for compliance auditing when that expertise is lacking internally.

"VARs and consultants are an effective choice for staffing, especially if there is a need for staff augmentation," Zuk said. But this assumes the required talent is available on a timetable that meets the client's needs.

One emerging trend in temporary contract staffing is a "contract-to-hire" model that gives client companies the opportunity to hire the most desirable temps in a proposition sometimes called "try before you buy."

A third option is the adoption and integration of automation and self-service resources geared toward end users. One example of this is an automated password reset, freeing IT staff to focus on bigger projects. Zuk said that this option is quickly gaining traction and acceptance because end users are becoming more tech savvy. But an improper deployment or excessive reliance on automation tools can pose a management nightmare for existing IT staff.

The future of IT staffing
Experts say they see little perceptible change in IT staffing in the near future.

"Virtualization is still new in the broader sense, and management tools are still behind the eight ball in terms of lights-out support," Zuk said.

Well-trained and motivated people still play a crucial role in provisioning, management and maintenance activities.

But more staffing changes are on the horizon. Ongoing concern with the global economy and a tighter business focus on IT will invariably keep staff counts tight. Companies will increasingly leverage staffing alternatives to tackle important IT projects. Staffing decisions also need a clearer consideration of critical technologies and the faster introduction of new technologies in the data center.

"People who are truly succeeding in the industry are those who stay on top of the technology -- who don't look at it as work but as getting experience with the newest, latest and greatest," Steffen said.

CompTIA research indicates that security, general networking and soft skills will be critical for IT professionals five years from now.

The need for IT services is certainly not expected to wane, but some companies may eventually opt to trim IT staff positions as management improves or as core IT functions are outsourced to MSPs. Conversely, other companies may choose to maintain or even increase staffing levels to implement and manage new cost-saving or revenue-producing projects that are so vital to the bottom line.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephen J. Bigelow, a senior technology writer in the Data Center and Virtualization Group at TechTarget Inc., has more than 15 years of technical writing experience in the PC/technology industry. He holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering, along with CompTIA A+ and Network+ certifications, and has written hundreds of articles and more than 15 feature books on computer troubleshooting, including Bigelow's PC Hardware Desk Reference,/i> and Bigelow's PC Hardware Annoyances. Contact him at [email protected].

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