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Storage administrator skills and jobs in the age of convergence

Simpler data centers can complicate the lives of IT pros with specialized skills, such as storage admins. But they can still thrive by specializing further or becoming generalists.

Every transformational change in technology that drives an IT function brings a change in the responsibilities of those who oversee that function. Today we see transformational changes that affect storage administrator skills.

As result of an IT evolution that has delivered new workload architectural options, converged infrastructure, hyper-converged infrastructure and infrastructure in the cloud have become common in IT departments. For on-premises needs, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure have ignited a market that is red hot and seemingly growing in both breadth and depth every day. 

Businesses have adopted these products to rein in increasingly complex data center environments. The goal is to simplify IT to a point where digital transformation efforts can exit the planning and enter the implementation stage. The emergence of converged and hyper-converged infrastructure is no exception. It brings with it rewritten job descriptions and a lot of angst as IT professionals discover they may need to relearn certain skills or change their current skills to remain relevant.

In the case of today's popular convergence technologies, the value in having a broad set of skills as opposed to deep ones has expanded. Let's explore why.

The rise of the generalist

Modern infrastructure has brought us to the era of the IT generalist. That doesn't mean those with specialized skill sets will be ejected, but a simpler, more compact administrative paradigm for infrastructure means a person with a shallower, yet broader skill set can manage just fine.

This is a positive development for employers and could be for IT pros, too. Consider the historical differences between specialists and generalists. Specialists delve deep into their resource silos to learn every nuance so they can maximize the output of that resource. They require deep and ongoing training in their specialties.

All that specialization gets expensive for organizations. Let's consider those of us with storage administrator skills, who have been most affected by the current technology evolution. Storage has become, perhaps, one of the most complex resources to manage in the data center. It's the main resource being subsumed into converged and hyper-converged systems and, in some cases, abstracted and simplified. When taking the convergence route, it makes little financial sense to maintain general storage that requires paying a team of people.

That doesn't make storage specialists extinct. Because every organization only has the need for general storage administrator skills, there is still room for those with some specialized skill sets.

The changing face of specialization

Still, many changes imposed by converged and hyper-converged infrastructure products primarily affect generalized storage needs for mainstream applications. For these uses, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure handily replace a lot of traditional storage systems. However, for certain applications and verticals, general-purpose storage won't cut it. (General storage refers to systems for mainstream enterprise applications, and specialized storage refers to systems designed for a specific need). For example, in the media and entertainment industry, specialized object storage and emerging cloud storage products are the technologies of choice and still require specialized storage administrator skills.

General-purpose vs. specialized storage

What is general-purpose storage and how does it compare to specialized storage? Simply put, specialized storage is custom-tailored to a specific need. For example, media companies may buy specialized object storage because they must support unique workloads.

On the other side, general-purpose storage is storage suitable for mainstream enterprise applications. The exact definition of these types of applications will be different depending on the organization, but they generally include the ERP, email, file servers, SharePoint, databases and other applications a business depends upon.

The definition of general-purpose storage has changed as storage vendors increased the capabilities of their systems and as media pricing declined over time. What used to require specialized storage because of a dearth of general-purpose systems to support a particular workload may now operate perfectly fine on a modern general-purpose storage system chock-full of high-density flash media.

As more applications become mainstream, general-purpose storage systems will evolve to meet the capacity and performance needs for a wider array (no pun intended) of applications.

With many general-purpose storage use cases shifting to converged and hyper-converged infrastructure products, it's time to look closely at the storage administration skills these architectures require.

Converged storage administrator skills

Converged infrastructure lets storage pros retain many of the storage administrator skills and processes they've come to know and love. Admins still create volumes and deeply manage storage, for example, but do so via more centralized administrative interfaces. There are notable changes, though.

If you're a storage administrator reading this article, you may be worried, and rightfully so.

Integration makes administration a whole lot easier. By the nature of a converged infrastructure system, there is little to no risk the storage portion of the stack will have any interoperability issues with other parts of the stack. That's a welcome change from how traditional environments are managed.

With traditional non-converged products cobbled together to form a stack, storage administrators must play a key role in creating the fabric that binds servers to storage. They need to make protocol and interconnection decisions, such as specifying the actual medium to use, Ethernet or Fibre Channel.

In a converged system, many of these decisions have already been made and the connectivity is already deployed when the storage arrays arrive. That allows the storage administrator to focus only on ongoing management tasks rather than design and engineering duties.

Hyper-converged storage administrator skills

Hyper-converged infrastructure architecture design changes are more radical for storage admins. It is in hyper-convergence where the role of the storage aficionado changes dramatically.

In most hyper-converged products, the storage layer is invisible, or close to it. There may be a need for light storage management via hypervisor tools, but that's about it from a software perspective. Depending on the hyper-converged infrastructure platform, administrators may still get to handle hardware a little, though. Administrators can add new appliances (nodes) to the existing cluster to expand storage when they need more capacity, and some products allow customers to open the hardware to add individual disks. Beyond that, there's not a lot for a storage admin to do in these systems. In some systems, such as in a Scale Computing cluster, there are no storage controls beyond specifying the size of the volume you need and general performance level. You don't need a Ph.D. in storage to handle those kinds of tasks.

If you're a storage administrator reading this article, you may be worried, and rightfully so. Storage has been a challenge for a lot of companies over the years, and the market has responded by attacking storage head-on and creating new ways to blunt complexity. So what are you to do?

Specialize further

As I mentioned, parts of the market remain in need of deeper architectural expertise when it comes to storage. If you are the kind of person that just loves storage and can't get enough of doing design work, investigate these market segments:

  • Media and entertainment. Object storage is all the rage here, and companies in this space are prime targets for every object storage vendor. There is opportunity here for storage professionals to build storage platforms that can help their organization pull ahead of the pack.
  • Artificial intelligence. AI is an emerging workload for which storage is a critical component. While there can be commonalities between AI projects, many are unique, and each requires a unique data storage architecture. These kinds of projects can keep you neck deep in the weeds of storage administration and management.
  • Application-specific storage. Many enterprise applications still require specialized storage and storage professionals willing to put on their application glasses and figure out how to best support them.

Complement storage administrator skills to get ahead

Today, there are many technology staffing needs in areas such as networking, security and cloud. Consider brushing up on these skills to complement what you already know about storage to help you maintain and improve your value:

  • Networking. Like storage, the networking world is undergoing a major transformation, and organizations need to understand how best to capitalize on the opportunities.
  • Security. This is an area of growing investment for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Expect that growth to continue unabated for the foreseeable future.
  • Cloud. Companies are still figuring out their cloud strategies. It seems not a day goes by when variations on the "everyone is moving to cloud" and "companies are pulling back from the cloud" themes compete for front-page coverage. It is enough to give you whiplash. As a result, organizations have an intense need for those with a clear-headed and comprehensive understanding about cloud strategy. As a storage person, you may be able to fill that role by helping your organization think through how to extend their on-premises storage environment to the cloud to create a hybrid cloud environment with a common storage fabric.

Become a generalist

We are in an era of IT generalists, so why not become one yourself? You may lose some of your storage administrator skills depth, but the skills gained in other areas could be great for your career.

Storage admins are really smart people, but in a purely technical role, it can sometimes be hard for them to expand their careers unless they take an active interest in doing so. As you become more familiar with the skills required of different resource areas, it'll become easier to see just how everything fits together in the overall IT puzzle. Remember, storage is important, but it is not the entire business. That higher-level perspective can help storage admins better understand how the work they do can improve the overall business and, in doing so, give their careers a boost.

If your company is investing in converged and hyper-converged infrastructure, get ahead of the shift by investing in your own storage administrator skills or by extending those skills to meet wider needs for the organization. Look for ways to wear more hats and de-emphasize your storage chops in favor of a more generalist approach that can help your organization architect a more comprehensive, business-centric and simpler data center.

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