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The storage administrator is dead; long live the storage admin
IT employers still see the value of keeping storage administrator jobs in house despite the allure of savings with managed services.
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The state of the storage administrator role is in flux -- but just how close to the brink of extinction or to a dramatic career re-imagining is up for discussion.
The reasons for the change are familiar. They include the rise of hybrid cloud data centers through the adoption of virtualization, along with the ongoing uptake of newer technologies such as containers. Together, they are bringing the role of the storage administrator to a professional flashpoint.
Historically, the storage administrator position involved a gray-collar mix of duties such as installing and maintaining storage hardware in data centers while provisioning storage services for other IT teams through command lines or other specialized vendor software.
Now, some storage admins feel their positions are imperiled by vendor managed services, but CIOs hiring for the role see a job reformatted into new responsibilities such as data stewardship, data placement and infrastructure cost management.
The most important rule any storage admin needs to follow -- one every industry expert and IT manager interviewed for this article agreed with -- is not to limit the role to the title alone.
Dave RaffoSenior analyst, Evaluator Group
"The first rule of being a storage administrator today is, don't talk about being a storage administrator," said Dave Raffo, senior analyst at Evaluator Group. "You don't want to run around telling people that you're [just] a storage guy."
At the recent HPE Discover 2022 conference in Las Vegas, Hewlett Packard Enterprise pitched its GreenLake managed services to attending customers as the future for simplifying employee overhead and removing in-house technology complications.
"Users have almost unlimited storage, with access to growth without worrying about acquiring or refreshing hardware," said Maciej Glowacki, an IT systems manager attending the conference.
GreenLake, according to HPE, removes most on-premises infrastructure operations by outsourcing those duties to the vendor, a "one throat to choke" approach HPE has developed to compete with similar packages from hardware companies such as Dell Technologies and NetApp, as well as hyperscalers like AWS and Microsoft Azure.
Some storage professionals in attendance, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation and job security, saw aspects of GreenLake as a professional threat. Managed services that automatically provision storage, update infrastructure hardware and allow anyone with access to the GUI to manage storage eliminate most traditional storage administrator duties.
But industry observers like Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting, disagreed with the premise that offerings such as GreenLake will cause the role of the storage administrator to disappear. Instead, the job has to evolve with the times. GreenLake cannot, for example, determine what makes certain data more valuable than other data or determine the best cost-saving maneuvers, he said.
"What can become a job killer for storage admins is data management," Staimer said. "What's valuable, in reality, is not the storage, but the data that's in the storage."
Others see managed services like GreenLake as a way to augment rather than replace the role of the storage admin.
"Almost 75% of [Infinidat's] customers use alternative consumption models to Capex," said Eric Herzog, chief marketing officer of Infinidat, a data storage company based in Herzliya, Israel. "These are big companies, and they are not getting rid of their storage admins just because they're using storage as a service."
Infinidat has added automation to its products, giving admins time to focus on other storage challenges, Herzog said. Other competing vendors to Infinidat that are similarly leaning into automation include NetApp and Pure Storage.
Now (still) hiring
A search for storage administrator positions on popular job positing websites such as Indeed still turns up plenty of results, showing continued demand for the role. Glassdoor salary estimates and submissions vary from about $60,000 for entry-level roles to more than $150,000 for experienced managers.
Garmin International in Olathe, Kan., a manufacturer and developer of GPS hardware and software, recently sought a storage administrator with a decade of professional experience and familiarity with S3 object storage as well as Dell Technologies and NetApp hardware. Barclays, a British bank, advertised a storage administrator position for its American R&D campus in Whippany, N.J., asking for almost entirely on-premises experience with IBM Tivoli Storage Manager, Veritas NetBackup and the vaultlike EMC Centera hardware.
A similar role with a slightly different title, IT systems administrator, is advertised for the storage IT infrastructure team at Mount Sinai Health System, a network of hospitals and medical offices in New York City.
The role advertises hybrid cloud experience, asking specifically for experience with Microsoft Azure, as well as other storage vendors such as NetApp, Pure and IBM. But the position also asks for other, more data-savvy acumen such as assisting in technology roadmap development, bringing new tools into the technology stack and communicating across departments about data needs, said Kristin Myers, executive vice president and CIO at Mount Sinai Health System.
"A valuable storage administrator is one who understands the critical role of data within an organization," Myers said. "They take the time to understand the end-to-end flow of data and the business requirements. They understand who needs to interact with the data, integrations and interfaces; what type of data needs to be stored; how frequently it needs to be accessed; and how long it needs to be kept. These skills are critical whether the solution resides within the cloud or on premises."
Myers sees hybrid cloud adoption as the way forward in the medical industry, which needs to juggle demanding aspects of data management such as regulatory compliance, accessible data center locations and user collaboration involving files reaching several gigabytes in size.
Looking ahead, Myers sees storage using more cloud services to build out an IT infrastructure that's highly available to Mount Sinai patients and employees. Those services will require the storage administrator to develop experience in using infrastructure as code, a DevOps practice; provisioning data; and monitoring cloud usage costs.
"Infrastructure as code and the merger of backup, disaster recovery and storage is the direction [for the position]," she said. "The future state of storage within the cloud space falls under the full-stack DevOps engineer role -- where the engineers have in-depth knowledge of the full end-to-end technology stack."
The data center of tomorrow
Myers' expectations for Mount Sinai's incoming IT admin echo the perspective shared by industry analysts.
An upside to the hybrid cloud and the shift to managed services is that developer teams and others in the enterprise are empowered to handle their own storage requests, said Chris Evans, founder of Architecting IT, an analyst firm.
"You can step out of the path of provisioning, which is great because you're not the bottleneck," Evans said. "But you have to be the gatekeeper of [storage resources] and the upkeep time."
Freed from giving a yea or nay to every developer storage request, storage administrators can use that time to focus on collaboration with other teams such as backup and security. Those roles will likely merge or become far more collaborative with storage duties in lockstep with the rise of cyber attacks and ransomware, he said.
"Your last line of defense is your storage system," Evans said.
The change from manually configuring hardware in the data center to more remote capabilities has led to other divisions of an enterprise IT team understanding more about their own storage usage and needs, said Ashish Nadkarni, analyst of infrastructure at IDC. Administrators can use this increased awareness to call out pressure points and potential problems in infrastructure more easily while also offloading some duties to their fellow employees.
"You've gone from being a command-line genius to managing everything through a UI," Nadkarni said.
Remaining flexible to other parts of the technology stack and learning what new storage tools are valuable to the enterprise infrastructure while saving money will remain important cross-department skills for anyone still calling themselves a storage administrator.
"There might still be a lot of storage systems to manage, but you cannot afford to be siloed," Nadkarni said. "People who call themselves [strictly] a storage administrator, good luck to them."
Tim McCarthy is a journalist living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He covers cloud and data storage news.
Adam Armstrong is a TechTarget news writer covering storage hardware, flash and other memory technologies.