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The storage administrator skills you need to keep up today

To meet changing enterprise IT needs, storage admins must acquire a new set of skills. If not, they risk being bogged down in an outmoded, outdated career rut.

Data storage technology is changing and so are the skills a storage administrator needs to move his or her career forward.

Experienced storage professionals have always been faced with the need to learn new storage administrator skills or risk becoming obsolete. What has changed drastically over the past few years are the hardware and service options now available to meet enterprise IT needs, said Bradley King, chief engineering architect and co-founder of software-defined object storage provider Scality.

"Today, the choices [include] traditional on-premises infrastructure, hosted infrastructure, virtualized on-premises and hosted infrastructure, on demand-on premises and hosted infrastructure," King said.

Storage skills in demand

A storage administrator needs to be able to know fundamental storage, block, file, object and database-type activities, stated Greg Schulz, founder and senior advisor of research firm Server StorageIO. "They also need to know fundamentals, like data protection, backups, snapshots, replication and point-in-time copies, as well as restoration." He added that knowledge about containers and serverless computing, aka Kubernetes, is also vital.

Storage administrators also need soft skills, such as collaboration, communications talent, adaptability and emotional intelligence, to help them integrate and deliver business value along with the valued hard technical storage administrator skills of the moment, noted Kong Yang, head geek at SolarWinds, an IT monitoring and management tools provider.

The successful storage administrator should also maintain awareness of emerging storage technologies.

"In terms of hard skills, storage administrators should focus on software-defined storage constructs, hyper-converged infrastructure technologies, cloud storage services, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning and data security," he said.

While a storage administrator's main task is maintaining storage subsystems, there is also a need to possess functional knowledge in complementary areas, such as networking, job scheduling, cluster/server management, scripting and even some programming languages, observed Dale Brantley, worldwide storage systems engineer for high-performance parallel storage provider Panasas.

"Successfully responding to a user's complaint requires the ability to understand the interaction of all these subsystems to determine the real cause," Brantley explained. "Seldom does a data center have a single file system any longer, [and] newer storage technologies, such as object storage -- on premises and in the cloud -- continue to shape the way data center storage is managed." The successful storage administrator should also maintain awareness of emerging storage technologies, he added.

Acquiring storage administrator skills

"The best way to acquire hard skills is by getting your hands dirty," Yang observed. "Cloud service providers, like AWS, Azure and Google cloud computing, have free tiers that one can leverage to 'skill up,'" he noted.

IT certifications and training provide the essential new skills needed for today's storage administrators, said Antonella Corno, senior manager of product strategy for Learning@Cisco, Cisco Systems' learning network. "Expanded learning options mean that IT professionals can access training in ways that fit their unique needs and schedules."

In-house training is also important. "There has to be a way for experienced team members to help newcomers," stated Ben Gitenstein, vice president of product management for Qumulo, a software-based storage supplier. Open communication, such as Slack channels, can provide a forum for asking questions and trying new ideas. There are a number of tutorials and online resources for learning scripting and automation.

Fading away

As new skills become more sought-after, others are fading away. Flash, for instance, is quickly obsoleting the complex performance planning, tuning and optimization skills that defined storage expertise in the era of relatively slow hard disk media, noted Lee Caswell, vice president of VMware's product, storage and availability business unit. "Similarly, the flexible deployment and management model of HCI [hyper-converged infrastructure] reduces the need for five-year planning, Fibre Channel expertise and storage-centric management concepts, like logical unit numbers that helped storage admins describe their value," Caswell observed. The cloud also reduces the risk of capacity outages, which drove many storage administrators in the past to overprovision storage systems.

Hardware-centric storage administrator skills are becoming increasingly less important, reported Frank Yang, fiber market strategy development manager for network infrastructure provider CommScope. "The data center storage infrastructure is evolving to software-centric storage infrastructure," he explained. "The underlying storage will soon be virtualized across the infrastructure."

Traditionally, much time and effort have been dedicated to managing, troubleshooting and upgrading storage hardware, as well as performing software and hardware updates. "The rise of new technologies, like flash storage and unified computing, has made this less necessary," Learning@Cisco's Corno said. "Instead, today's storage administrators can focus on higher value work, such as managing hybrid storage infrastructure, data security and analyzing data traffic and usage."

Parting thoughts

For the storage administrator beginning to create a skill development roadmap, Solarwinds' Yang recommended taking a step-by-step approach. "Start with a foundational skill set, like monitoring with discipline, and supplement it with soft skills," he advised. "Combine with the 'always be learning' mentality, and seize upon the opportunities."

Server, flash, hyper-converged and cloud markets are all growing at double-digit growth rates, VMware's Caswell observed. "Storage admins should be thinking about how to maximize their future value by gaining expertise across these growing markets."

It's an exciting time for storage administrators, according to Qumulo's Gitenstein. "The scale of storage that needs to be managed is growing rapidly, and there are many opportunities for career advancement."

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