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The most important skills a server engineer needs

Server engineers are in demand from cloud-based service providers as well as from enterprises that continue to host on-premises servers. Both cohorts are seeking similar mixes of soft and hard skills that blend specific technical expertise and great interpersonal communications.

As of January 2024, ZipRecruiter reported that the average salary for a Windows Server engineer in the United States was $101,706. PayScale in January 2024 put the figure lower, at $71,253.

The server engineer role

The main role of the server engineer is to establish and maintain server and desktop infrastructure to ensure the access of mission-critical applications in an organization. Those in this role commonly troubleshoot issues that appear at the server and PC levels. They may also be expected to have a focus and experience in designing, developing and installing software. Specifically, they may have to work on disk, memory and processor issues, and patch servers or launch updates.

Prospective career paths for server engineers

Amazon has six certification types, grouped into four main paths -- cloud practitioner, architect, developer and operations -- plus additional subpaths. More information can be found in TechTarget's IT career paths glossary.

Educational requirements and certifications

The many technical requirements around server environments vary depending on why and where servers are being deployed. To that end, server engineers, like other IT folks, need to stay abreast of the latest technologies and update certifications along the way. In addition to having a bachelor's degree from a college or university in a technical field -- such as engineering, mathematics, statistics or computer science -- enterprises look for certifications in one or more of the following:

  • Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).
  • Cisco Certified Network Professional Data Center (CCNP Data Center).
  • VMware Certified Professional (VCP).
  • VMware Certified Advanced Professional.
  • Citrix Certified Expert -- Virtualization (CCE-V).
  • Citrix XenServer Certified (CC-XenServer).
  • Microsoft Certified: Azure Database Administrator Associate.

As the IT landscape continues to change, the demand for employees with specific virtualization certifications will increase. These include the following:

In addition, to level up their software-defined data center (SDDC) skills, interested professionals can look at courses and exams from VMware, Microsoft, the Open Networking Foundation and Nuage Networks for popular SDDC certifications. These training opportunities can increase knowledge of software-defined infrastructure, types of deployments, troubleshooting tactics and software-based management.

Chart of top data center jobs by salary.
A list of top data center jobs and their respective average salaries as of 2024.

Top server engineer skills (soft and hard)

Certifications aside, the server engineer resume should show strength in the following soft skills:

  • Problem-solving. Employers hire the person more than the technical skill sets, which are easier to come by. Assuming the potential employer is not going to give a test, a job candidate will need to explain how they handled difficult-to-design and deployment situations. Employers will also want to prove that the candidate consistently delivered projects on time and ideally under budget. The employer wants to know that the candidate is great at project planning, budgeting, time management, documentation and resource management.
  • Communication. Server engineers are no longer sequestered to the data center 24/7. They need to interact with a variety of people and personalities, including nontechnical sales managers and business analysts. Employers need server engineers who can communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, to express and present ideas clearly and concisely. Server engineers are expected to collaborate with client-side developers and content producers.
  • Discretion. Server engineers will have access to a lot of sensitive information. That information might relate to colleagues, product development or sales.
  • Flexibility. This can include working off-hours and weekends as needed for maintenance, upgrades, disaster recovery preparation, installations and major migrations -- such as from Windows Server 2008 to Azure.
  • Initiative. A good server engineer is not passive. They suggest improvements before anyone else thinks of them or before something lacking becomes an issue. Server engineers can do this because they are communicating clearly and often with technical colleagues, including application analysts, database administrators and nontechnical people inside their organization's business units. Similarly, they take the initiative with external partners and clients.
  • Measuring and evaluating. Server engineers should know how to set and implement goals and objectives after conferring with colleagues and counterparts in business units. They'll also be expected to assess performance evaluation measures and make recommendations for program improvement.

Collaboration and communication are important, but so are hard skills. Here are some common hard skill requirements:

Knowledge of cloud solutions

Server engineers need to know about the main public offerings, including Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and IBM Cloud. Data security concerns and regulatory compliance requirements make privacy a major issue for cloud subscribers. Cloud platforms have suffered major outages and there remains a lack of standardization among cloud services and capabilities -- meaning no two cloud providers offer the same service in the exact same way, using the same APIs or integrations. This makes it difficult for a business to use more than one public cloud provider when pursuing a multi-cloud strategy.

Server engineers should also have a sense of the different pricing models. Generally, all offerings use a pay-as-you-go pricing model that charges based on usage. However, there are differences. For example, if a single application uses multiple Azure services, each service might involve multiple pricing tiers. In addition, if a user makes a long-term commitment to certain services, such as compute instances, Microsoft offers a discounted rate. Google Cloud offers various discounts -- for example, a "sustained use" for a majority of the monthly billing cycle. AWS offers volume-based discounts and discounts for reserving capacity.

Azure offers four different forms of cloud computing: infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), software as a service (SaaS) and serverless. AWS includes a mixture of IaaS, PaaS and packaged SaaS offerings.

Google has its IaaS offering, along with the following:

  • Google Compute Engine, its PaaS offering.
  • Google App Engine.
  • Google Cloud Storage, a cloud storage platform designed to store large, unstructured data sets.
  • Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), a management and orchestration system for Docker containers that run within Google's public cloud.

Sever engineers should also be adept at bridging the gap between on-premises servers and cloud offerings. For example, enterprises often find it's best to use applications such as Microsoft's Azure File Sync to sync on-premises file servers with the cloud to balance manageability and accessibility.

Knowledge of hypervisors and VMs

A server engineer's knowledge and experience here are key. Virtualization adds a crucial layer of management and control over the data center and enterprise environment. Server engineers not only need to understand how the respective hypervisor works, but also how to operate supporting functionality such as VM configuration, migration and snapshots.

Hypervisors are traditionally implemented as a software layer -- such as VMware vSphere or Microsoft Hyper-V -- but hypervisors can also be implemented as code embedded in a system's firmware. Server engineers should know Type 1 bare-metal hypervisors, such as vSphere or Hyper-V, that are deployed directly atop the server hardware without any underlying operating systems or other software. They should also know about Type 2 hosted hypervisors, such as VMware Workstation Player or Parallels Desktop, that run as a software layer on top of a host operating system.

Server virtualization

Server virtualization is a process that creates and abstracts multiple virtual instances on a single server. A server administrator uses virtualization software to partition one physical server into multiple isolated virtual environments where each virtual environment can run independently. The virtual environments are sometimes called virtual private servers, but they are also known as guests, instances, containers or emulations.

Ability to design and manage domains

Any server engineer should know how to use the main directory services on the market, including Active Directory, Red Hat Directory Server, Apache Directory and OpenLDAP. Of these, they'll most likely come across Active Directory.

Server engineers will be expected to know the ins and outs of Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS), which stores directory information and handles the interaction of the user with the domain. Similarly, they should know the other services that comprise Active Directory and expand its directory management capabilities: Lightweight Directory Services (AD LDS), Certificate Services, Federation Services and Rights Management Services. AD LDS has the same codebase as AD DS and shares similar functionalities, such as the API.

Scripting

Familiarity with scripting tools will increase efficiency -- and job longevity. Of all the scripting tools, skill with PowerShell is the one most sought after. Others include Ansible and Citrix XenDesktop.

PowerShell is a command-line shell and scripting language that helps admins configure systems and automate tasks. The object-oriented technology is built on Microsoft's .NET framework. As such, it lets IT personnel work with objects in contrast with text-based shells.

Ansible is an open source IT configuration management and automation platform, provided by Red Hat. It uses human-readable YAML templates so that users can program repetitive tasks to occur automatically, without learning an advanced language.

Citrix XenDesktop is a desktop virtualization product that provides IT control over and user access to virtual desktop infrastructure desktops. With VDI, end users connect to remote desktops hosted on virtual machines that run on a server in a data center or in the cloud. Users can view and interact with them using a remote display protocol.

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