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In the life of a new storage technology, there is a moment, if the technology is to succeed, where the relevant question changes from "is it real yet?" to "how can I best deploy it?"
That moment has arrived for a number of storage technologies, all at the same time. Add to the mix growing requirements for regulatory compliance and business continuity, driving up the visibility of IT in general and storage in particular, and it seems that storage administrators are living in interesting times, indeed.
"There are a large number of storage and storage-related technologies that will impact how system administrators do their jobs," says Tony Asaro, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.
Asaro names five of them: "iSCSI is quickly emerging as an alternative to Fibre Channel. VTL is becoming a requisite part of the backup and recovery process. Clustered network storage systems provide greater scalability, performance, reliability and ease of management versus traditional active-active storage systems. Thin provisioning is changing the experience of storage provisioning, reducing both cost and complexity. And NAS virtualization is changing the dynamics of managing NAS storage."
One measure of the changing repertoire of storage specialists is the topic list on SNIA Foundations exam. The exam, which assesses basic storage networking skills, includes not only sections on Fibre Channel, RAID, NAS and SAN, but also on storage virtualization, IP storage networks and continuity management. Says Peter Manijak, SNIA director of education, "These are all things that appear on our Foundations exam as well, because we think they are so commonplace now, or should be commonplace."
iSCSI Lowers the Bar
New technology doesn't always mean new concepts to master. Implementing and managing IP storage networks, for example, may not require that storage administrators retool their FC skills.
"I think it may be the inverse of that," says Rick Bauer, SNIA technology director.
Bauer notes there are far more systems administrators with IP networking experience than those with SAN knowledge. "For the 50-100 server environment, I think you're going to find people feeling like it's something they've done before," says Bauer.
Administrators in these middle-sized organizations will be able to run the storage network through familiar switches and use familiar technology, making the migration path to iSCSI SANs easier. "If this is a midrange company, you're not going to have a storage administrator." Bauer notes. "You're going to have a network admin that's trying to solve a storage problem."
The Promise of Virtualization
From an administrative perspective, storage virtualization also promises to make things simpler — at least in the long run. According to Asaro, virtualization can also significantly reduce administrative costs. "ESG research found that early adopters of storage virtualization reduced SAN administration costs by 19 percent annually," he says. "One customer we spoke with actually reduced SAN administration costs by 75 percent."
These cost savings reflect the reduced management effort required for day-to-day SAN operation in a virtualized environment. Says Asaro, "Storage virtualization basically allows customers to consolidate the management of many systems to just one or fewer. Additionally, instead of being experts at two, three, or four different storage systems, they only need to be experts or maintain expertise on one system."
Yet for all the simplicity that abstraction provides, there are still those who must maintain a deeper understanding of the underlying network, if only to be able to respond when something goes wrong. As Bauer explains, "You really do need to know what's behind the curtain and to understand things. I just don't think you can rely on abstraction if you really want to understand the entire architecture."
The practice of storage virtualization is still new. "The promise of virtualization is encouraging," says Bauer. "I think there is still a fair amount of getting there."
The good news for storage practitioners is that although storage virtualization is a hot topic, it is not yet a resume requirement. "I don't think [virtualization] is going to be a specific main driver," says Matthew Sullivan of Robert Half Consulting Services.
Nor has any one approach to virtualization come to dominate. Sullivan adds, "As folks start to integrate those concepts into their environment, they'll get hands-on, immediate virtualization experience along with the rest of the talent in the talent pool. So I don't think any one solution has broken away as the virtualization solution."
A Multi-Vendor World
Virtualization highlights the multi-vendor nature of storage. EMC, IBM, and Hitachi all offer solutions that virtualize their competitor's storage systems as well as their own. Equipment from a variety of vendors has both positive and negative aspects for administrators, of course. More choice, but more dimensions in the interoperability matrix as well.
IT buyers "are starting to feel more comfortable buying heterogeneous storage products," says Bauer. Part of that comfort comes from standardization efforts such as SNIA Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S). According to Bauer, there are currently more than 200 SMI-S compliant products.
But the common baseline that SMI-S provides doesn't free storage administrators from the need to learn the specifics of individual components. In managing multi-vendor storage environments, says Bauer, "the management interfaces and some of the other commonalities are going to help." But, he adds, "You're still going to see vendors competing — they are in the business to differentiate their products." Those that differentiate with additional features will always have management requirements that aren't met by a common interface.
Both integrating products from multiple vendors and deep specialization in products from a single vendor make a storage professional more valuable in the market, says Robert Half Consulting Sullivan. "Any professional, storage-related or not, that has multiple-vendor experience is probably that much more marketable," says Sullivan. On the other hand, "Folks that specialize in a niche product are also extremely marketable," he says.
Compliance Changes Everything
The greatest force reshaping the role of the storage administrator comes not from technology, but from increasing regulation. With the threat of personal liability for corporate officers who don't ensure that records are properly maintained, among other penalties, Sarbanes-Oxley and industry-specific regulations put the spotlight squarely on storage practices.
So IT — and storage in particular — gets a higher profile within the business. Says ESG Asaro: "Regulatory compliance has created a new dialog between business and IT. There has to be more awareness, communication and an understanding of the implications of meeting these regulations."
Compliant record management is all about defining a proper record storage policy and making sure that that policy is enforced. The policy must be defined at high levels of management, often reviewed by the legal department, and with input from other parties.
"Storage decisions are being vetted by an ever-widening committee," says Bauer. "Not only is the CIO supposed to communicate and collaborate, but you've got record managers, you've got IT folks, you've got storage, you've got networking, and increasingly, you've got the corner office, the accountants and the CFO, all having to come up with solutions."
With this larger role, storage administrators need to be able to work more closely with other departments. Business and communications skills grow in relative importance to technical proficiency. "Increasingly, storage admins have to have good relationships throughout the business unit to make sure that solutions get done and get done well," says Bauer.
Storage Pros' Prospects
Sullivan says that compliance and business continuity concerns play an important part in evaluating the skills of a storage administrator.
"We're seeing a lot of financial managers, operations managers, company CEOs that are very concerned with 'what is the storage policy,' 'how are we adhering to a policy,' and 'what measures are in place,'" says Sullivan. "So storage professionals really are being hand-picked into different spots, depending on the type of organization and the policies that they are adhering to."
Salaries are hard to quantify. In addition to regional variations, storage administrators may have a variety of titles. But on a national basis, according to Sullivan, "If they have a specific storage area network administrator title, and there's a role that's dedicated to that, I would say it's a little bit better than your five- or seven-year network admin, so it's probably in the 75 to just below 80 category."
Overall, says Sullivan, demand for skilled storage administrators is fairly strong. Those with a security background are especially valued.
"Security and storage will be hand in hand, in the same discussion," he says. "Any security skill sets, product experience, training, certifications that a storage professional can get" are strong positives.
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