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CI tried, but did not eliminate data center specialists

The emergence of converged and hyper-converged infrastructure has increased the role of data center generalists, which leaves a question about the role of specialists.

Reports of the death of the data center specialist are greatly exaggerated.

Despite growing use of converged infrastructure (CI) and hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), enterprises still need data center specialists with deep knowledge of servers, databases and security, and finding those employees is harder than ever.

Two thirds of IT managers say the search for data center specialists to operate on-prem hardware is moderately difficult or very difficult, according to a new survey from 451 Research. Some traditional server specialists have transitioned into other roles, including cloud computing. And open server administrator roles often require a more diverse set of skills than ever before, with virtualization and container skills paramount.

"As a result, this new breed of administrator creates a high-demand atmosphere that leaves the pool smaller for prospective employers," said Christian Perry, the 451 Research analyst who conducted the Voice of the Enterprise survey.

The findings also show that the move to the public cloud hasn't negated the demand for traditional enterprise data center jobs, in part because many organizations remain in a holding pattern with public cloud adoption.

Perry was surprised to see how many organizations more closely evaluate their mix of on-premises and off-premises compute resources and spending. CI works well in environments with small staff sizes. But growing enterprises still need data center specialists, particularly within companies reluctant to move new workloads to the public cloud.

Maximus in Reston, Va., which runs call centers for insurance and healthcare providers, has specific positions devoted to VMware, storage and applications, and specialists wish to retain their focus within the data center. IT pros there looked at Cisco UCS Director for their environment, with IBM SAN Volume Controller and XIV Storage System in support, but the team ultimately rejected the idea, said Erik Shomsky, senior engineer of data center administration at Maximus.

Typically, he gets a message from a VMware admin to request block storage, for example, but otherwise, they don't want to know how storage works or manage it. "I don't think my VMware guys want to be in that environment," he said. "They are perfectly happy coming to me to make it happen."

Enterprises still need data center specialists in virtualization and, out of this rank, will come specialists in container management as enterprises adopt this technology, Perry said.

Applications and software specialists are also in demand, particularly in growing areas such as security and DevOps, Perry said.

A generalist position merges traditional specialist roles, such as server administrator or virtualization administrator, particularly if they involve management of CI. To successfully oversee CI, they must understand the storage ecosystem, Perry said.

Meanwhile, automation tools, such as Ansible, Chef and Vagrant, make it possible to create a generalist role that combines the ability to deploy and install a web server, as well as configure and manage the server, Perry said.

But the role of an Oracle database administrator, for example, is too complex and valuable to an organization, so it will likely not be absorbed into a generalist role, Perry said.

Old dogs, new tricks

In the days prior to products such as Cisco UCS and Vblock from VCE, enterprises tended to reject data center generalists. But thanks to customer pressure, vendors devised converged and hyper-converged platforms, which offer more automation and less complexity than traditional infrastructure. As cloud computing gained steam, IT teams sought public cloud-style agility within their own data centers.

Today, complicated data centers with CI and HCI still need specialists, said Richard Byrnes Jr., vice president for strategy and development at Global Technology Solutions Group, Inc., a data center consultant in Charlotte, N.C.

"The landscape actually gets more complicated by introducing a bunch of 'easy-to-manage' components, like converged, since there is frequently an incomplete understanding of how these things work under the covers," specifically around recovery and scalability, he said.

The landscape actually gets more complicated by introducing a bunch of 'easy-to-manage' components, like converged, since there is frequently an incomplete understanding of how these things work under the covers.
Richard Byrnes Jr.Vice president for strategy and development, Global Technology Solutions Group, Inc.

There is a narrow gap between generalist jobs and specialist jobs, Perry said. Any new products that are software-defined will require more generalists, but the need for generalists will not significantly eclipse the need for data center specialists, especially in midsize and large companies.

Healthcare provider eHealth in Regina, Saskatchewan, built its data center around the Dell EMC Vspex CI reference architecture. In doing so, eHealth Saskatchewan moved to more automation and changed its team dynamics from large, separate team environments centered around servers and storage to converged work.

New purchases take into consideration the new team structure, said Wilbour Craddock, the company's vice president for information technology.

"When you are building something, you don't want to retrain staff so they have to learn new technologies and new interfaces," he said. "It is about how it fits our operations."

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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