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Remain relevant as a data center specialist

Handling a variety of roles and possessing a multitude of skills make data center specialists a key cog in the IT machine as workloads evolve and businesses demand speed.

The emergence of cloud computing may have cast a shadow over the data center's future, but cloud isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. Although the trend might shrink some data centers, the workloads that remain on premises are often the most critical to the business.

At the same time, businesses demand faster performance with fewer staff. Consequently, tomorrow's general-purpose IT professional must shed traditional, siloed roles and adopt a high level of flexibility and cross-discipline expertise to survive and flourish as data center specialists.

Roles of the data center specialist

The evolution of technology is spawning exotic roles, such as cloud engineers, IT architects and others. But data center specialists form the backbone of everyday operations and have several core roles within the IT organization:

  • Monitor: Data center specialists implement, support and use varied monitoring and management tools across applications, resource pools or physical facilities; watch for critical alerts; and respond to incidents as they occur. They can use monitoring insights to recommend operational process improvements based on trends, such as allocating more storage to a workload approaching its current storage limits.
  • Integrate: Data center specialists ensure that systems, services and applications work together properly in a deployment or integration effort. This requires a solid understanding of system configurations and interdependencies in system and application components within the data center. Specialists often install and maintain systems, cabling and other infrastructure and frequently recommend component-level improvements that can save money and improve performance.
  • Troubleshoot: Data center specialists access logs and monitor data to provide first- and second-level support and troubleshoot with techniques such as root cause analysis. Specialists follow established incident management procedures to ensure IT has responded adequately and communicated outage issues and then follow up to ensure that issues have been properly resolved. Specialists can also recommend and implement proactive measures to mitigate or prevent recurring problems.
  • Collaborate: Data center specialists closely interact with users and other IT members, which demands clear written and verbal communication and frequently leads to creating articles, guides and other content for IT staff and users. The growth of Agile software development paradigms, such as DevOps, also emphasizes the need for collaboration to build operational support for continuous software development and release cycles.

Job requirements for a data center specialist

Educational requirements vary depending on the particular organization, size of the data center, number of staff and other issues. Generally, a data center specialist should expect to possess an associate degree in a technology discipline, though some larger organizations may prefer a bachelor's degree.

Vendor-generic industry certifications, such as the Computing Technology Industry Association's A+ and Server+, can help a potential candidate but are rarely ever a requirement. Vendor-centric certifications, such as Cisco Certified Data Center Specialist, are typically not required because vendor certifications often focus on specific platforms and may have limited relevance to the particular business.

Generally, a data center specialist should expect to possess an associate degree in a technology discipline, though some larger organizations may prefer a bachelor's degree.

Although data center specialists don't need engineering-level administrative skills, they should have intermediate-level Windows and Linux knowledge and the ability to deploy, configure, optimize, manage, monitor and troubleshoot those OSes. Knowledge of virtualization tools, such as Hyper-V for Windows or kernel-based virtual machine for Linux, is also helpful.

A data center specialist should also be proficient with a wide variety of tools. Scripting tools, such as PowerShell 6.0, are often just a minimum starting point, and specialists should demonstrate competence with an assortment of other platforms, such as asset management, help desk, application and system monitoring, facilities management and documentation generation tools.

Finally, successful data center specialists cannot overlook some of the physical aspects of the job. Schedules typically fluctuate, and data center specialists regularly work rotating shifts and provide on-call availability for emergency maintenance and operations calls. Duties also include a level of physical labor, such as the movement of heavy equipment during installations, migrations and repair operations.

Get outside the box

Beyond the roles and skill sets, perhaps the most important and overlooked attribute of any data center specialist is the ability to adapt IT to changing business needs. Simply adopting generic checklists of best practices, implementing cookie-cutter architectures or adhering to a vendor's brand won't accomplish innovation. The data center specialist that can put business needs ahead of job security, brand fidelity and personal technology preferences will ultimately be successful in the IT industry.

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