Rapid change puts premium on new skills

Companies are looking to new data management technologies to store vital information, creating a strong demand for staff with...

Companies are looking to new data management technologies to store vital information, creating a strong demand for staff with up-to-date skills. James Rogers reports.

Storage may not be fashionable, but it is crucial to how companies operate. Thanks to e-business, firms are now generating phenomenal amounts of data, all of which must be stored in accordance with the latest data retention laws. Businesses are creating more information, storing more information and keeping it for longer.

Research released earlier this year by the Storage Networking Industry Association shows that companies' storage requirements are outstripping even the two-fold increments of Moore's law.

As many companies have turned to new technologies such as storage area networks to handle this data explosion, this has led to a need to update skills. Claus Egge, programme director at analyst firm IDC, said, "Most of the new innovation in storage has increased the level of complexity, particularly in storage networking. There is a shortfall in skills."

Paul Trowbridge, a member of the governing committee of the SNIA's European arm, said a similar situation occurred some years ago when network technologies first emerged. He says, "Storage now is like data networking was in the 1990s when it really started to take off. The same challenges were faced then."

Trowbridge feels that storage networking is the area where the need for specialist skills is most acute. "With the increasing move towards networked storage, people are looking towards getting in-house skills or outsourcing," he says.

Mike Warne, principal San specialist at storage hardware giant StorageTek, believes that storage experts are now "worth their weight in gold" but warns that they must master a variety of technologies. "It is not just data management on a disc, they also have to understand things such as primary disc, secondary disc and tape back-up," he says.

The skills shortfall could even affect the overall cost of a firm's IT, according to David Liff, regional vice president for storage technology at software giant Computer Associates. He says, "The benefit of having someone who is an expert in storage is that it helps lower overall storage costs."

Indeed, Liff believes that experts such as this fulfil a vital role in streamlining a company's storage. "If you are storing lots of data you tend to have more hardware and more back-up devices, as well as more people moving all this data around. An expert in storage will normally define three quarters of your storage as redundant, so you can imagine the cost savings."

There are two options for companies needing specialist storage skills. The first involves training a storage specialist in-house to bridge any skills gaps. Trowbridge says, "This is a double-edged sword. Yes, it is hard to get the right staff, but once you have a storage team in place, you can increase your infrastructure without having to add more and more people."

However, to develop storage skills in-house, a company needs to have an existing storage skills base, which is why many companies turn to outside firms to provide the skills they need. Egge says this need is particularly acute when it comes to building complex technologies such as Sans. "Firms should get external advice, they should not just go it alone. Building a San is an ongoing project that is likely to change over time," he says.

Companies can also obtain information on storage skills from organisations such as the SNIA, which runs courses and provides a wide range of white papers and case studies on its website.

It is worth noting, however, that storage specialists need to know a lot more than just technology. The modern storage manager, as well as handling technical challenges such as data back-up, might also be called upon to brief board-level executives. "Storage as a component of the IT budget is very large, so you should be able to describe it in business terms," says Liff. "If you were a chief executive, why should you spend money unless someone can explain the business benefit to you?"

Pete Gerr, an analyst at US firm Enterprise Storage Group, also believes the roles of storage managers and chief information officers are changing. He says, "IT managers have to be aware of the business issues that affect their organisations, not just their struggle with technology. There has not been a need for storage specialists to be knowledgeable about regulations until now."

Ultimately, the consensus is that the demand for storage skills is not at crisis level, although many end-users certainly need a helping hand to exploit the latest technology.


Training and courses

One company offering supplier-neutral storage network training courses is Hampshire-based Infinity I/O. Some of its most popular offerings are its preparation courses for the SNIA certification exams in fibre channel Sans.

Infinity I/O's courses are aimed primarily at users that are looking to implement a San, according to the company's managing director Peter Coleman. He says, "If someone has not made a decision yet about which supplier to buy their San from, they can come to us and get some generic training."

Infinity I/O also offers other storage technology training in areas such as iSCSI networking and is planning to launch a range of "informed decision maker" courses later this year. The first of these is entitled "network storage for business" and future courses will address issues such as security and availability. The latter will include remote mirroring and tape back-up.


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