What datacentre experts must do to stay relevant

As datacentre operators focus on converged infrastructure to cut costs, IT professionals should keep their CVs aligned to the workplace

A growing need to make datacentres more efficient and easier to manage has driven the use of converged infrastructure (CI) in recent years. According to 451 Research’s recent study of adoption trends, 40% of IT buyers said they planned to increase their spending in CI during the final quarter of 2015; just 17% said they plan to invest in traditional servers.

The trend has prompted a shift in how operators manage their facilities, with 40% of respondents to the survey reporting difficulties while attempting to source staff with CI skills. Whereas the older, siloed approach to datacentre design required separate administrators to manage the network, server and storage resources, a facility kitted out with CI appliances often calls for a slightly different approach.

CI appliances are often marketed as having been tested and configured before installation, which eliminates much of the manual work. And with the datacentre’s network, storage and computing elements all housed in a single appliance, the need for separate administrators to manage these resources is reduced.

While this is great news for operators looking to cut costs by reducing headcount, the trend may require some urgent re-skilling for datacentre-focused IT professionals, to ensure they know how to manage all parts of the CI stack, rather than just the individual components.

This is the view of Emma Fryer, associate director for climate change programmes at IT sector trade body TechUK, who works closely with the datacentre industry to promote sustainability.

“At the very commoditised end, the datacentre engineer needs to be able to span power, network, compute, storage and process skills. And when it breaks – fast track response and 24/7 availability for an ‘always on’ client base,” she says.

“Datacentre technicians in many environments will increasingly be expected to be generalists, but the real question is what the balance between them should be – or even whether we are seeking a general requirement or lots of different specific requirements.”

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Industry views on the IT skills gap

At present, there is mixed industry opinion about how much demand there is for IT professionals with these types of skills.

Rick Vanover, senior product strategy manager at virtualisation management software supplier Veeam, claims the demand for IT professionals with CI skills is beginning to rise.

“Over time, the need for a converged skillset has developed. We saw it happen in the virtualisation space, and now a new offering of technologies has come in to address them with hyper-converged technologies,” says Vanover.

He says the key to success with CI lies in IT staff understanding how the technology can be applied to solve real problems of scaling-out and datacentre performance.

Market watcher Forrester Research supports this view, based on the contents of its August 2015 Vendor Landscape: Hyperconverged Platforms report, which cites anecdotal evidence as proof of the rising demand for CI-savvy datacentre workers.

“For several years Forrester has been hearing anecdotal evidence that early adopters of first-generation converged infrastructure – such as Cisco, HP, and IBM – have already collapsed some of their infrastructure and operations silos,” the report states.

Forrester believes the adoption of hyperconverged systems will accelerate this trend, because it further abstracts the underlying management complexity – particularly in the storage domain.”

However, Scott McGlinchey, chief operations officer of IT consultancy Exception, says that – with so many enterprises still operating legacy, siloed datacentre setups – demand for CI specialists has not hit its peak just yet.

“I don’t think we’ve really hit the real demand for converged infrastructure skills yet. You can see that, for organisations that have got a handle on their legacy estate, convergence skills could be the next step, though,” he says.

“What we are seeing is an increased demand for architects.  However, the skillset expected has moved, from principle formulation, policy, strategy and governance, to that of experienced technical delivery lead with multi-platform experience across several technology silos.

DevOps, server and app virtualisation, and cloud experience are in higher demand too at the moment.”

McGlinchey’s comments seem to suggest time is on the side of IT professionals willing to retrain in anticipation of the rising demand for CI skills.

 Skilling up

Colin Lynch, principal consultant at Computacenter UK, embarked on a supplier-backed training course to build out his CI knowledge, as part of his ongoing push to keep on top of emerging IT trends.

“You can’t afford to be an analogue person in a digital world, otherwise you’ll go the way of the dodo. You have to adapt with the times and the VCE Certified Professional Programme certainly provides you with the skillset you need,” he says.

The course is not just about learning how to manage what’s inside the CI box – but also how to integrate it with the company’s wider IT strategy.

“Not only do CI professionals have to manage converged infrastructure, but they also have to manage or at least be aware of the cloud management platforms that bind all these elements together – and that’s where the training comes into its own, because it ticks all these boxes.”

For IT professionals just starting out, Nigel Moulton, CTO for Europe at CI supplier VCE, says specialising in CI may have to wait until they have completed their university or college courses.

“Here in the UK, most universities and higher education colleges tend to teach students broader industry skills and then, when graduates enter the industry, employers train them. They are often taught the basics of virtualisation and networking – but won’t know specifically how suppliers implement this,“ he says.

From here, professionals may go on to undertake a supplier-specific course – such as Cisco’s Academy course or VCE’s Certified Professionals Programme – to fine-tune their learning.

“It’s run this way because all suppliers have different approaches. This gives graduates a wider choice of career paths and doesn’t hinder their chances of securing employment,” Moulton adds.

Robert Rutherford, CEO of IT consultancy Quostar, says IT professionals should look to build out their integration skills.

“There’s opportunity in the areas for development focusing on hanging different platforms and providers together – moulding and adapting services between datacentres and different suppliers,” he says.

“This in turn will lead to increased security and compliance requirements, creating demand for in-depth cloud security and compliance skills and experience.”

 The importance of soft skills

Meanwhile, Farida Gibbs, CEO of IT recruitment firm S3 Gibbs, says that – in addition to their technical skills – CI specialists are increasingly expected to be well-versed in business matters too. 

“We tend to look for candidates who can demonstrate a mix of cross-skilling and with experience of more than just technology – candidates who are able to explain and translate technical language and concepts to business stakeholders are always in high demand,” she says.

“If IT teams cannot communicate effectively with business teams so that they understand the potential benefits, it is likely that many crucial projects will struggle to get off the ground.

“Strong infrastructure architecture skills will help integration, but we are seeing more and more CI experts being asked to support business analysis, planning and scoping sessions.”

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