Storage pros' jobs should be safe during economic downturn

With storage skills at a premium and the volumes of data growing, storage professionals should be more secure in their jobs than colleagues with more general IT expertise.

Storage professionals should be somewhat insulated during any downturn in the economy, although contract storage staff are likely to be more vulnerable if organisations decide to cut expenditures.

In fact, despite fears of imminent recession, employment across the IT sector as a whole is still relatively buoyant, although organisations are taking longer to sign off initiatives and are starting to defer non-urgent projects.

While the number of vacancies is inevitably starting to contract, both in financial services due to the credit crunch and in the retail sector because of a fall in consumer spending, the rest of the industry is somewhat more shielded than it was during the last downturn brought about by the dot.com bust.

According to John Whiting, managing director of the IT business for recruitment consultant Harvey Nash, this situation is the result of "an acute shortage of high- calibre skilled people and the fact that organisations are more dependent on IT than they used to be. Therefore, while there'll be some dropoff in employment, it won't be as acute as in other sectors and people will still be looking for the right skill sets".

Nowhere is this more true than in the storage sector, where, according to Hamish Macarthur, founder of analyst firm Macarthur Stroud International, "those that have got good skills are relatively few and far between." This means that storage professionals should be "somewhat insulated" during any downturn, although contract staff are likely to be more vulnerable if organisations decide to cut expenditure.

Another reason that storage professionals should be more secure in their jobs than colleagues with more general IT expertise is the fact that organisations are grappling with ever-larger volumes of both structured and unstructured digital content. What this means is that an understanding of data flows is becoming increasingly crucial.

The discipline of storage management is getting fused with network, database and information management. This situation stands IT pros who understand storage infrastructure in good stead.
Hamish Macarthur
FounderMacarthur Stroud International
As a result of this, says Macarthur, "The discipline of storage management is getting fused with network, database and information management. When you look at the opportunities for IT professionals that have got a good understanding of storage infrastructure, or those that are looking to develop a career in storage, such a situation stands them in good stead."

Storage infrastructure consolidation
A further driver of demand for storage skills is that many enterprises are starting to move into the second phase of storage infrastructure consolidation, which started with the introduction of storage area networks (SANs) a few years ago. While some companies are beginning to consolidate smaller isolated SANs into larger, broader-based storage networks to cut support costs, others are exploring ways to reduce capital and operational expenditure by introducing more effective management software, which includes virtualisation technology.

According to Rene Millman, a senior research analyst at Gartner, although companies have historically just thrown hard disks at the problem of growing storage requirements, they are now realising that the situation is not sustainable in the current economic environment. As such, a fix costs too much in terms of both power and resources.

Millman says that in order to contain costs, enterprises are "now trying to be a bit smarter and to make better use of the infrastructure they have. As a result, they're starting to increase the deployment of storage management products to generate greater efficiencies and utilise existing resources more effectively".

Expertise in EMC, NetApp and Hewlett-Packard's OpsWare systems is particularly in demand in this context, says Sue Robinson, business development director at recruitment consultant ITS European.

But according to Macarthur, despite the rising levels of automation and "greater levels of systems concentration" engendered by the increased adoption of storage management and virtualisation technology, demand for these specialised skills is only likely to increase rather than decrease as might be expected. Macarthur attributes this rising demand to the complexity associated with storage management and virtualisation.

This "means that companies still need people who are well-versed in the way such systems operate," Macarthur says. On the other hand, he believes that growing interest in information lifecycle management frameworks and tools means that organisations will continue to require skilled people to oversee implementation., They will understand how such offerings operate and interpret what the readings signify for service levels.

"Skills in storage networking and management are most in demand and those without the right expertise may be more vulnerable," Macarthur says. "But people also need to show how technology can contribute to the business, so there's also a requirement for softer skills to ensure that the business understands the importance of it."

Matthieu Belisaire, a market analyst at recruitment consultant Elan Computing, points out that all potential employers are looking for good technical ability in areas such as SANs and NAS, with demand being particularly high for those with knowledge of EMC, Hewlett-Packard, and Hitachi Data Systems storage systems.

Topping the wish list is experience in implementing the ITIL service management framework, with Elan indicating that 43% of advertised storage jobs now require such skills. The Information Technology Infrastructure Library guidelines were developed by the UK's Government's former Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency in the 1980s. They comprised a process-based model for managing IT infrastructure and operations as services, rather than as individual systems.

But about 8% of vacancies also have a high disaster recovery focus, says Belisaire. This, combined with the high demand for ITIL expertise, indicates that there is a growing trend for companies to demand "people with 'business skills' -- in other words, people that have good communication skills and that are able to understand their strategies and challenges", Belisaire says.

Such skills are important because storing information in a secure, auditable and retrievable way is now a board-level concern due to issues such as compliance. This means that storage professionals now need to be able to understand the requirements of the business and to present a clear business case to senior managers as to the technical infrastructure required to support such requirements.

"Good soft communication skills are required these days so that people can interface successfully with the rest of the business and have a good view of overall business needs," Robinson says.

Meanwhile, in geographic terms, the most buoyant region is the south east of England due to the concentration of companies in and around the capital, although "there are opportunities throughout the country," ", she says.

Robinson is seeing "a lot of activity with vendors, resellers, systems integrators and consultancies – anyone supporting data centres" and believes that staff will be protected against redundancy to some extent "by the mission-critical nature of their work".

However, although she calls storage "a growth area at the moment," if the market does go into prolonged recession, she expects that "even storage professionals will get hit." This is not least because organisations may start finding managed services and offshore providers more attractive.

Nonetheless, into the medium- and long-term, Whiting believes that prospects are still good for IT professionals of all ilks due to the shortage of graduates coming out of university and organisations' ever-increasing reliance on technology to do business. Moreover, according to research commissioned by Harvey Nash last year, some 19,000 new IT jobs are likely to be created each year between now and 2015.

"We've got an economic slowdown now, but even if that worsens and the number of vacancies tighten, things will still be reasonably in balance," Whiting says. "As the economy moves up and down over the next few years, things will move within that. But, in general terms, there's still an acute shortage of highly skilled, high calibred people so the dropoff won't be as high as in other areas."
About the author: Catherine Everett has worked as an IT and business journalist for the past 16 years. She has freelanced for a range of publications and websites covering IT and storage technology.

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