Wanted: Virtualization skills

IT pros with virtualization smarts are tough to find -- and can be hard to keep

Virtualization experts are tough to find -- and hard to keep.

Got a crackerjack virtualization pro on your staff? Better keep your eye on that talent.

As virtualization deployments mature from tactical server projects to strategic enterprise initiatives, companies are finding that IT personnel with the necessary skill sets are in short supply. Once trained, virtualization experts can be even more difficult to retain.

"These people are pretty valuable, especially if they have skills in multiple functional areas," says Cameron Haight, a Gartner analyst. "In the '90s, if you were an SAP Basis administrator, you could almost name your price. This is the SAP-Basis admin role of this decade."

The IT department for Georgia's Fulton County has lost two virtualization experts during its ongoing migration from hundreds of single-function x86 servers to blade servers running virtual machines. Both left for a virtualization-related job at another company. Still, Jay Terrell, CTO and deputy IT director, takes the losses in stride. "Sure, we've lost a couple of people, but we've also kept some bright, young talent" by exposing them to virtualization," Terrell says. "If you hold people back, you're going to lose them anyway. I'd rather have people happy and excited while they're here."

Cross-pollination required

Virtualization's reach into nearly every corner of the data center is fueling the talent crunch. Virtualization calls for people who understand how to deal with complex configuration-management, patching and performance monitoring, for example. "Gone are the days of looking only at the running processes on the OS to find out what may be causing a performance problem," says John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "Now you have to look one level up: What are the other resident operating systems doing? What do those loads look like, and how do I optimize those or move them to a box with less load?"

In the bigger picture, virtualization moves networking tasks into the domain of systems engineers, Turner says. "Typically the network engineers would configure network switches, set the appropriate virtual LANs and make sure the network-protection protocols were set up correctly. Now they're handing those off, to a certain extent, to the systems engineers. They're the ones who are setting up the hypervisors, which essentially puts them in the role of having to set up data and storage networking, through this layer of abstraction."

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While systems engineers understand switching and routing basics, they generally don't have a grasp of such finer points as loop control, port-channel bonding or packet-sizing, Turner notes. At Brandeis, virtualization has necessitated a higher level of trust among already integrated systems and network teams, as well as a higher skill level. "Our systems engineers are going to be brought up to the level of network engineers. The network engineers are going to be perhaps less responsible for some of the server-side switch-configuration things and more focused on bigger routing issues," he says.

Getting organized

Although server administrators were among the first wave of IT pros to try out x86 server-virtualization technology, "increasingly we're seeing inquiries from infrastructure architects, who are looking at this from a more holistic perspective, as well as from data center managers," Gartner's Haight says. As projects become more widespread, virtualization will drive companies to reevaluate how they've organized IT, he says.

"A center of excellence or a competency center for virtualization is probably going to become a necessary requirement," in order to institutionalize best practices and disseminate knowledge, Haight says. "The application administrators and developers need to be brought in to play along with the server, storage and network teams."

IT organizations that don't think through or enable interdisciplinary communication could wind up without the necessary processes or technology standardization, adds Stephen Elliot, an IDC analyst. "At least get folks from different silos together, maybe monthly, to talk about virtualization best practices, product selection criteria and management processes," he suggests.

Collaboration is critical in the early stages, Fulton County's Terrell agrees. "We didn't need a committee meeting to virtualize a server. But when we started populating blades, we needed to have a much more cooperative approach, because it's not plug-and-play as far as the network and storage-area network go," he says.

To help in its server virtualization training, Fulton County recreated its server environment in a laboratory and virtualized every server in the data center as a test, says Keith Dickie, assistant IT director for Fulton County. "That was part of our kicking the tires - real, live training." The county also used professional services to validate its virtualization approach and help the county streamline its deployment processes, he says.

Jay Terrell and Keith Dickie

The endeavor has rejuvenated not only the IT infrastructure but personnel as well. "This was a breath of fresh air to some pretty hardened IT veterans," Terrell says. "I haven't seen this level of excitement in a while."

That's the way it ought to be, Elliot says. "The skill set required for this technology is only going to increase, as is the number of mission-critical applications hosted on a virtual architecture," he says. "So, its relevance is going to increase every year for the foreseeable future. Any IT professional who doesn't get jazzed about that probably shouldn't be in IT."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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