How Storage Admins Can Stay Relevant in Age of Software Defined Storage

Rob Whiteley<br/>HedvigRob Whiteley
Hedvig

Rob Whiteley is the VPM of Hedvig.

Good news: The reality of today’s business means managing and storing data is more critical than ever before.

Bad news: This doesn’t necessarily benefit storage admins.

More good news: If you’re a storage admin, then there’s a lot you can do to increase your relevancy.

Make no mistake; the storage admin role — a staple of all medium-to-large IT shops in the past few decades — is changing. If you’re currently a storage admin and increasingly nervous about these changes and their implications for your job security, don’t lose hope. But be ready to undertake an evolution of your skillset to remain relevant in today’s rapidly evolving IT landscape. In fact, in today’s environment, it can be hard to keep up.

To understand how we arrived at where we are today, a bit of a history is helpful.

As few as five years ago, server, storage and networking were distinct skillsets with equally distinct responsibilities. But once virtualization gathered momentum, propelled specifically by VMware, the hard edges that separated these skillsets softened. VMware enabled administrators from within a single infrastructure management environment to set networking and storage policies for each virtual server.

Virtualization abstracts the hardware, fundamentally changing how infrastructure is deployed within data centers. As companies march towards 100-percent virtualized data centers, then virtualization admins — usually folks with a server background, but with enough network and storage know-how to be dangerous — now have the ability to set policies and manage operations across all infrastructure silos.

Goodbye to Storage Stovepipes and Silos

With the proliferation of virtualization and cloud computing, many organizations have reorganized their IT departments, moving them away from the old, stovepipe/silo models in which server, storage and networking were separate to a more horizontal model. Putting server, storage and networking into one team improves communication and collaboration. Companies that embrace this model improve troubleshooting time and focus more on providing infrastructure services to the business. But even so, oftentimes it still feels like much of the same: these distinct specialties simply now reside in a more collaborative environment.

We’ve seen this dynamic persist among even our own customers – organizations that have already embraced the value of software-defined storage. For example, an IT architect at one of our customers brought in our product as part of a private cloud initiative. His goal is to help move the company beyond silos and traditional IT. All went well until the software-defined storage pilot broadened.

Questions regarding platform ownership and responsibility for each piece of hardware soon cropped up. With software-defined storage touching multiple parts of the business, who now owns the actual storage infrastructure? Who configures it? If IT needs new hardware to power their storage, does the server team or the storage team buy it? Advanced capabilities like client-side caching only further blur the lines. Now, a major part of the “storage infrastructure” is a service actually running at the compute tier!

Finally, the engineer told his coworkers to step back. He reframed the issue: don’t consider the boxes as either application servers or storage servers. Instead, just think of them as the hardware needed to power the storage software that helps everyone do their jobs. People with storage-specific jobs in today’s environment need to move beyond thinking that a physical piece of hardware is their responsibility. Instead, they must understand they support a storage service within their organization. Thus, if a particular hardware or software component is critical to the success of that storage service, then, yes, the storage team owns it! It’s all about thinking end to end (from user to data), not top to bottom (from app to server to storage to network).

Two Paths Forward for Storage Admins

Consider a recent prediction by IDC that software-defined infrastructure and cloud will eliminate 25 percent of traditional IT operations job titles by 2019. In short, we’re going to see more of the same: convergence and integration as software and hardware layers become harder to differentiate. It’s not so much that the job of the storage admin will recede into obscurity, as it is that the responsibilities and skills of the “old” job will evolve.

Moving forward, as more enterprises adopt software-defined storage across their environments, I see two paths — and they don’t necessarily conflict:

  • Path #1: The DevOps path. Software-defined infrastructure enables enterprises to do what AWS taught everyone: make all infrastructure more developer oriented. One can now easily create a self-service interface with which a developer can log in and directly configure storage. Here, storage admins are not immune to the DevOps phenomenon. DevOps teams will be the interface between infrastructure and applications. Storage admins need to evolve to understand how storage and data fit in building, shipping, and running applications (as Docker would say).
    What storage admins should do: A tactical piece of advice is to learn programming languages like Python or Go. These are key languages in automating and programming IT infrastructure. Learning these languages is akin to being certified in configuring traditional storage arrays. Infrastructure coding is the new device configuration of the software-defined era.
  • Path #2: The analytics path. Consider a company concluding (rightly, in our view) that data is a critical business asset. These companies need to rethink how they protect, analyze and monitor this critical asset. On this path, the infrastructure is more focused on supporting business insights and improving business outcomes. Think of it as the Big Data analogue to the DevOps path. Here storage admins need to take a business view of why the data exists and help provide actionable information. These insights will come from both the storage infrastructure and third-party monitoring tools.
    What storage admins should do: The skillset required to support this type of arrangement demands more than simply knowing whether the storage system is up or down. It mandates digging into the data and determining how the data is being analyzed and monitoring its health. Learn tools like Hadoop, Spark, and Graphite, which help you expand beyond storage admins to become data custodians.

Change is the Only Constant for Storage Admins

There’s an old saying that you can’t step into the same river twice, meaning roughly there’s no constant except change. I think there are few doubts that the software-defined data center is transformative and will only increase the velocity of change. At the same time, it wasn’t so long ago that most everyone assumed outsourcing would wipe out IT teams. Of course, that hasn’t happened.

The last 20 years have taught us that it’s possible to outsource execution, but outsourcing strategy is rarely — if ever — successful. The strategy of storing, automating, programming, monitoring and analyzing data is only becoming more critical and central to enterprises. The foreseeable future is a hybrid one, with both on-premises and public-cloud infrastructure. The role of the storage admin is critical in this hybrid world, albeit modified along the paths we described.

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