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Data centres: what are the new skill sets?

Commodity technology = commodity staff?

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You the expert The capabilities of modern servers offer in-principle benefits of more dynamic management, workload balancing and so on. How do these capabilities impact on the skillsets required of data centre operations staff today?

Trevor PottTrevor Pott
Infrastructure Support Engineer

The commoditisation of certain technologies once found only in high-end servers has changed the face of IT. Once upon a time only the most high end systems had the kinds of remote management, live workload transfer, high availability and "sandboxing" that all but the smallest IT shops have started to take for granted.

Not long ago the ability to remote-manage a commodity server outside the OS was a pipe dream. Today the purchase of hardware without such considerations is almost inconceivable. IPKVMs and Lights Out Management (LOM) solutions are increasingly affordable and becoming a standard component in all business class systems. (Think VPro and AMT.)

Virtualization management suites can give you the ability to turn your collection of x86 and x64 servers into something that behaves very much like one big computer. You can fill this "meta computer" with VMs, each of which can serve as a sandbox for a given workload. VMs can be moved from node to node on-the-fly. Neat tricks like mass clone deployment or high-availability are now commonplace.

While all of the above has many consequences, the take-home message here is that the technology available today is enabling any given number of administrators to care for a greater number of servers than ever before. For all intents and purposes the traditional "grunt work" of IT has been largely automated away.

In large organisations this often means IT administration services become concentrated in a central location which no longer has to be physically near a datacenter. Small numbers of "rack monkeys" are left to man the datacenters and swap out the dead bits. As new technologies allow IT departments to become leaner, the altered administrator-to-server ratio merely increases the burden of responsibility placed on each administrator.

For the moment, smaller organisations still cling to "jack of all trades" administrators. Though features like LOM and virtualisation are increasingly common, the management tools to really make them shine are often outside the reach of an SME budget.

A management tool licensing stack costing half again as much as the hardware of your 2-socket server is still finding a hard sell here. Costs of these tools are however dropping, and effective remote management of SME IT services by third-parties is increasingly a viable consideration.

These technologies are inducing a massive change in the demand for skills among administrators. As smaller numbers of specialist administrators are increasingly able to manage larger numbers of more complex systems, the "jack of all trades" administrators have become an endangered species. The commoditisation of server management tools has thus begun a true commoditisation of the various skill sets of administrators.

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