Virtual jobs

Virtualizing servers, storage and even networks will change the face of IT and significantly impact the roles of storage professionals.

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Virtualizing servers, storage and even networks will change the face of IT and significantly impact the roles of storage professionals.

By Rich Friedman

Virtualization is dramatically changing how servers, storage and networks are configured and managed. But virtualization technologies aren't just changing storage environments; they're rapidly changing the nature and scope of storage jobs. Virtualization creates more interdependencies across different technology domains, which can instigate political turf wars over who should architect, divvy up and manage storage resources. Should it be the storage, network, server or VMware administrator?

"With server virtualization, storage administrators are, in some ways, ceding control of large blocks of storage to be allocated and managed by those responsible for VMware," said James Damoulakis, chief technology officer at GlassHouse Technologies Inc., Framingham, Mass.

FCoE could tip balance

Traditionally, Fibre Channel (FC)-based storage-area networks (SANs) have been, by and large, under the autonomous control of storage administrators. But Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) could disrupt that arrangement. As FCoE begins to take hold over the next two years to four years, even more questions about roles and responsibilities will arise. It's possible that the storage staff could be squeezed out, with network administrators finally taking control of the storage network.

"I'm betting that it will happen over time, but it will probably be a long time," GlassHouse's Damoulakis said. "With the continued use of Fibre Channel, even over Ethernet, the specialized knowledge relating to zoning and LUN [logical unit number] masking will probably be left either to the storage admin or to a liaison role that straddles both storage and networking."

Today, the storage administrator dictates the type of network supporting the storage environment, said Bob Laliberte, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass. However, "it's easy to imagine that changing," he added. "If FCoE takes off, will the deployment of Ethernet switches be controlled by storage or networking companies?" And who controls the budget -- the storage team or the networking group? The most likely scenario, he said, will be the elimination of siloed IT groups replaced by hybrid IT groups, on either a project or permanent basis, staffed by members with expertise in networking, storage, servers and virtualization.

Breaking down IT silos

Stephen Foskett, director of the data practice group at Mountain View, Calif.-based Contoural Inc., advises companies to do the following:

  • Recombine stovepipe IT infrastructure organizations (server, storage and network) into a single management organization with specialists in these areas and others, such as virtualization and cloud computing.
  • Spend the time and money to cross-train everyone so they can reapply their experience and skills in this new world. Storage folks, for example, must know a good bit about server virtualization or their skills will have much less value.
  • Bring the mainframe, security and records management folks to the party. They all have essential insights, and failing to give them a seat at the table would be a critical loss.

Different perspectives

There's no question that people with different skill sets within IT view the problems and their solutions differently. "Network engineers have a different point of view for I/O [than storage admins]," said Tom Becchetti, senior storage and Unix engineer at St. Jude Medical Inc. in St. Paul, Minn. "The only time the network folks are concerned about latency is when there is a distance involved. Most of the time for local traffic they are only concerned about bandwidth. Merging networking and storage doesn't work."

For example, "before I arrived here, they [the network and storage groups] decided to use a dedicated NetApp filer with an iSCSI attachment for [Microsoft] Exchange," Becchetti said. "The network connection, with a separate VLAN [virtual LAN], was part of the entire network infrastructure. The disk response time was so bad, it caused outages for Exchange. In many shops, a network I/O isn't monitored as closely as a disk I/O. Long story short, they converted the attachment to Fibre Channel and the problem was solved. The network group stated that the network was fine."

Becchetti's position is very storage-centric. According to Stephen Foskett, director of the data practice group at Mountain View, Calif.-based Contoural Inc., "network and storage pros have critical insight into their areas," and continuing to isolate them in specialized silos "would be a tragic loss akin to what happened when open-systems folks decided not to pay attention to the lessons of the mainframe generation."

Foskett added that new technology is changing the status quo. "Right after the data center is virtualized and IT infrastructure is recombined, applications themselves will fundamentally transform, demanding a merger of the current IT infrastructure and IT applications groups," he said. "This could all come within five years, or it could be delayed or diverted by organizational infighting and intransigence."

DBA jobs are changing, too

The roles of database administrators (DBAs) and their working relationship with storage administrators are also changing. Mike Shapiro, distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems Inc., agrees: "I'd like to see the conversation between DBAs and a typical storage group get beyond 'I need a LUN of size x gigabytes,' which is how it works today."

How many terabytes should a storage administrator manage?

Just how much storage should a single administrator be responsible for? It depends, especially in an interdependent IT environment.

James Damoulakis, chief technology officer at GlassHouse Technologies Inc., Framingham, Mass., said this isn't a particularly meaningful metric. Of course, as disk capacity grows, the number continues to change. More importantly, the biggest factors relating to TB/admin are the complexity and dynamism of the environment. Very complex environments -- those with lots of different kinds of devices, complex architectures and so forth -- by their nature require more people to manage them. Likewise, a fast-changing environment with many provisioning requests and high volumes of data movement also increases staffing needs.

"These are the areas we always look at first in terms of making staffing efficiency recommendations," Damoulakis said.

Traditionally, DBAs and storage administrators are often in conflict regarding storage provisioning and how to resolve storage performance/cost issues. GlassHouse Technologies' Damoulakis views this as a "natural tension and, as long as it is managed properly through open communications and an effective demand planning process, it's not a huge problem." However, he added, "the interesting challenge will be, given changes like virtualization, thin provisioning and solid-state storage, can the storage group build a strong enough argument to alter the tradition-based, risk-averse DBA mindset?"

Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO Group in Stillwater, Minn., said that the more DBAs learn about storage, servers and networking, the better they can convey what they need and why; likewise, the more server and storage professionals can learn about apps and the needs of DBAs, "the better they can work together to drive efficiency and boost productivity instead stepping on or inhibiting production."

Simply put, uncertainty and change, if managed appropriately, will lead to new ways of doing things and an increase in productivity. As John Seely Brown, previously chief scientist at Xerox Corp. and now a visiting scholar and advisor to the Provost at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, wrote in a recent published interview: "Many breakthroughs today come between disciplines, where multiple disciplines work together."

BIO: Rich Friedman was formerly senior editor at Storage magazine. He's currently riding his bicycle from St. Augustine, Fla., to San Diego.

This was first published in March 2009

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