How many storage admins do you need?

When creating your dedicated storage management group, there are better ways to determine staff levels than relying on a simplistic metric based on the number of terabytes per manager.

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Inside the storage department

Storage groups require four main disciplines, but within each discipline there's also a need for a range of people, from architect to operator. Staffing levels should reflect this division of labor and the size and complexity of the environment. That's why simplistic TB/admin calculations aren't helpful.

Many of today's shops look awfully similar to my first storage-focused job, where SCSI-based Clariions ruled. Still, some businesses have understood the lessons of the past and are well on their way to running IT as an internal service provider. Within IT, though, even these organizations are just building independent storage management groups.

Here are some lessons I've learned by helping and watching a number of businesses form storage management teams:

  • Form a real, dedicated group--don't try to make virtual teams.
  • Define and publicize the boundaries, roles and responsibilities of the storage team.
  • Storage has to include backup, archiving and disaster recovery.
  • Invest in training--this is a new world; new skills are required.
  • An internal utility model can work--even without chargebacks.
  • Don't forget about customer service.
If our first rule is to form a group, the most basic questions are: How many people do I need? What skills should they have?

Let's take the second question first. There are four basic job types that you'll need to cover:

Engineering. These are typically the first type of folks recruited into the storage management group. Titles include storage architect, storage engineer and storage specialist. These people need technology-specific skills (Brocade, EMC, Network Appliance, Veritas) for the most part. Don't forget operating system skills too; they'll be expected to work closely with systems administrators on storage configuration. This area of focus is sometimes called storage or backup administration or engineering, and is a parallel to the systems administrators who run Windows and Unix systems. These people focus on making things work, from design and product selection to implementation, but not much beyond that.

Operations. Most IT organizations already have an operations or production support group, and most storage management groups enlist their help in managing storage. But operations is a critical part of the picture. They keep things running by operating the help desk and performing day-to-day tasks and maintenance. It's important to develop good standard operating procedure documentation for this group--they'll expect you to.

Business analysis. This is the one area often overlooked. Business analysts are critical to developing SLAs, cost accounting and generally making sure that your customers are happy. All customer interaction should come through these folks, and it's their job to translate a customer's desires into the technical specifics needed by the storage engineers.

Management. Management brings it all together. Storage managers need to manage personnel, work within IT and the rest of the business, develop budgets and keep projects on course. I've yet to see a storage management group without a manager, but their role is worth pointing out. And sometimes in particularly large or diverse organizations, these tasks will demand additional assistant managers.

Debunking the terabyte per admin metric
When I meet with high-level managers, one of the first questions usually put to me is "How many people do I need?" This is usually followed by someone saying that a standard for the number of terabytes managed per administrator (TB/admin) would be helpful. Sadly, this metric is meaningless. So, let's knock it down once and for all.

Let's start with complexity. If an administrator can manage, say, 10TB, does that mean he could manage one hundred 100GB arrays? How about one from each vendor? Complexity is the single most important factor in determining the number of administrators needed. The number and variety of arrays, different host platforms and host bus adapters (HBAs) and different management applications all have a huge impact.

There's also no indication of effectiveness over time. I bet I could manage 1,000TB for one day. Or you could fire everyone in IT today, and everything would probably still be working tomorrow. And think of the money the company would save! In my experience, most IT shops are understaffed and expected to be responsible for unrealistic requirements.

Focusing on TB/admin ignores other skill sets found in good management teams--operations, cost accounting, business analysis, management and the like. There's more to storage management than just managing storage systems. Someone must negotiate SLAs and calculate the financial impact of their choices.

Also, there really is no defined best practice for TB/admin. I found analysts suggesting 0.5, 1.25 or 1.5, while storage product vendors said five, seven or 10. The number has changed over time, too, from the same sources. No wonder everyone is so confused. When I see someone tossing around this metric, I smell a quick-fix claim or a scapegoat. The funny thing is that because most businesses run IT pretty lean, a simple calculation will show that their TB/admin beats the analysts and vendors claims.

So what do you really need?

How many administrators you need has to be based on skill sets, coverage and workload:

  1. Count your skill sets. Include all your technologies--storage arrays, switches, host operating systems, backup products, storage management applications.
  2. Divide by 1.5. Each person is good for about three skill sets, and each skill set needs at least two people, so that gives us 1.5. It's true--no matter how smart you are, you really can't know enough about more than three things to do a really good job managing them. And everyone gets sick, or quits.
  3. Multiply by the size of your environment. I admit it, this one is a cop-out. Maybe you have 50 data centers, or one huge center with 50 storage systems. Whichever it is, you probably need more than just a few administrators. Here's a rule of thumb--a single administrator can manage about half a dozen similar storage systems and their associated connectivity and clients. So if you have 50 IBM Sharks, you'll need eight or nine administrators.
Let's try it out. Say you have a few EMC Symmetrix, HDS Thunder and Network Appliance arrays. You use Brocade and McData switches and have HP-UX, Solaris and Windows hosts. All your backups are standardized on Legato NetWorker and use a single StorageTek library. That comes out to about 10 different skill sets. Ten divided by 1.5 is 6 2/3, and you don't need to multiply it because it's not a huge environment. So, you'll need between six and seven administrators.

Does this sound like many people? A similar real-world business is likely to have three or four administrators. But they would probably be frustrated, reactive and generally not doing the kind of good job they'd like to be doing. And this real-world business probably doesn't have a business analyst to make sure that their customer expectations are being met, either. This is why I said most IT shops are understaffed.

Another option is reducing the complexity of the environment. Standardize on a single switch and block storage array, lose one of the host platforms and you only need four or five administrators.

If your business has decided to build a dedicated storage management group, they're on the right track. The challenge is to make sure that the group is well-defined and correctly sized to meet expectations. A group that's too small will be unable to meet user expectations, and will threaten their faith in the internal service provider concept. It could create an unstable environment, putting the business at risk.

This was first published in April 2004

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