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Of wizards and storage skills

After my posts on militant dolphins and black holes, you could be forgiven for taking that headline literally, but this time I’m referring to the software kind of wizard, not the pointy-hat/ Harry Potter kind.

What prompted this post were two stories I saw this week. First, Reldata announced new adaptive software wizards for its storage gateways and I had an in-depth conversation with the company’s CEO, David Hubbard, about that very subject. Second, everyone’s favorite, Storage Magazine, ran a trends story this month headlined “Storage staffing shortage looms.”

Reldata’s adaptive wizards are a little different from some of the others companies like HP have announced for low-end products, in that they’re not just there for setup. Rather, the adaptive wizards are there for several stages of deployment for the gateway’s iSCSI SAN functions (NAS, replication and clustering wizards are still on the to-do list).

We’re hearing a lot about ease of use these days; even I have been guided through setting up volumes on disk arrays from emerging storage companies by way of proving, “See! Anyone can do it!”

But are we headed toward the point where that will literally have to be true?


Storage skills are waning in the market, at least according to some recent studies. As detailed in the Storage trends story, “a recent EMC study predicts the global storage industry will be a whopping 1 million workers short by 2012.”

So given that we know storage skills are declining, and we know the amount of wizards and other ease-of-use features in products are increasing, the question becomes, which one of those things is the cause and which one is the effect? Are storage skills declining because fewer and fewer people need to know how to map out a volume and carve out a LUN manually? Or are vendor’s products merely responding to the skill gap, rather than contributing to it?

“I think looking forward long-term, IT will have a lot of the same skills they have today,” Hubbard said. “These wizards are designed to cut down on human error in repeated tasks, but they certainly don’t do the job for [users]–storage administrators will still need the same vocabulary and understanding of storage concepts they’ve always had. Tools are just there to help. If there’s too much automation, it won’t work.”

So where’s the line between the right amount of automation and too much? “That’s a gray area,” Hubbard conceded.

Here’s another question: even if skills like making up FC cables, assigning MAC addresses and manual, disk-by-disk storage provisioning are going the way of the dodo bird, is it necessarily a bad thing? Here I’m thinking back to talks I’ve seen by ESG’s Steve Duplessie, who has long predicted that eventually we’ll have a data center operating system that abstracts that kind of nitty-gritty from IT managers the same way the Windows operating system abstracts things like memory allocation and DOS commands from PC users.

Data growth may also be a factor. Network Appliance Inc. also added automation software to its product lines this week, and points out that with the pool of potential storage managers falling and data still growing voluminously, it’s eventually going to get to the point where manual, old-school methods aren’t going to work even if IT admins maintain those skills. Or, if you believe NetApp competitor Sun Microsystems, iSCSI and off-the-shelf hardware are going to make proprietary arrays and their attendant manual processes a thing of the past altogether.

The problem with the PC analogy for me is that for my day-to-day purposes, I personally don’t need to see stats on RAM or have to master a command-line interface. However, it’s also extremely important to me to know that there are people out there I can call on who do know how to do those things, and muck around with the innards of my computer if it becomes necessary. If enterprise IT managers don’t grasp the intricacies of storage any longer, who will?

This is where another recent trend might come in–a sharp uptick in the number of storage assessment and deployment services, in addition to wizards, from storage vendors. Are we heading toward a world where only storage vendors and service providers have the kind of expertise many enterprises have on-site today? Whether that would be a good, bad or indifferent thing depends on the beholder, I guess.

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