An unsexy speciality no more

Storage is becoming one of most sought-after skills in IT. Steve Ulfelder reports on the trend

For the past half-decade, it seems, networked storage has been expected to explode. The year of the SAN was always just a few calendar flips away, analysts and vendors assured us.

Well, rear-view mirrors are always more reliable than crystal balls, and many experts believe that 2005 was, in its own quiet way, the year of the SAN. Regulatory demands, increasing acceptance of virtualisation and an explosion of data combined to bring respect, attention and dollars to the field of storage.

That’s good news for IT professionals specialising in storage. In the US, the national average salary for storage administrators is just over US$80,000 (NZ$126,000), while senior administrators average more than US$95,000. Some experts say those pay scales have grown 2% in the past six months alone and the upward trend shows no sign of levelling off.

If rising salaries and status lead technology workers to deem storage a career specialty, as has happened with security, it will be a new development. “You don’t set out in your career to do storage,” says David Foote, president of Foote Partners, a recruitment consultancy. “It’s not a sexy place and, until recently, there was no ROI you could point to.”

Storage tasks used to be performed by Unix systems administrators, MVS experts with mainframe backgrounds or Windows wizards focused on the desktop. The evolution of these ad hoc groups into a dedicated storage team mirrors trends in the security field, experts say.

“At some point, you’re doing so much work related to security or storage that it makes sense to put that in your title,” Foote says.

Until recently, storage chores had subsets across the IT organisation, from the desktop to legacy databases and mainframes. But the growing importance of storage has pushed many organisations towards a holistic approach. That’s both good news and bad for those seeking a career path in storage. It’s good because most IT workers, from help desk techs to Unix sysadmins and database administrators, are likely to have at least some storage experience. It’s bad because the most sought-after storage professionals are the ones who are familiar with all of those areas — and they are rare.

Gary Foote (no relation to David) understands the challenges of storage administration and hiring storage administrators. He spent nearly two decades in the field, and for six years he handled about 250TB of Unix storage at a major US healthcare firm.

“It was tough to find storage people, because it’s such a new specialty,” he says. He adds that many Unix administrators, who had experience managing large numbers of servers, translated well into the storage arena. Asked about finding IT workers experienced with SANs, he laughs. “Impossible,” he says. “We had to send [new hires] to vendor-provided classes and make sure our experienced people gave them a lot of help.”

Research shows that certifications don’t necessarily lead to higher pay in the storage field. That’s partly due to the fact that such certifications tend to be for a single vendor only.

The Storage Networking Industry Association is trying to change that. For two years, SNIA has offered a “vendor-neutral certification programme so IT workers can learn storage as a discipline without being tied to a vendor product,” says Ralph Luchs, the association’s education director.

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