Feature Story

Data Centers Grapple with Personnel Challenges as Virtualization Takes Hold

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New skills and new approaches required as technologies change the way data centers operate

June 29, 2009

By Charles Waltner

As data centers embrace virtualization technologies for making their operations run more efficiently, they face another task: virtualizing their personnel.

Data centers are staffed with experienced engineers highly specialized in managing a specific type of technology, such as servers, networks, storage, operating systems or security tools.

But as data centers around the world implement new technologies, including virtualization software and more integrated hardware like Cisco's Unified Computing System, the way personnel work in data centers has to change along with the technology, most experts agree.


Chart: "Virtually Out of Control"

The big question is: How do you make that change?

"It's quite a challenge for a lot of enterprises," says Chris Wolf, a senior analyst with the Burton Group. "For a long time data center staff have worked and lived within certain boundaries but now data centers require a shared infrastructure. Processes are becoming substantially different, requiring totally new operational models. For a lot of traditionalists, that's scary."

Wolf says virtualization – which allows one physical server to carry out multiple "virtual" tasks simultaneously – is leading to a "middle structure" in data centers. "What you are seeing is a gray area developing between physical and virtual operations."

Virtualization's Advantages

It is this gray area that poses the greatest personnel challenges, requiring broader knowledge of physical operations as well as new skills in virtual technologies. In essence, the single-task specialists of old data centers now must multiply their efforts like the virtualized equipment they manage.

Though challenging, experts say such efforts are absolutely necessary for addressing the major shortcomings of traditional data center operations. By virtualizing server, storage and other resources, data centers can greatly reduce runaway administrative and energy costs (see chart).

At the same time, virtualization's ability to centralize management and automate many manual functions will make data centers much quicker on their feet and able to keep pace with ever-changing business requirements.

"With virtualization, you can just go get the computing resources you need with a click of a mouse," Wolf says. "That's great news for anyone who relies on the data center."

One Company's Approach

Certainly, virtualization has been good news for the North American business unit of Lafarge. Lafarge S.A., Paris, France, is one of the world's largest suppliers of construction products with $25 billion in sales from such materials as concrete, asphalt and plaster board.

Lafarge's data center operations are already 55 percent virtualized, and plans are to be nearly 80 virtualized by January, says Brent Wolfram, lead architect of enterprise infrastructure for Lafarge in North America.

Though there is a learning curve with virtualization, Wolfram says Lafarge's data center staff is clearly seeing the benefits of this new technology. Tasks that used to take weeks now only take minutes.

"The goal of any of these changes shouldn't be to remove the traditional roles but to help the entire team work better together."

— Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, general manager, Learning@Cisco.

"Our people are seeing how virtualization can save them a ton of work and make their lives much better," he says. Wolfram also notes that Lafarge's data center energy consumption is dropping substantially as the company implements virtualization.

But to achieve such results, Wolfram says the transition to virtualization requires careful consideration of how to help staff upgrade along with the technology. Mostly, Lafarge's data center team is just trying to find the best pace of change.

Virtualization has made centralized management possible, which means that the team needs new skills to better understand how all the moving parts work together. Wolfram says virtualization – along with consolidation efforts and the proliferation of blade technology – have been blurring the lines among the roles and skill sets of the company's data center staff.

Wolfram says he now looks for good "technologists" rather than experts on a single facet of the data center. The changes have also prompted Lafarge to create a new hierarchy of roles for its architectural staff.

Striking the Right Balance

Rather than dividing architects by a specific technology, such as storage, networking, or operating systems, Lafarge now only has two divisions. The first is "infrastructure," which includes network, security, servers and storage. The other division, "platforms," includes broad software technologies for supporting database, Web, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other business applications.

But Wolfram emphasizes that Lafarge has only made these changes at the architectural level, which includes staff responsible for establishing technology standards, evaluating new technologies, and managing large projects. Lafarge has not tried to reorganize the people who "keep the lights on" ­– the operations staff. "We're still searching for the right approach," he says.

Nevertheless, Wolfram says the operations staff is undertaking the transition informally. "Our projects to virtualize operations are forcing everyone to learn and adapt but it does take time."

Mostly, though, he says managing the transition to virtualization is a matter of carefully balancing the time and energy demands on the entire team. "The company isn't going to pause for us to make these changes," he says.

Training for the Transition

Such a perspective gels with Cisco's view of how data centers need to deal with the new technologies coming their way. Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, the general manager for Learning@Cisco, the company's networking education and technical certification training program, advises companies to start their data center transformations by focusing on a specific project so both technological and personnel adjustments are not overwhelming.

At the same time, data center administrators should develop a road map for how to develop skills and implement management changes incrementally. "Though staff will need to adapt, it is really about setting up your people for success," she says.

To help companies with this transition, Cisco created two new certification courses for broadening the skills and knowledge of data center personnel. One certification focuses on a design or architectural role while the other focuses on operations. There are two tracks for both, one with more emphasis on virtualization software for someone like a networking expert and another track with more focus on networking technology for server or storage experts.

"The goal of any of these changes shouldn't be to remove the traditional roles but to help the entire team work better together," Beliveau-Dunn says.

Collaboration, Teamwork Improved

Wolfram says training certainly helps, but it is just a starting point. He says his staff also needs "battle scars" from applying and testing their new knowledge.

Lafarge uses VMWare for most of its virtualization operations, and is looking at Cisco's new Unified Computing System, as well as its Nexus 1000-V virtual switch.

He says a product such as Cisco's virtual switch is the kind of technology that will help his staff's transition from a physical to a fully virtual operation. "It's difficult right now to get the visibility you need to troubleshoot some issues. It's usually a cross-team challenge because many people from different support teams are required to understand both sides of the problem."

Though Lafarge has been making good headway, it still deals with occasional friction between teams. But even in this regard, virtualization is ultimately helping out.

"Certainly I can say there have been some adjustments required and some challenges along the way," Wolfram says. "That has happened often enough, but with the new technologies, that simply won't happen as much. It won't be as easy to throw the problem over the fence. Virtualization is actually improving our cooperation and drawing people out of their shells."

Charles Waltner is a freelance journalist in Piedmont, Calif.