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5 Storage Administrator Survival Tips

  • IT administration is under siege today. Automation is the buzzword in computer management and that holds true for data storage. The traditional storage admin has to wonder if he or she has is a future in IT or if it's time to become an Uber driver!

    The cloud has precipitated this changing and volatile environment. For large cloud providers that are massively scaled, automation is the only option To compound the storage administrator’s woes, though, the decline of the storage area network (SAN) clearly indicates that traditional skills of LUNs and rebuild windows won’t suffice much longer.

    But there’s a huge opportunity in the new storage approaches! We already are seeing a rich ecosystem of new tools and approaches. On the one hand, we have small, but ultra-fast solid-state drive appliances, while an alternative architecture leads us to hyperconverged systems. Around each of these is a constellation of software products to manage and optimize storage operations. All of these provide a place for those admins willing to expand their horizons to find a meaningful co-existence with automation.

    My first tip for survival is to make yourself useful to the business. No, that doesn’t mean becoming the go-to man for SANs! Your managers and the CIO all feel that grim reaper too. They’ll want to explore alternatives, so learn enough to test out new storage technologies. You don’t have to be an expert; remember, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king! But you have to know enough to be credible. 

    The new storage solutions are going to look like Lego parts, with a huge variety of pieces complementing the basic bricks. You'll need to gain some software skills and learn best practices for putting these pieces together in a way that best fits your company.

    With some foresight and willingness to go beyond their comfort zone, storage administrators can weather the rapidly changing IT environment. Read ahead for ideas on how to extend your storage career into the future.

    (Image: Igor Drondin/Shutterstock)

  • Learn about new storage technologies

    Knowing how the new stuff works is critical, since you'll need to answer questions about new approaches from even the most conservative management. Aim to be in any discussions about new storage projects and be able to add to the discussion. You might find training courses and webinars helpful for catching up with new storage technologies, but there are lots ways to learn, including blogs by yours truly. The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) is a good place to start, while Mindshare courses get into the details.

    The hottest topic right now in data storage is NVMe over Fabrics, with a raging debate over whether Ethernet or Fibre Channel is the better fabric base. Understand the pros and cons on the two positions, especially if your team is planning virtual clusters or clouds.  Other key topics to know: Flash storage, including performance tuning and wear-out issues, and hyperconverged infrastructure, including how it compares with traditional architecture.

    (Image: geralt/Pixabay)

  • Gain software skills

    I’m old enough to remember when Lego just had plain bricks and all you could build were boxy houses. Lego’s come a long way. This is how storage software is today: The choices are growing fast. Knowing how to put the right stack of third-party packages together is an essential skill for the future admin.

    Now, programmers will be doing a lot of this work, but what is created will be much better at the operational level if admins can tackle the technologies too. The relationship is like a paralegal to a lawyer. In fact, as time goes on, automation will help the admin put trial balloons and working service sets together more easily, tilting the value pendulum somewhat.

    (Image: Semevent/Pixabay)

  • Avoid short-term projects

    It’s hard to shine if all you do is test new disk drives. Jump on projects with some meat to them. Look for projects that offer decent gains for relatively small effort and low risk, if possible, since the nature of storage management is conservative. The classic example of this is the all-flash array, which admins can drop into the SAN and dramatically boost performance, but, sadly from an admin’s perspective, these are rare events.

    Organizational hot buttons haven’t changed. Keeping costs down tops the list, which can be achieved by using SSDs to extend the life of the server farm or to run workloads on fewer servers. Agility -- being able to respond to customer needs quickly – is next on the list.  Fitting into the IT roadmap for the company is often a critical test for a new project.

    (Image: geralt/Pixabay)

  • Build a sandbox

    Nothing beats a working demo to convince sceptics of a new idea. Build a sandbox! Your sandbox can be real servers and storage nodes or if that's not possible, a cheaper alternative could be a rental unit in the cloud. There are pros and cons for whichever you choose, but cloud sandboxes may not allow you to test code adequately and moreover, performance is always an issue.

    Many vendors such as Nutanix have free trial or limited-time offers for prototyping. They even offer support. Take advantage of this as much as possible. Make sure you keep a list of contacts in your phone directory, since that’s a big plus if the boss wants more information.

    It’s a good idea to keep a log of what you do. That way, you’ll have information at your fingertips and you will also be able to find out what you did 10 programs ago.

    (Image: Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Shutterstock)

  • Orchestration

    Automation with orchestration will be the management entry point into tomorrow’s IT setups. Embrace it! Learn how orchestration will work and how to set it up and manage it. This might be script building initially, but all signs point to automation being critical for the future. Remember that orchestration involves servers and networking as well as storage so a skill set here means you are one of the keepers of the data center’s core.

    One example of a storage orchestrator is Storage Orchestrator Runtime for Kubernetes (STORK) from Portworx. Vendors such as Pure Storage are entering the market, along with Microsoft and Red Hat.

    (Image: Wright Studio/Shutterstock)