Buried in data? Help is on the way

Agencies cultivate employees to keep up with growing data management demands

The proliferation of data and the need to better secure it have raised storage's profile among agencies. Consider the following factors: the unprecedented growth of all types of data, from structured databases to unstructured text and e-mail messages; a regulatory environment that compels agencies to save more data for longer periods of time; and a heightened concern about data protection.

Those considerations combine to make storage a priority for agency information technology managers. Storage not only accounts for a greater share of IT costs but also plays a central role in keeping increasingly IT-dependent government operations humming.

So who are the keepers of storage assets, and what training do they receive for such an important job? Some government entities have appointed storage-focused specialists and, in a few cases, groups dedicated to storage. But smaller organizations and highly distributed entities often handle storage staffing on a more ad hoc basis. In those situations, systems administrators are cross-trained to handle storage in addition to other assignments.

Agencies have traditionally taken a learn-as-you-go approach to tutoring staffers in the art of storage management, and storage vendors or their partners provide supplemental training. Some are beginning to tap the new vendor-neutral training offered by industry organizations.

Whatever the method, agencies face increasing pressure to cultivate storage-savvy employees. "Storage functions, including disaster recovery, are becoming more crucial to overall business operations," said Brian Babineau, an analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group. "It is imperative to manage the capital assets with well-trained human resources."

Meet the new storage specialists

Many government agencies have begun dedicating individuals and groups to the task of managing storage.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications is one example. A couple of years ago, NCSA carved out a storage specialty group from an entity that once handled archive, backup, Web/FTP, e-mail, security and other IT functions.

Michelle Butler, technical program manager of NCSA's Storage Enabling Technologies Group, said organizations have typically purchased "big machines with storage on them" with little thought to the infrastructure needed to run those machines.

"The more complicated these machines get, the more people it takes to run them," Butler said. For example, she said, Linux administrators typically know a little about storage, but more complicated environments need specialists.

As a consequence, storage specialty groups may become more common, Butler said. "I think that more government [agencies] will need to 'grow' those types of groups from within, just as we have," she added.

Similarly, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created a storage organization that aims to provide storage as a service to other JPL departments. The group charges their customers for storage in 1 terabyte increments and offers options for disaster recovery and backup, said Douglas Hughes, service engineer responsible for application hosting, database and storage services at JPL Information Services.

Storage organizations of this kind are most common among agencies with centralized IT operations and lots of storage to manage.

Bill Williams, manager of IT in Cisco Systems' Storage Operations Group, said 75 percent of the organizations with 500 terabytes or more of storage have committed full-time resources to managing their holdings. "Most of the customers I talk to now, versus a year or two ago, have moved to a dedicated storage team," he said.

A storage-centric team, however, might not be practical for highly decentralized organizations, industry executives say. Decentralized agencies with independent bureaus might purchase storage platforms from several vendors, making it difficult to pool support staff in a single storage organization.

Smaller agencies could lack the human and financial resources to field a storage-only staff. In the commercial world, small businesses with fewer than 100 employees "must cross-train IT staff," Babineau said.

That also holds true in the government sector. When agencies lack centralized storage groups, Microsoft Windows and Unix administrators serve double duty as storage minders, said Bryan Courtright, an enterprise consultant at GTSI.

"Those agencies are really struggling to get the bandwidth, people-wise, to help them accomplish these new requirements that are being pushed down on them," he added.

The new requirements stem from the influx of structured and unstructured data. "It's all growing at a very fast rate, much faster than anticipated," Courtright said.

Regulatory compliance also contributes to the demands on storage staff. Requirements, such as those in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, have compelled certain agencies to maintain data longer, Courtright said.

Data security and business continuity have also become bigger priorities since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "Folks started paying more attention to data protection," Courtright said.

Grooming the next crew

To meet burgeoning storage requirements, agencies tend to develop their own expertise because it can be difficult finding people with the right skills.

"I haven't been really able to hire a person out of the box with the training and experience needed," Butler said. "We have been able to hire systems [administrators] — really good ones — with a curiosity for the storage side and have been able to grow" some great storage administrators.

"A lot of the training is still on-the-job — shadowing people and being mentored," Williams said. He said that method has been effective for getting generalist systems engineers and administrators up-to-speed on storage.

Agencies also seek formal training and certification programs from industry organizations. The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), for example, offers the Server+ certification program. Server+ examination objectives encompass Fibre Channel technology, iSCSI, and Redundant Array of Independent Disks, among other storage topics. Government users of CompTIA's Server+ certification include the Army, Navy and Defense Department.

In addition, the Data Management Institute provides Certified Data Management Professional and Certified Data Protection Specialist training programs. And the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) offers the SNIA Storage Networking Certification Program. The program offers four levels of certification, from the entry-level SNIA Certified Professional to the advanced SNIA Certified Storage Networking Expert.

Storage certification, however, has yet to catch on in a big way among agencies.

"I don't see it happening," said Peter Manijak, SNIA's education director, referring to the government's adoption of SNIA's certification programs. SNIA plans to launch an outreach program later this year to bring its message to government IT managers, he added.

Storage vendors provide most training outside IT department mentors, government and industry executives say.

Hughes said the JPL organization uses vendors to educate staff "as opposed to going to a class." One engineer took training from Network Appliance and Insight, a distributor, Hughes said, adding that the training focuses on new technologies that JPL plans to use.

Similarly, the Denton County, Texas, Central Appraisal District found its vendor to be the main source of training when it purchased a Fibre Channel storage-area network from Dell and EMC, said Brad Green, the district's information services director.

The district, which handles real estate appraisals, also purchased an IP storage-area network (SAN) from StoneFly Networks, but that installation didn't require training. StoneFly's interface, he said, "is very easy to understand. If you have a basic concept of a [logical unit number], that's all you need." A LUN is a storage array's fundamental unit of storage.

Fibre Channel products, in contrast, "will always be a little more complicated because of the transport medium," Green said, although he noted that the technology's degree of difficulty has eased in recent years.

Linda Moss, education services director at SAN switch vendor Brocade Communications Systems, said agencies tend to call on her organization when they upgrade their storage technology or hire new IT staffers.

Larger agencies often request private, on-site classes, she said. Smaller agencies, on the other hand, may send employees to Brocade's public classes. The company has training facilities in Atlanta and San Jose and uses its remote SAN lab to offer public classes in other locations.

EMC also offers on-site training and sessions at its education centers. If training is on-site, EMC uses a virtual laboratory that allows students to perform lab exercises remotely. Students using PCs loaded with storage management software can connect via a virtual private network to EMC's virtual lab and its resident storage gear. Through the link, students can learn how to provision storage or reassign LUNs in a storage array, among other skills, said Rod Gilbert, director of marketing and business development at EMC Global Education.

Vendors offer education alternatives for customers who lack the time or money for instructor-led training. Web-based training and classroom sessions recorded on CD-ROM are among the options. Moss said Web-based offerings are best suited to foundational training that doesn't require hands-on experience.

As for specific skills, Moss said her customers are particularly interested in honing SAN integration. That can mean adding a new product to an existing SAN environment or interconnecting SAN islands. Gilbert cited business continuity and storage management as primary areas of interest.

Both executives described the demand for training as brisk among government agencies. "The federal space has been at the top of our training business," Gilbert said.

That's hardly surprising, given the government's expanded training mission.


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Training sources: Industry organizations

Most storage vendors offer training and certification, but a few industry organizations offer vendor-neutral education.

Examples include:

  • Computing Technology Industry Association
    CompTIA offers Server+ certification, which, in addition to server hardware, covers SCSI solutions, Advanced Technology Attachment/Serial ATA, Fibre Channel hardware, iSCSI and Fibre Channel over IP, and Redundant Array of Independent Disks. Training available through CompTIA Learning Alliance partners.
  • Data Management Institute
    The institute offers classroom and e-learning programs for members and nonmembers. The organization's training efforts include the Certified Data Management Professional and Certified Data Protection Specialist programs.
  • Storage Networking Industry Association
    The association offers four certifications: SNIA Certified Professional, SNIA Certified Systems Engineer, SNIA Certified Architect and SNIA Certified Storage Networking Expert. SNIA or its training partners conduct the courses.

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