Storage Certifications - Part II

Wednesday Nov 6th 2002 by Drew Bird

In this, the second part of our look at storage certifications, we discuss some of the factors that you need to consider before starting down the road to your chosen certification track. We also talk to some industry figures to find out whether today's storage cert's are worth your time, money and effort.

In the first part of this look at storage certifications, we examined some of the certification programs that were available and what you needed to do to get them. In this, the second part of that article, we look at some more of the factors you should consider before pursuing a certification. We also take a look at a question that may be even more important than the selection of the right program. Are storage certifications worth having?

A Risk Worth Taking?
Taking a certification, any certification, is an investment of time and money. As with any investment, you want to be reasonably sure that the investment will yield a return - the more the better. In the same way as with financial investments, there are safe choices - the mainstream certifications such as the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) or Cisco Certified Network Administrator (CCNA) - then there are those certifications that are a little more speculative. It would have to be the latter of these categories that storage related certifications fall in to.

With storage still being a nascent industry, no-one really knows if the projected phenomenal growth will occur, or on what timescales that growth will take place. So in a sense, gearing your certification choices towards pursuing a storage certification is a little like gambling on stock in a Silicon Valley tech start up. The risks are high, and it may be that the projected growth never quite bears out. As with the speculative stock purchase, though, the returns could likewise be huge. If the storage industry grows at anything like the projected rates, the demand for skilled techs with the right qualifications and background will outstrip supply in short order. Continuing the investment analogy - it should be remembered that past performance is no indication of future performance and so there are no guarantees. Past performance does make for interesting reading though.

For historic parallels, you might want to consider other significant events in the IT industry and their effects on demand for skilled personnel and thus certification. Good examples are the move from NetWare to Windows NT, or the emergence of network routers as a mainstream technology. In each of these cases, people who had the certifications, knowledge and experience, as the ball started rolling, got the plum jobs. Over time, as more people caught on and supply started to catch up with demand, the plum jobs became fewer and the competition for them stiffer. Even still, those who had held related certifications for some time now had the upper hand as they had also gained valuable experience.

Enough of the Cautions Already!
So, are you ready to take a gamble on a storage cert? Will you step up to the plate and become one of the few people toting around storage certifications in your search for work? Before you start on the path, there are few things to consider.

One of the problems associated with technical certifications is they are often hard to study for. Unless you have a healthy bank balance, buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of storage networking equipment will not be an option and so you'll need to consider how you will get the hands on experience required for some of the certification exams. It might be better to focus on exams that are more theory based first, and then (all things going as you hope) study for the more hardware intensive exams while you are working with storage on a daily basis.

Having high levels of hardware requirements is not unique to storage certifications. This was a hurdle that was somewhat addressed by software based router simulations for Cisco certifications and free copies of operating systems for networking cert's. Such measures are unlikely to be available, or be of much help, when studying for storage certifications. Although, as with many other certifications, a good deal of knowledge is theoretical - standards, procedures, technologies etc., there is also a practical element to storage which is hard to relate to unless you have access to the technologies or products discussed. For those already working in a storage environment, exposure may not be hard to come by, but for people striking out on their own in an effort to enter the storage industry as a tech, this is more of a concern.

Outside of having access to the appropriate equipment for studying, there are no other major hurdles in storage certification that are not present in other certification tracks. There are a few subtle differences, though, that you should be aware of. First of these is access to study resources.

While most other certification programs have a significant amount of study resources behind them, the 'newness' of storage certifications and their specialization might make it hard to find study resources. Technical book publishers, quite understandably, go where the action is as far as producing titles for certifications. At present there are very few study guides for storage certifications which will add to the challenge of preparing to take your certification. The unavailability of books is not the only area where you are likely to come up short on resources. There are very few study groups, no simulated exams (that we are aware of) and few preparation courses. Studying for a storage cert can be a lonely business, so you should prepare yourself accordingly.

Vendor Vs Vendor Independent. Which Way Should You Go?
Unlike, say, networking or database certifications, there is no one major organization driving certification forward. Parallels could be drawn between CompTIA and the SNIA, but the latter is still in the formative stages of developing certification programs whereas the former is already certifying hundreds of thousands of people each year. It is true that both are vendor independent organizations that have members who themselves have certifications programs, but while it might seem like an odd relationship, it is seen by those involved as more of a symbiosis than a conflict of interest.

There are a number of companies who already have their own certification programs that have thrown their weight behind the SNIA certification program. Many of them see the SNIA offerings as a valuable part of an overall certification picture. A good example of this is SAN hardware manufacturer McDATA Corp. "McDATA has listened to our customers who continuously ask for ways to measure the skills necessary to design, implement, manage and troubleshoot today's storage networking solutions," says Adolph Holston, Senior Consultant for McDATA Corporation. "Our enthusiastic involvement in this Specialist exam is one way we support SNIAs and Infinity I/O's efforts in creating and promoting a successful industry-wide, vendor-neutral certification program. We will leverage this testing as an entry point into McDATA's own certification program."

The key term here is entry point, and that is exactly what the SNIA is looking for, A Deborah Johnson, President and CEO of Infinity I/O, the company working with SNIA to develop the certification programs explains. "The SNIA-endorsed, Infinity I/O-developed certifications are created with SNIA member companies and focus on developing an industry standard for the benefit of vendors and users. It's a given that "standards" help move an industry forward. Vendor certifications alone don't provide a comprehensive, system level approach to storage networking fundamentals and we're seeing analysts, vendors and solution providers alike acknowledging the role and value of vendor neutral certification." In some cases, its not just individuals that realize the value of vendor independent certification. Richard Bannister, Partner at Evaluator Group, a company that provides analysis of on-line storage systems and storage related issues to vendors and users, thinks that many vendors are themselves having problem getting staff oriented on competing products. "The problem I see is that a vendor is unlikely to provide a balanced view of the alternative NAS products, SAN strategies, related software etc. We have a partial answer to this problem in a 21/2 day advanced Storage Networking seminar and one on Enterprise Storage. We cover all these topics and our class is usually half full with vendors. They come because they cannot get unbiased views of their competitors from their own company." Ultimately, at this stage of the storage markets development, taking a vendor independent certification may make more sense simply because it does not tie you to a specific technology or product line. On a more topical note, the way it stands right now, SNIA seems to be growing their certification programs more effectively than many of the vendors. These vendors could be forgiven for taking their eye off of the proverbial certification ball in favor of just selling product in these tough economic times.

So You've Passed. What Next?
Having passed your chosen certification, now comes the time to use your certification for the purpose you intended. For many people, this will include either looking for a raise or trying to get a better or different job. Now all you have to hope is that the manager in question knows just what it is you are holding in your hand. Unfortunately this is one aspect of the certification which is well outside your control, and one that can have a significant bearing on just how useful your certification really is.

Although you might have an understanding of the value of the cert, hiring managers, even the most technical oriented ones, may not have an understanding of what your chosen certification means in terms of actual knowledge. You can, if you think it will be a good idea, refer to the hiring manager to sources of information so that they can read up on the certification, but realistically this is far from ideal.

Because the issue of awareness is one that can have a significant effect on the success of a certification program, it's one area where certification providers such as the SNIA are focusing a great deal of attention, as Deborah Parker explains." SNIA has already begun a number of activities related to end users and these will include education about the benefits of their certification programs. End users are one of the most important audiences for reinforcing both ROI in storage networks and the importance of a system level approach to the storage landscape."

Such an education might take time, and while the learning process is being completed, anyone considering taking a storage cert would do well to factor employer awareness into their choice of certification. The biggest problem here is that you can't really just call up a hiring manager and ask them if they will recognize the cert you are about to take.

Even though many hiring managers are aware of storage cert's, you are sure to find just as many who are more interested in more traditional demonstrations of technical knowledge. To get a perspective in this, we talked to Howard Hayakawa, vice president of engineering at StorageTek. "I will want technical degrees with specialization. I can't think of a certification that is required for storage specifically." He continued, "It really depends on the position. My group has people with technical degrees and many have Phd. in Physics, Computer science, mechanical engineering or electronics."

The Final Word
One final consideration, and one that will apply there is one other important element that should be considered. A storage certification on it's own, without any other certifications, is probably going to be of little use. Storage systems are connected to networks and servers. The data that they store is accessed via that network and via those servers. Without a working knowledge of either networking or at least one of the common operating systems, a storage certification on it's own is not a great tool. It's probably best to think of a storage certification as a specialty

But, if you already have networking and server management knowledge, and are looking for a way to move away from the herd, a storage certification will give you not only an element of exclusivity, but it could be your passport into one, if not the, fastest growing sectors of the IT industry.

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