Storage professionals don't appear to be escaping the layoff craze unscathed and data storage vendors themselves might just share part of the blame.
Like the rest of the economy, storage jobs are being lost, both within the companies that make data storage hardware and software and their customers. And there is some question whether vendor focus on automation and ease of use could be adding to the trend, making more experienced employees vulnerable and allowing specialists to be replaced by generalists.
But more on the broader issues later; first to the general state of the storage job market.
"Organizations are downsizing, right-sizing or making other changes that have resulted in some head count reduction in or around storage, or staff getting caught up in number reduction scenarios," said Greg Schulz, senior analyst and founder of StorageIO Group.
Vendors such as EMC (NYSE: EMC), HP (NYSE: HPQ), Sun (NASDAQ: JAVA), Seagate (NYSE: STX), Dell (NASDAQ: DELL), Western Digital (NYSE: WDC), Pillar Data and SanDisk (NASDAQ: SNDK) have all announced storage-related layoffs.
On the end user side, there is more of a mixed bag. SunGard Availability Services of Wayne, Pa., which provides data protection and collocation facilities to thousands of companies, reports that its customer base is experiencing a headcount loss of as much as 20 percent over the course of 2009.
Fortunately for storage professionals, much of those job losses appear to be outside the storage perimeter. The five storage specialists at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., are safe at least for now. The school has cut its IT numbers from 105 to 95 in the past two years. Another 10 will probably go this year, but from other areas of IT.
"We already have a lean storage shop and we won't be changing our personnel count there in the short term," said Tim Chester, CIO at Pepperdine.
Jason Williams, COO and CTO at Digitar Inc. of Boise, Idaho, said the company has "seen more specialized functionalities being cut and those responsibilities being absorbed by the remaining staff. Whereas before, there may have been a dedicated Exchange team, those people are now expected to help with the storage and database areas."
While storage jobs appear to be holding up in many areas, the news isn't so good for contractors. Chip Nickolett runs Comprehensive Consulting Solutions Inc. of Brookfield, Wisc. He has noticed many cutbacks in recent months. He pointed out, though, that relatively few of the cutbacks have been on the operational side.
"In many cases, contractors are being released and staff is being tasked with doing more," said Nickolett. "Although it is resulting in project delays and longer work days, I haven't seen many complaints since people are just happy to still be working."
The Rise of the IT Generalist
On the positive side, there are storage jobs out there, according to Schulz. He points to the job listings on LinkedIn, Twitter and other message boards, as well as the word on the street.
"I'm hearing of organizations looking for staff, particularly in more specialized skills and hands-on roles, including cross-functional areas such as storage/virtualization, server and storage performance/capacity planning, networking/storage, mainframe/open systems and other combinations," he said.
He sees the beginning of a trend toward IT generalists people with a broader background that spans servers, storage, networking, hardware and software are much in demand, although more so based on actual experience than general familiarity.
Williams confirms this. His company makes a point of hiring mainly generalists, and he believes that companies will adopt this in the near term because of financial constraints.
"Generalists bring new perspectives to siloed problem areas of storage that were simply not in the vocabulary of the specialists," said Williams. "As a result, I think we'll see a trend toward generalist initially driven by financial concerns, adopted even more strongly due to the innovative solutions that start coming out of the IT department."
Chester, too, embraces the trend. He prefers people with a wider range in IT so he can train them on the specific tasks and technologies they need to know. He points to such assets as strong communication skills, project implementation, teamwork and a process orientation as some of the key areas that must augment technical talent.
"The most valuable employees have a broad base of technical skills and also bring versatility via analysis, project management and business process management know-how," said Chester. "This has been the trend for some time and the economy is only accelerating it."
Mark Peters, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, has also spotted the move toward the IT generalist. He thinks this trend will continue for some time as it's not just born of economic necessity, but by the blurring of infrastructure tools. The advent of blades, for example, has led to the introduction of storage blades that can even host some applications if required. Further, virtualization is likely to extend this. Provisioning could one day be done on one screen without the need for any kind of specialist intervention.
"What is abundantly clear and has been advancing even before the recent economic calamity is that there are fewer storage specialists in all but the largest shops," said Peters. "Storage through the mid-sized organizations is very often both a part-time and shared occupation."
Nickolett sees staffing levels remaining flat or decreasing. As people leave, they just aren't being replaced. "There are enough skilled and unemployed people out there that I wouldn't expect to see this type of generalist trend in the next six to nine months," he said.
Another naysayer is Chris Beck, network administrator for the City of Fontana, Calif. His department just lost one full-time help desk technician and two interns. Fortunately, upper management has realized that new projects must slow down due to this, so work won't be increasing as much as it has in the past.
"If a second round of layoffs were to hit, I see generalist positions being laid off first, with the specialists being asked to pick up the workload," said Beck.
Are IT Specialists Endangered?
One technology that could make IT jobs more vulnerable is automation the ability to automate tasks that were once done manually, and in some cases, apply the experiences of a large number of users automatically. Just listen to this sales pitch from Symantec (NASDAQ: SYMC) for Veritas Operations Services:
By tracking best practices, optimal configurations, hardware compatibility lists and software compatibility lists for Veritas Storage Foundation, Veritas Cluster Server, common operating systems and storage area network (SAN) software and firmware, the service identifies data center risks and issues alerts that include remediation steps. Symantec says the technology can make "a new person as effective as a 10-year veteran."
Vendors working on automation technologies emphasize that they are intended to free up high-level employees for strategically important business initiatives, but in a down economy with high job losses, it's not hard to imagine them being put to another use.
EMC, HP, NetApp (NASDAQ: NTAP) and startup Continuity Software are among the companies working on automation.
Gil Hecht, founder and CEO of Continuity Software, which automates disaster recovery and ensures high availability and business continuity, describes his company's technology as an "empowerment tool" that allows storage admins to fix problems as they occur, rather than once a year at disaster recovery drills, so that no data gets lost.
Is it possible that automation could one day make storage or other IT specialists go the way of the dinosaur? Schulz, for one, says no. "This does not mean specialists will go away," he said.
The automation efforts of recent years have taken some of the long-term stability out of such fields as backup, storage management and provisioning. But the dream of point and click storage is still a long way off. It may be another decade or more before the hype around automation catches up with reality.
Even so, those with highly specialized abilities in fields like Fibre Channel, backup and tape administration would be advised not to rest on their laurels. It might be a smart career move for IT employees to add wider experience to their resumes as a way of convincing job cutters to leave them alone and to increase their attractiveness in the event that they wind up back on the job market.
"Storage specialists should look at expanding their horizons and skill sets to maintain a competitive edge in environments that are shifting to more virtualized infrastructures where interdependencies increase," said Schulz.
Enterprise Storage Forum managing editor Paul Shread contributed to this article