IT workloads up as tech added sans staff

Linux shows largest jump in data center management improvements, study finds

As data centers continue to gain more and more IT equipment, they aren't necessarily getting more people to manage their servers, new surveys have found.

In a survey conducted by the Association for Computer Operations Management (AFCOM), a data center managers group, 37% of the respondents said that they reduced their data center staffs over the past three years and 29% said that they kept their staffing levels the same. The balance, nearly 35%, increased staff.

But over that same period, nearly 74% of the data centers increased their physical server count, according to the AFCOM poll of 360 IT managers and other senior IT executives.

The upshot is that 66% the data centers covered in the AFCOM survey are managing more systems with the same number of people or fewer.

A separate study by Metrics Based Assessments LLC explains what's happening.

A data center research firm that benchmarks about 100 data centers a year, MBA reported that in 2006, the number of Linux operating system images supported by the equivalent of a single full-time system administrator was at 9.2, but by 2010 it was at 17.1, an 86% increase. Over that same period, the number of Windows images supported by a single full-time staffer increased 61% and the number of Unix images per staffer rose 38%, according to MBA.

"What we're really seeing is that people are adding capacity but they are not increasing staff size and somehow the staff is figuring out how to deal with it," said Mark Levin, a partner at MBA. "And a lot of it has to do with improved levels of automation or things of that nature."

But even with technical improvements, Levin said productivity gains are also happening because data center workers are just being told to do more work.

"Server virtualization, server management software, and data center automation are making the data center more efficient," said John Longwell, vice president of research at Computer Economics, an IT research firm in Irvine, Calif. "At the same time, server counts are still rising, despite all the yakking about server consolidation and data center consolidation."

But this is also a consistent long-term trend. Computer operators (now called system administrators) used to account for about 10% of the IT staff back in 1997, said Longwell. Today, they account for 3.3% of the IT staff.

Another major trend that's shaping data centers is the growth of cloud computing.

In October 2009, only 14% of data centers had implemented any form of cloud computing, according to the AFCOM survey. That figure now stands at 36%.

"Our prediction is that 80% to 90% of all data centers will be adopting some form of cloud computing in the next five years," said Jill Eckhaus, CEO of AFCOM, which has made cloud computing a priority in its training programs.

Eckhaus said that data center managers are more interested in private clouds for control and security reasons, but she noted that AFCOM's adoption estimate also includes use of public cloud services.

In terms of budgets, nearly 38% of the respondents to the AFCOM survey said they expect their companies to increase their data center budgets in 2011, while 41% said they expect funding to remain the same and 20% said it would decline.

Eckhaus said the survey also found that 15% of the data centers have no plans for data backup and recovery, and about 30% don't have backup sites. "To me, these statistics are shocking," she said.

Levin said he isn't surprised by the lack of spending on or attention to disaster recovery. "We thought after 9/11 there would be a significant increase in disaster recovery spending -- it never happened," said Levin.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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