Data center expertise: Hard to come by, harder to validate

Last week I spoke at Data Center World out in Las Vegas. This was my first time to attend this show and AFCOM did a great job with it. My presentation was on best practices for simplifying data center networking and not only did it draw a good sized crowd but some very engaging discussions during and afterwards.

Today's data centers are significantly different than the data centers of even two or three years ago. First of all, the scope of our data centers now includes not only data services but we now manage voice and power as well. Data center consolidation has centralized a lot of our owned compute resources while cloud computing and SaaS providers have de-centralized our compute environments. Additionally, virtualization has made it possible to host more machines than we ever imagined within finite amounts of physical space. Lastly, these hyper-dense computing environments require huge amounts of bandwith and storage.

Managing these networks is a challenge for even the most advanced organizations. To combat this, I created a list of common mistakes and a top 10 list of best practices for simplifying data center networks. Two of these best practices were to bring in an expert for areas where your team is lacking in experience and to participate within online communities with people dealing with similar technical issues. While these may seem like common sense best practices, it turns out that they can be easier said than done.

When it comes to bringing in expert help, the challenge is finding an actual expert. Several people in the audience voiced concerns around this topic and shared stories of the difficulties that they've experienced. Data center technology as its own field is relatively new and expertise is hard to find. Additionally, if it's an area that your team is weak in how will you validate the experts qualifications before engaging them?

Certifications are one way that you can validate this type of knowledge. VMWare has a fairly robust education and certification program. I have several friends that hold VMWare certifications and they've had nothing but positive things to say about them. Additionally, the VMWare experts that I've engaged were all very competent with the technology.

Interestingly enough, last week Cisco announced their new certification for data center expertise - the CCIE Data Center. I'm not saying that you can always rely on a certification as a guarantee of knowledge or that you should rely solely on this but I know a lot of CCIEs and I've never run into one that didn't really know their stuff.

Cisco and VMWare are only two of several companies that offer certifications in these areas. More and more people are looking towards certifications to validate their technical knowledge. You can find more on the why, which and when of IT certifications in a previous post. 

When it comes to communities, the difficult part is choosing a community to participate in. Possibly the most interesting question that I was asked during the presentation was if I could recommend a good, vendor neutral community for data center technologists. I couldn't. Most of the successful communities out there today are sponsored by hardware or software vendors. The good news is that many of these are uncensored and you'll find quite a bit of unbiased information being shared by community members. Also, keep in mind that you'll probably be most interested in communities that focus on the specific technologies that you're using and these vendor sponsored communities do just that.

Another community that is taking off is Spiceworks. Spiceworks takes a very different approach to their business and as a result they've been able to create a vibrant and growing community. Spiceworks doesn't actually sell their solutions to IT professionals. Their IT management tools, community forums, videos, and etc are all free. To fund these efforts, they charge hardware and software companies for ad space within their products and community. As a result, the technical areas covered within this one community are very broad. Over 1.8 million IT professionals use Spiceworks and as a result, the expertise available within their forums and the breadth of specialties held by their members is immense.

How do you vet technical expertise before bringing on an expert? Which communities are you a member of and which ones have you tried and then abandoned?

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Josh Stephens is Head Geek and VP of Technology at SolarWinds, an IT management software company based in Austin, Texas. He shares network management best practices on SolarWinds’ GeekSpeak and thwack. Follow Josh on Twitter @sw_headgeek and SolarWinds @solarwinds.  


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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