Help wanted: IT workers with server virtualization skills

Users say the technology's rapid growth is making it hard to find experienced staffers

SAN FRANCISCO – As more organizations adopt server virtualization software, they're also looking to hire people who have worked with the technology in live applications. But that experience is hard to find, as Joel Sweatte, director of IT at East Carolina University's College of Technology and Computer Science, recently discovered when he advertised for an IT systems engineer.

Sweatte received about 40 applications for the job at the Greenville, N.C.-based college, but few of the applicants had any virtualization experience, and he ended up hiring someone with none. "I'm fishing in an empty ocean," Sweatte said.

To give the new employee a crash course in virtualization, Sweatte brought him to market leader VMware Inc.'s annual user conference here this week. "That's a major expenditure for a university," Sweatte said of the conference and travel costs. "[But] I wanted him to take a drink from the fire hose."

Sweatte isn't the only one who has had trouble finding IT workers with virtualization skills. VMware said VMworld 2007, which ends today, drew more than 10,000 attendees -- up from about 7,000 at last year's event. But in interviews at the conference, it was common to find attendees who were new to virtualization and largely self-taught on the technology.

For instance, Jeff Perry, IT manager at HealthBridge, a not-for-profit organization in Cincinnati that electronically connects area hospitals and other medical facilities so doctors can exchange patient data, began deploying virtualization software six months ago. He came to VMworld to pick up some more technical skills and said he plans to spend a lot of time teaching himself about virtual systems.

The conference was a good starting point for learning about the technology, Perry said, "but there is so much research that you have to do after this."

And there's no question in Perry's mind that virtualization has become a critical IT component. "Hardware right now is so underutilized," he said. "To carve out spaces for virtual machines is the wave of the future."

IT professionals can certainly train themselves to work with virtualization software, VMworld attendees said. But, they added, it helps to have a broad base of data center skills beforehand.

"In the old days, you really just needed to understand the server –- now you have to understand not just the server, but the command lines of the Linux operating system, networking, how switches work, storage and fiber connections," said Kirk Marty, a senior systems engineer at Minneapolis-based Jostens Inc., which makes class rings, yearbooks and other products.

Michael Youngers, a lead systems administrator for the storage and storage-area networking groups at Carter & Burgess Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, said that when the engineering and consulting firm decided to adopt virtualization about six months ago to improve its disaster recovery capabilities, he taught himself how to use the software. "I stumbled into it," he said.

But after seeing how virtualization has led to server consolidation, the removal of old hardware and lower power and cooling costs at Carter & Burgess, Youngers is convinced that it's a need-to-know technology for IT workers. "You are going to have to get on board," he said.

Peter Marx, chief IT architect at Knorr-Bremse Gmbh, a Munich-based manufacturer of truck and railroad components, has been involved in x86 server virtualization for several years, making his company a relatively longtime user. When Knorr-Bremse started out with the technology, Marx couldn't hire anyone with virtualization skills. Such people "simply weren't available then," he said.

Workers at the company attended some training programs, Marx said. But mostly, "they simply did it," he added. "It's more of a German-type approach."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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