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Virtualization creates shift in IT job market

Many companies deploy server virtualization in the hopes of reducing IT staff. But for some, virtualization has merely shifted IT roles rather than reduced head count.

Many companies deploy server virtualization with the expectation that reducing the number of physical servers in a data center will reduce power bills as well as payroll expenses. And virtualization companies often tout their technologies as a means to reduce staffing needs as well.

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Virtualization and staffing

Lack of virtualization know how resulting in failed projects
But in reality, as several companies confront the various new challenges created by virtualization, data center staffing has involved more of a reshuffling of IT responsibilities rather than a staff reduction per se.

"There is still overhead in patching and maintaining virtual servers, and when people see how easy it is to apportion a new VM, the number of total managed servers balloons rapidly," wrote blogger Cyborg."There may be labor reductions in terms of racking and cabling and HVAC management, but administration remains at nearly the same level."

Reducing head count -- sometimes
Logistically speaking, the more servers in the data center, the better the chance those servers will need maintenance, so reducing a data center's number of physical servers should mean fewer support IT staffers.

I don't have to hire someone else, and I would have if we kept adding servers.
Stephen Bakerman,
IT managerOwen Bird Law Corp.

"There are fewer processors to burn out, less RAM sticks to go bad, less motherboards to fail," wrote Joseph Foran, director of IT at FSW, a Bridgeport, Conn., a nonprofit social-services agency, on how virtualization reduces workload – and staffing -- dramatically. "Where these are handled in-house … the needs for this kind of work are reduced, [though] not eliminated."

And in some cases, company experience supports the notion that virtualization can reduce IT head count. A case study presented at a February VMware user group meeting on wireless company QualComm Inc. revealed that with virtualization the company consolidated 1,200 physical servers into a mere 100. QualComm now has an 80% utilization rate and has increased data center space, reducing power and cooling requirements. Since deploying virtualization two and a half years ago, the company hasn't increased IT staff at all.

And at a recent VMware user group meeting in Boston on March 27, a user gave a presentation on the virtualization project he oversaw at SAPPi, a Maine-based paper manufacturing company. "One reason we wanted to virtualize is we needed to lower our IT head count," said the systems engineer. "We needed to get rid of high-end support and just keep desktop support."

The growing Owen Bird Law Corp. in Vancouver, British Columbia, is yet another case where staffing concerns prompted a virtualization initiative. IT manager Stephen Bakerman, supports about 90 users and 18 physical servers. Last year, Bakerman virtualized the law firm's Windows infrastructure using software from Lowell, Mass.-based Virtual Iron Software Inc. to prevent the addition of physical servers and staff to help manage it all.

"The cost savings is probably $100,000, and the time savings for me are incredible. I can run everything from my desktop remotely from my office or at home. I don't have to hire someone else, and I would have if we kept adding servers," Bakerman said.

A shift in IT role?
But according to those on the data center front lines, administration of virtualized environment requires a new skill set, and because virtual machines are so easy to deploy, there tend to be many more virtual servers to administrate and keep updated. "I've found that virtualization tends to have the opposite effect that many people think it will," wrote blogger Cyborg.

"I believe that virtualization will radically increase the number of server images in use, and that sounds like it could help on the job market side," said Bruce Hammond, a senior storage administrator at a major U.S. university. "If virtualization did free up some labor, that would just decrease the oversubscription factor. Since I am 'the storage guy,' my workload is definitely larger with virtualization than without."

And other users concur. "Virtualization is about empowering your IT staff, not replacing them," wrote blogger Scott B.. "If you think the reason you need IT staff is because the number of physical host servers you have, you are dead wrong."

And in companies that have kept staff levels the same before and after virtualization technologies are deployed, efficiency increases, said Jeremy Page, a system administrator. "Our admin-to-server ratios are much more efficient now. In part, that's because we are less likely to say no to a new server, but even so we have a smaller admin team than we did three years ago," Page said.

Even so, the bottom line is that company situation and technology environment will determine whether virtualization can reduce the need for IT staff. Companies should think twice about virtualization as a means to streamline payroll and instead look to its other primary benefits, including cost savings, server consolidation and so forth.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

Also, check out our Server Virtualization blog.

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