Desperately seeking virtualization skills

IT execs say the rapid growth of virtual systems is making it hard to find workers who have experience with the technology.

As more organizations adopt server virtualization software, they're also looking to hire people who have worked with the technology in live applications.

But such workers can be hard to find, as Joel Sweatte, IT manager at East Carolina University's College of Technology and Computer Science, recently discovered when he placed a help-wanted ad for an IT systems engineer with virtualization skills.

Sweatte received about 40 applications for the job, but few of the applicants had any virtualization experience, and he ended up hiring someone who had none. "I'm fishing in an empty ocean," Sweatte said.

To give his new hire a crash course in virtualization, Sweatte brought him to market leader VMware's annual user conference in San Francisco last month. "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 IT manager who has had trouble finding workers who already have virtualization skills. VMware said its VMworld 2007 conference drew more than 10,000 people -- up from about 7,000 at last year's event. But it was common to find conference attendees who were new to virtualization and largely self-taught on the technology.

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

The conference was a good starting point for doing so, 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 server 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 some added that it helps to have acquired a broad base of data center skills beforehand.

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

Carter & Burgess decided to adopt virtualization technology about six months ago to improve its disaster recovery capabilities. Michael Youngers, a lead systems administrator for the storage and storage-area networking groups at the engineering and consulting firm, said that after the decision was made, he taught himself how to use the software. "I stumbled into it," Youngers 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 has become a technology that IT workers need to know. "You are going to have to get on board," he said.

Peter Marx, chief IT architect at Knorr-Bremse GmbH, has been involved in x86 server virtualization for several years. That makes the Munich-based manufacturer of truck and railroad components a relatively longtime user of the technology.

At first, Marx couldn't find anyone with virtualization skills. Such people "simply weren't available then," he said. IT workers at Knorr-Bremse attended some training programs to pick up virtualization know-how. But mostly, Marx said, "they simply did it."

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