So You Want To Work In... Virtualization

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Virtualization consultants and engineers are in demand right now. We find out what the job is all about

Virtualization is one of the great frontiers of modern enterprise IT, evolving in the past decade from a bleeding-edge technology to one that’s firmly in the mainstream. Yet virtualization is a departure from the old ways of IT, with its own hardware and software competencies, its own skills and its own challenges. There’ a high demand for experienced consultants and engineers.

Virtualization is one of the great frontiers of modern enterprise IT

Virtualization is one of the great frontiers of modern enterprise IT

These roles exist to help companies plan and deploy solutions that virtualize physical servers and supporting infrastructure, reducing the costs involved. It’s more than that, though, according to Phil Cambers, commercial director of virtualization expert SITS Group. “As virtualization proliferates, it isn’t only about server virtualization. It’s about protection, management and end-user computing,” he says.

Today, virtualization is just as concerned with setting up the tools for admin, security and backup as it is with actual virtualization, and the field is aiming to encompass application and desktop virtualization too. This is where the specialists come in. “A successful virtualization specialist is likely to bring a very skill set to a project,” says Steve Walker of virtualization consultancy SBC PureConsult. Specialists won’t just have “a background in desktop and server deployments” but also a deeper understanding of the technicalities of virtualization, including “a high degree of tuning and optimization experience gained through exposure to storage or clustering projects.”

Technical skills and qualifications

Experience is vital here. Few employers or potential clients will be content with a theoretical knowledge of the technology; they want hands-on experience with real servers, networks and workloads.

“It’s important for a consultant to have all the technical accreditation,” says Cambers. In a VMware house such as SITS Group, “the VCP [VMware Certified Professional] is the base qualification we expect, but obviously with VMware they have certain competencies – in infrastructure, business continuity, desktop and management.” These additional accreditations demonstrate a depth of expertise and a willingness to go the extra mile.

Other platforms have different qualifications. Microsoft’s Certified IT Professional program has server virtualization, desktop virtualization and virtualization administrator certificates, while the other big platform, Citrix Xen, has its Citrix Certified Integration Architect for Virtualization certification.

Should you specialize?

It can be a challenge to work out which accreditation to seek. John Davies, director of boutique consultancy Iconic IT, takes an agnostic approach since the company’ preferred solution often depends on the technology that the client already has in place. “If they’re a big Citrix house, then it makes sense to use something such as Citrix XenServer – they’ll get it free of charge. If they’re a big Microsoft house, then it makes sense to use Hyper-V. If you have VMware already in there, it’s better for you to stick with it. I try to work across all three, because then I can dip in and out of whichever product I need to.”

The VCP [VMware Certified Professional] is the base qualification we expect

The VCP [VMware Certified Professional] is the base qualification we expect

That’s one approach, but Cambers believes being agnostic can mean “you’re not necessarily an expert in one thing”. This is partly why SITS Group sticks with VMware on the server side.

“It’s likely that you’ll run into competing technologies at some point,” says Walker. “Being able to understand the pros and cons of each is helpful.” However, he believes you have to pick. “The vagaries of one implementation versus another are often where the majority of tuning opportunities exist,” he says.

If pushed, Davies would recommend Citrix training. He prefers to employ people with Citrix experience because there’s “a real shortage” in the UK and since “they must know Microsoft to do Citrix”. While it’s possible to work with XenServer and associated packages without an understanding of Terminal Server, Active Directory, Group Policy, Exchange Server and domain controllers, most Citrix engineers will have picked up the relevant skills.

Whichever technology you specialize in, the important thing is to keep learning. Davies looks for people who can’t wait to start testing the latest technology, and Walker feels that “the time spent working through problems gives you the internal programming to be able to look at problems holistically.”

Planning and communications

Being a good engineer or consultant takes more than pure technical skills. “I think they have to understand that, when someone goes from having physical servers to virtual servers, they’re making a big leap of faith,” says Cambers. “The consultant must have an X Factor – a reassuring air about them that they know what they’re talking about.”

Davies feels that consultants must be able to talk to anyone from the financial director to the IT manager, so they can explain the tangible benefits of an approach to one while explaining the technicalities to the other. “Companies need to be confident that you know what you’re talking about and have experienced what you’re talking about,” he says. Consultants need to “be able to flip from the high level to the nitty-gritty”.

“The consultant must have an X Factor – a reassuring air about them that they know what they’re talking about.”

“The consultant must have an X Factor – a reassuring air about them that they know what they’re talking about.”

Part of this comes from good planning. It’s no good knowing how to manage virtual servers if you can’t see or sketch out the bigger picture. “They must be good planners and good at design documentation,” says Cambers. “There’s no point being highly technical but poor at documentation, because it’s that part that gives the customer confidence that we’ve done our homework.”

Walker finds another attribute essential. “I’d say that patience is key, since projects never run to plan and customers often have shifting timescales and requirements. Being able to translate those into technology solutions is the exciting part.” Davies concurs, but adds that sometimes there’s a need to prevent customers from doing the wrong thing. “It’s a hard and fast rule. If you’re going to do it, no cutting corners” do it properly. If a customer wants to cut corners, you have to tell them ‘no’.”

Challenges and rewards

Virtualization has technical challenges, from dealing with complex infrastructures to handling applications that don’t work in a virtualized environment, although these are becoming less common as the industry matures. There’s less need now to educate companies about the benefits, since most understand the cost efficiencies. Still, some potential clients may have been burned by poor work.

 “As virtualization becomes more popular, there are a few cowboys out there who don’t know what they’re doing,” says Cambers. “They’ll virtualize someone’s server infrastructure, and we’ll speak to them [the client] and they’ll say ‘virtualization’s rubbish, it doesn’t work’ or ‘the performance is terrible’. That’s because they haven’t had the right solution implemented and haven’t had it planned properly.”

The virtualization market is undergoing constant reinvention

The virtualization market is undergoing constant reinvention

Walker notes the sheer pace of change in the industry. “The virtualization market is undergoing constant reinvention,” he says. “Vendors often integrate other products through acquisition rather than develop their own. This poses problems for consultants, who are often asked if they can provide skills for the acquisitions that have only just hit the market, where often the v1 products are nothing more than sales tools.” The burden is on the consultant, who has to be “prepared to invest a lot of personal time in research and development in order to play with new releases and understand whether known issues will be show-stoppers”.

That investment of personal time can pay off. The average salary for consultants and engineers is $71,250-78,750, while senior consultants and architects can earn $97,500 or more. Plus, there are all the pleasures of working on a frontier. Davies talks of the thrill of deploying several hundred desktop environments in less than four hours and seeing customers’ amazement at what a relatively small IT consultancy can achieve. Walker describes how he has “benefited from a career that has provided variety, exposure to interesting customer environments and technical problems plus, thankfully, enough consulting days per year to make working for myself worthwhile.”

“It’s a great time to be in IT infrastructure,” says Cambers. “We’re doing things that were previously impossible; replicating servers between data centers efficiently and almost in real-time.” And he feels the best is yet to come. “We’re always amazed at what we see coming down the line. It keeps us excited.”

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