When it comes to job stability and pay, storage administrators had it made in 2009.

In a volatile economy, as salaries for other IT positions were whittled down or saw little or no increases, the average salary for a storage administrator with 10 to 20 years' experience averaged more than $100,000 last year, up 3.2 percent from 2008, according to Computerworld's 2009 Salary Survey.

With their Fibre Channel mastery and a personal fiefdom of equipment, protocols, and activities that nobody else touches, storage administrators enjoy a unique degree of job stability. But now there's a crop of new storage automation technologies that promise to change the way these IT professionals do their jobs and may even require them to (gasp!) share control of the storage kingdom.

"Storage is definitely at a point of change right now," from both a networking and organisational perspective, says Andrew Reichman, a storage analyst at Forrester Research Fibre Channel-centric storage is slowly moving toward shared Ethernet, and automated storage technologies allow data and application managers to store data themselves. Add to the mix automated data tiering, thin provisioning, and information life-cycle management technologies, and suddenly the once iron-clad position of storage administrator appears to be showing signs of rust.

As data storage becomes more automated and efficient, will the skills of today's typical storage administrator become less valuable?

In five years, who will be running the storage shop? We asked storage administrators, industry associations and storage experts to weigh in on data automation's impact on careers.

Storage admins vs. network admins

While predicting what the IT job market will look like in the future is a risky proposition for anyone, Dave Willmer, executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology, has at least a two-year outlook. Based on what he sees in the market today, Willmer predicts that networking administrator skills will be in higher demand than storage administrator skills for the next 18 to 24 months.

Over the past two or three years, storage administrators had been in high demand because it was a time of heavy IT investment and a number of storage implementation projects were underway at large companies.

"Fast-forward to today, and most companies are in maintenance mode versus implementation mode, mostly for budgetary reasons," says Willmer. That means there should be an uptick in demand for networking administrators. What's more, companies will be highly focused on connectivity over the next 18 months, he adds. "It's all about access. That's more related to a networking administrator than a storage administrator," he says.

As companies become more virtual and demand access through different modes of communication, they will require more network administrators, Willmer adds.

The biggest threats

Application-centric storage is one of the biggest threats to today's storage administrator role, Reichman contends. "We're starting to see more examples of applications being able to do more storage management natively," he says.

"Oracle has [automated storage management] tools, and they have Exadata, a purpose-built database storage platform. The application knows the context of data - it knows more about what the data is doing, what it's going to be used for, when it needs to be archived. So I think it's possible that applications could do more of the storage tasks than an independent storage vendor."

In essence, application-centric storage allows storage administrators to revert to basic disk systems while the advanced management of data happens in the application.

How it could affect storage administrators: "The big difference is, you wouldn't have the entire company's storage sitting in one group," Reichman says.

"I predict that each major application stack would have its own storage experts sitting side by side with DBAs and the network team to make it all happen. So the reporting structure would change, and the storage director would be one of the most at-risk positions."

Automated tiering technology could also lead to a decrease in reliance on storage administrators, industry watchers say.

Tiering storage ranks among IT's top five initiatives over the next two years, along with storage virtualisation and "data reduction" technologies, according to Enterprise Strategy Group, an IT analyst firm in Milford, Mass.

Today, only a few vendors offer automated storage tiering, including Compellent Technologies and EMC, which in December rolled out its fully automated storage tiering (FAST) technology across three lines of storage arrays. The technology will allow data volumes to be automatically moved between tiers of storage, depending on business performance requirements.

How it could affect storage administrators: Right now, tiering requires storage administrators to figure out the criticality of application data, test the performance of configurations, plan the move, test the ramifications and execute the move. All of that is time-consuming. If it were automated, there would be less reliance on storage administrators.

The move from Fibre Channel to cheaper, shared Ethernet also threatens the role of storage administrators.

A combination of networking and storage expertise ranked third among the hottest IT skills for 2010, according to Computerworld's annual Forecast survey. The demand for people with those skills is likely connected to the growing complexity of networks and to the stresses placed on them by virtualisation and newly popular approaches to application delivery, such as cloud computing and software as a service, says Dave Willmer, executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology and a Computerworld columnist.

Safe and sound?
Are the jobs of storage administrators threatened by increasing automation over the next five years?

  • Yes: 23 percent
  • No: 64 percent
  • Don't know: 13 percent

Or losing ground?
Five years from now, who will be in charge of data storage?

  • Storage administrators: 52 percent
  • Network administrators: 32 percent
  • Don't know: 16 percent

Source: Exclusive Computerworld Storage Spotlight Survey, January 2010; 138 IT professionals responded

At Scottrade, CIO Ian Patterson sees the online financial services company dabbling with a converged infrastructure in 2010, driving a need for people with a mix of server, software, and networking skills to support networked storage and server devices contained in a single chassis.

"This will change the market for the type of people we need," he says. "It won't be just a guy who knows EMC and Hitachi storage, but [one] who knows server, storage, and networking all in one device."

How it could affect storage administrators: Networking professionals who are experienced in Ethernet could elbow in on the storage administrator's territory.

Change on the way

All is not bleak for storage administrators, analysts agree. "Jobs don't go extinct in IT, they just change," says David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC. Just as storage administrators had to brush up their skills and certifications with the arrival of storage-area networks earlier in the decade and, later, virtualization, they will have to prepare themselves for the coming wave of automation.

What's more, a converged network doesn't necessarily mean a convergence of storage and network positions, says Wayne Adams, chairman of the Storage Networking Industry Association. "A storage administrator is going to be making sure data is always available, accurate and can be restored. A network administrator focuses on connectivity and bandwidth. We don't see an über skill set" with both roles combined in the future, says Adams.

What you can do now

Storage administrators should pay close attention to the application teams whose data they store, in order to understand the businesses uses of that data. "They may someday report to those database teams," Reichman says. But storage administrators will still need to provide data protection, replication and provisioning, he adds. "So their skill set is going to remain valuable."

There's still a lot of uncertainty about where the market for automated storage technologies will go. "If you look at what [technology] changes jobs in IT, and what we were doing five years ago, it's a combination of technology maturation and innovation," Foote says. "Bill Gates completely missed the Internet in his first biography. Even the best and brightest sometimes have no idea what's going to happen."

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at [email protected].