Developing High-Demand Skills: SAN Skills

These days, just about everything related to virtualization is in high demand and the field is growing dramatically. For instance, Gartner estimates that the number of virtualized PCs is expected to grow from less than 5 million in 2007 to 660 million by 2011.

So for the next three Systems & Networks articles, I’m going to cover technologies that fall under the virtualization umbrella:

  • Storage management: SAN and NAS.
  • Virtual operating systems: VMware’s ESX, Citrix’s XenServer and Microsoft’s Hyper-V.
  • Networking: LAN, WAN and storage networking.

This month, let’s tackle storage management. To oversimplify, there are three kinds of storage:

  • Local: A server with some internal storage or direct attached storage (DAS). New servers commonly have SCSI or SATA disks that have speeds in the 10-15K range.
  • Network-attached storage (NAS): A NAS is just a pile of disks attached to the network. It can be as simple as a single networked hard drive or as complex as a high-end storage array. NAS disks can be configured by whatever means you see fit. Consumer-grade storage with one or two disks is configured as RAID 0 or 1/0. Higher-end storage likely will be configured as RAID 5 by default or RAID 6 if huge disks (>500GB) are used.
  • Storage-area network (SAN): The SAN is the grand daddy of the storage market. SANs are high-performance systems that can spew huge input/output operations per second (IOPS). However, a cost of $500,000 to $1.5 million for a high-end system is not unusual. Low-end SANs such as LeftHand and EqualLogic can be had for tens of thousands of dollars.

Knowing how to configure local disks or NAS is convenient, but developing SAN skills is what really differentiates you from the legion of IT administrators and engineers. The basics of SAN administration are effectively the same, and there are a handful of players in this space, including EMC, NetApp, IBM, Hitachi, HP and Dell.

I recently told a SAN engineer that I am studying for a SAN certification. He told me that the question asked most frequently is not “What certifications do you have?” but “How long have you been managing storage?” Storage certifications are just assumed.

To that end, there are four main storage certification programs: Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), EMC, NetApp and LeftHand and EqualLogic (two companies, similar path).

NetApp and EMC are big dogs in the storage market. There are cost-effective alternatives to storage solutions from these vendors if the company can only afford a lap dog instead of a Great Dane. LeftHand and EqualLogic, which were bought by HP and Dell, respectively, play in the low- to mid-tier SAN space. They meet the needs of small to medium-sized businesses because the SANs grow as the needs of the company grow.

LeftHand and EqualLogic provide SANs with integrated controllers that are powerful enough to manage a shelf of disk. LeftHand offers a one-day basic SAN/iQ class with a certification test and a one-day advanced SAN/iQ class without a certification test. Dell has similar training for its EqualLogic line.

Finally, consider reading up on SAN technology before deciding to make the leap to a career in storage management. Check out Storage Area Networks for Dummies. The book is a good way to stick your toe into the storage pool without having to commit to hours of training.

Shawn Conaway, VCP, MCSE, CCA, is a director of NaSPA and editor of Virtualize! and Tech Toys magazines. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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