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On Becoming a Virtualization Professional

I've been a VMware® evangelist and virtualization advocate for a decade. Even before I first started using VMware—by accident, I'll admit—I've had the (dis?)advantage of wearing many hats in IT. In that time, I've had many opportunities to work with men and women who are responsible for VMware and competing virtualization environments.* Based on these experiences, I've come to a conclusion—in a completely subjective, non-scientific way—that, regardless of how they describe themselves, some are true virtualization pros while others are not. I’ll admit that it’s a pretty subjective standard, but it reflects the measuring stick that I apply to myself; I hope it can also be a meaningful reference for someone wanting to start a career in IT, or looking to transition into virtualization from what he or she is already doing in IT. So, what is my criteria, and why distinguish? Considering that virtualization as we know it today is short for x86 hardware virtualization, and the most powerful feature of enterprise virtualization is not just the abstraction of compute/memory but also storage and networking as well, the True Virtualization Professional (TVP) is not just a server jockey who started using vSphere™ to consolidate workloads. Of course, the TVP will understand the chosen virtualization platform: in addition to daily operations like managing VMs and hosts, he or she understands the underlying technologies that give us features like vMotion®, including, for example, why it doesn’t work between Intel®- and AMD-based hardware, but how, with specific configurations, it can work fine between several different generations of like-vendor hardware. A true virtualization professional will also understand storage: shared vs. direct-attached; block vs. file; FC vs. iSCSI; spinning-disk vs. solid-state. Unlike a basic server admin who might not get deep into the nuances of fabric management, or the design and architecture of a particular storage platform, the TVP not only understands enough of the lexicon to communicate with the storage professionals in the organization, he or she has the ability to perform basic, day-to-day administration of network-based storage platforms. Similarly, a TVP will understand Ethernet networking: trunks, LAGs, VLANs, OSI 7-layer model, etc. He or she might not get into the nuances of when BGP is used versus OSPF, not to mention how one would go about designing or configuring such extended data center technologies, but he or she will know how to compare switchport configurations against readily available reference material, as well as how to duplicate configurations on like systems. Finally, on the technical side, a true virtualization professional knows how to program! I’m not necessarily talking about having the ability to write kernel modules or create mobile apps, although if that’s a skill you already have, by all means keep it current. What I'm talking about is having the ability to attack the basics of coding, control and data structures, program design, and execution. IT in general, and virtualization in particular, is moving toward greater and greater levels of automation, and these basic skills can be applied to any programming language, including the scripting or interpreted languages that are often the basis for automation systems. When you know the basics of writing algorithms, it’s fairly easy to transfer them into programming language. If you stick with a single language without understanding how to create programs from abstract algorithms, you’ll have a tougher time in both the language you’re trying to master, as well as any other language you attempt to pick up. There’s also a non-technical skill that the best virtualization pros I know possess, for which any tech pro should strive to become proficient: communication. And I don’t mean just the written word. I also mean having the nerve to speak in front of groups of people, either as a solo presenter or as a member of a panel. Server, network, storage, and virtualization can be interesting in detail, but unless you’re able to effectively communicate with your co-workers, both inside and outside of your department or work group, you’ll be missing opportunities to share and inform. In short, I assert that the true virtualization professional is an IT Jack of all trades, master of some. How do you become a TVP? Take classes. Read books. Practice what you learn in a lab (technical) or usergroup (communication) and get feedback from friends. Connect with a mentor who is willing to share his or her experience and wisdom. The key is to expand your knowledge so that it covers a number of broad topics, while still maintaining a specialization on one or two specific ones. *For the purposes of this post, I’ll continue to use VMware when referring to Enterprise virtualization technologies. It’s not that others don’t exist, it’s simply that vSphere is the 800-lb. gorilla and market leader. Choosing to specialize in a different hypervisor technology isn’t a bad idea. It’s all part of the master of some strategy I mentioned. But not knowing anything about VMware is tantamount to being a route/switch professional and knowing nothing about Cisco® IOS®.
Jim Millard
Jim Millard is a "hybrid" pre- and post-sale Engineer for OneNeck IT Solutions’ Systems Engineering group following 20+ years on the customer side of the…
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