Automation can create job loss: analysts

While IT spending is on the rise, high-tech workers shouldn’t expect to see a similar increase in overall IT jobs, as new technologies to automate and virtualize data centre resources could make some network administration skills obsolete.

When pointing fingers about the lack of IT jobs of late, workers and industry watchers often blame offshore outsourcing, but in fact, new technology could share the blame. AMR Research Inc., Forrester Research Inc. and Gartner Inc. separately report that server consolidation; network, server and storage virtualization; and product road maps toward utility computing ultimately will lessen the need to add entry-level positions in enterprise data centres. And, in some cases, emerging IT implementations could result in layoffs.

“Any time you automate IT tasks, the goal is to reduce the number of people doing it,” says Lance Travis, vice president at AMR. “The theory is these types of technologies will make enterprise companies more efficient and save money, and one way to do that is by reducing staff.”

Utility computing initiatives from companies such as EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. propose to help reduce the number of physical servers in data centres, virtualize multiple instances of servers and applications on one box, and pool network, storage and server resources to be automatically distributed as applications and end users demand. These product capabilities could reduce the need for an army of IT workers on hand.

Yet such technology visions aren’t yet a reality, says Travis, who adds, “There is no immediate cause for concern; full-blown deployment of these data centres is years away.”

Scott Hopkins, vice-president of technology services and planning at Harte-Hanks Data Technologies Inc. in Billerica, Mass., says new technologies will make low-level IT jobs a thing of the past. But IT workers should see data centre advances as a chance to expand their knowledge and add new skills to their resumes.

Growth opportunities

“I see new data centre technology as a growth opportunity for individuals to get a bigger and more global view of how technology supports the business,” he says.

Hopkins virtualizes network, server and storage resources, and considers server consolidation an ongoing IT project — his most recent effort let him reduce a mix of Windows and Linux data centre servers by 20 to 30 per cent. In the Billerica data centre, Harte-Hanks has about 47 Unix-based Sun Solaris heavy-production servers, one mainframe and a few hundred Windows and Linux servers. That location has about 45 to 50TB of storage.

He plans to upgrade when products that support a more dynamic data centre emerge. To get ready for this change, staff will need training in virtualization and automation tools so they work in concert with the network, storage, application and business groups to deliver an optimized IT service.

“You can retrain and refocus people to move from being pure technologists to adopting a more customer-oriented approach to IT,” he says.

A need to adapt

But not all data centre staff will evolve with the technology. “It can be difficult and traumatic for those familiar with only one type of computing or resistant to change. And they could lose their jobs if they can’t adapt,” Hopkins says.

Current data centre operations exist mostly in silos, or buckets of technology, such as network, server, storage and applications. Future data centre implementations will, in theory, use products that can scale across the silos, which in turn change job requirements for data centre staff. Industry watchers say that while fewer staff will be needed for redundant, day-to-day tasks, products can’t replace human intelligence and experience.

“There may not be a big demand for workers to swap storage tapes or roll out a new server, but there will always be a need for the human, gut reaction to IT events,” AMR’s Travis says.

Paul Little agrees. As configuration manager at Fidelity Information Services, a division of Fidelity National Financial Inc. in San Diego, he uses virtualization tools from VMware (acquired by EMC) and Softricity, respectively. VMware reduces the number of physical servers in his data centre, letting Little run about 20 to 30 virtual servers in a 500-square-foot data centre that houses about 100 Windows, AS/400 and Unix servers.

Little deployed Softricity because it lets him run and maintain multiple instances and versions of Fidelity Information Services’ applications on fewer servers. It also lets users access more applications without the risk of them changing applications or using the wrong version. Little also is evaluating storage-area networks to centralize storage resources, which is another way to cut costs and boost operational efficiency.

Fidelity Information Services’ forays into virtualization have reduced the need to add more physical servers, trimmed hardware maintenance costs and made parts of application and server rollouts easier, but Little says the new data centre technologies have yet to let him leave work early. In fact, he adds that managing multiple servers on one box and several instances of virtualized applications adds to the complexity of his job.

“You still have an operating system, and you still have to install and maintain everything else you need,” Little says. “We’ve accelerated the installation process so we don’t have to do the same task 100 times, but we still have to spend the time to do it right once.”

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