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5 Insider Tips To Help Start a Career in Virtualization

Updated on April 2, 2015

Start a Career in Virtualization!

So you want to start a career in server virtualization? These five virtualization career tips are from someone with nearly 20 years of hands-on IT experience. And over that time I've done a lot as a systems engineer and as an IT manager which hopefully qualifies me to write about this topic. For example:

  • engineering & building clouds
  • supporting data centers
  • handling server operations
  • being on late night incident calls
  • interviewing candidates
  • hiring technical staff (admins & engineers of all types)
  • managing nearly 50 IT professionals
  • and writing an eBook on VMware or another virtualization technology..

This information is free for anyone looking for a new career start in virtualization (or cloud) technology...

What You Should Know from the START!

1. Systems Administration for Starters

A virtualization administrator or engineer has a very different role than a system administrator, but having a background as a Windows or Linux System Administrator is a fundamental skill-set that will give you the technical understanding and hands-on experience you’ll need to understand virtual servers because they also consist of an: operating systems, IP, DNS, active directory, file structure, disk space, permissions and other things associated with supporting an OS - except running on a virtual machine. For many this tip may be a no-brainer - or - it may have been something you didn't know.

2. Know Your Hardware

Depending on how involved your current or previous system administration responsibilities are/were, having a solid understanding of server hardware is also important for a virtualization engineer. Remember, in this new role you are transforming physical infrastructure into virtual or transparent infrastructure, or in today’s words, "cloud".

Quiz: Do you know what these technical nomenclatures/brands are: Dell, HP, Super Micro, Clone, UCS, White Box, Xeon, Hex, CPU, Cores, Socket, Memory, Hard Drives, Bios, DRAC or iLo, HBA, 10Ge, NIC, Blade, Chassis, DL380 G7, R620, Rack Mounts, 2U, 3U, 4U, Local Storage, Shared Storage, RAID 5, Mirroring, PXE boot, and the list goes on and on...

Listed above are the hardware terms most virtual infrastructure people communicate about when discussing physical servers. Most, if not all, infrastructure staff learn these terms and many more – but the edge goes to the guy or gal who already speaks this language and has a deep understanding of the technology.

You can start learning more about server hardware by attending technical presentations by vendors showcasing their new products at trade shows or by scheduling onsite discussions. Most vendors are always interested in sharing information about their servers if they think it might turn into a sale. You can also visit their websites to do your own research.

3. Storage and Networking Know-How

To be proficient at virtualization, you'll need a strong understanding of storage and networking technologies, hands-on experience is even better.

Storage and networking are the two most important requirements outside a solid vSphere configuration - for building a world-class virtual infrastructure or cloud. If either of these infrastructure technologies suck, so will the user's virtual server experience!

Note: Improperly configured storage will show up once you have 20 - 50 IOP hungry VMs running on a LUN. And so will a poorly designed network that doesn't segment or QoS network traffic.

Don't Overlook Backups

Most experienced virtualization administrators have already had the pleasure of troubleshooting performance problems associated with backups running, trashing storage, and a choking network during business hours. If they haven’t, then I’m sure it’s coming or they’ll have a similar experience soon...

Honestly speaking, the only way this valuable hands-on experience is added to a skill-set is to experience it. No vendor can give this to you – it is learned. So if you are coming into virtualization from another field – say – project management or technical support, then my suggestion is to start getting engaged in the discussions that are probably already going on around you all the time related to these problems and issues.

Stop tuning out the technical talk around you!

Most good admins and engineers have open discussions at their cubicle with peers and team mates. You’ll be surprised what you can learn by just listening to the conversations going on around you – granted you are already around people supporting networks, storage and VMs.

Are you still hanging in there?

Another reason why a thorough understanding of networking and storage is important is when designing a robust virtualization solution. Storage LUN sizes, LUN ID, queue-depth, multi-path, zones, parity groups, aggregates, storage head, active-active, active-passive, redundant switches, A/B Power, 10G, fiber-channel, VLANs, multicast, 1Ge, trunked, FCOE are just a few of the more common terms that get thrown around by virtualization admins and engineers when discussing how networks and storage will converge. Learn these words and their meaning.

This covers networking and storage from 10,000' and only from a virtualization perspective, obviously taking classes or trainings in these technologies will give you a deeper technical understanding, but for anyone who is trying to break into the virtualization space my suggestion is to start now by reading technical blogs and ask a lot of questions along the way, as well as getting as much hands-on experience as possible.

4. VMware vSphere Flagship

Lets keep it simple and focus on one hypervisor technology, VMware vSphere.

vSphere is at the core of most, if not all, VMware virtual solutions that are currently being bought and installed in data centers all over the world.

If you’re lucky, you are already poking around in vCenter as a system administrator through the VIC or virtualization client. However, if you're not that fortunate and can follow instructions, then building the basic vSphere environment in a matter of days is possible if you already have the hardware. Just download the evaluation copy of vSphere on VMware's website.

VMware vSphere Training

Getting VMware training is my recommendation for a woman starting a virtualization career, followed by 100s of hours in a lab building and rebuilding, and rebuilding, vSphere until these terms make sense and actually work: HA, ESXi, vKernel, data store, vSwitch, VLAN tagging, Port Group, DRS, vMotion, Distributed Switch, vRam, VIC, vNIC, VMDK, Teaming, fail-over, Maintenance Mode, Storage vMotion, Snapshot, clone, templates, cold-clone, P2V and of course – virtual machine (VM).

Above I've listed just a few of the most common and basic virtualization terms associated with vSphere. As of VMworld 2012 (September), there were new whistles and bells added to the list. It's a lot to keep up with and just knowing about all the new shiny things VMware and 3rd party vendors are doing is not enough, you need to learn how they work, how to configure them, and how to support them operationally.

Insider Insight: Most virtualization environments are using multiple virtual technologies for storage, networking and security.

5. Beware of Ignorance, Arrogance & Hardheadedness

I’m not going to sugar coat the culture that probably exists in 80% of the places where infrastructure is built and maintained. It can be rough dealing with top-end engineers in any technology but as a virtualization administrator or engineer you get to deal with them all.

For example:

Getting storage, networking, security and Linux engineers to agree on your design of the new data center infrastructure can be more than the average person can handle, so as a newbie be prepared to have a difficult time dealing with ignorance, arrogance and hardheaded people that think nobody knows anything except them.

These prima-donnas will make it very hard to do what most virtualization engineers (including the vendor SME) would consider best practices. Now bare in mind I have been dealing with virtualization for about 7 years so my view is tarnished by run–ins with the best of the best - but on a positive note - in today’s world, most storage and network people are changing their ways and learning more about the new ways of managing their own technologies which are better suited for building virtual environments.

That said, I’m sure some poor madden will find herself at odds with the biggest jerk alive who wears Cisco-or-Redhat SWAG all the time. The other challenge will be dealing with IT staff that have never worked anywhere outside the current company, and have never been exposed to other ways of carving LUNs or setting up networks.

My suggestion for dealing with these folks is to learn to leverage their strengths, never tell them they are wrong, and suggest other ways you’d like to test, keyword “Test”…

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Some co-workers will need to see for themselves - what you say can work, or works better. Also, don’t feel bad if you need to report someone to their manager, and don’t be surprised if the manager doesn't do anything because he’s a drinking buddy of the guy you reported, or he’s a former engineer and also disagrees with you.

You will need to earn respect from these people – a title does not give you the right to change what they've been doing for years – even if their way isn't optimal. It will take blood, sweat and tears – hopefully not blood, but for the record I have cut myself racking servers by pinching-the-heck out of my fingers in the rails. :)

Summary:

Being a virtualization engineer is not easy, heck – any IT job is not easy, but especially virtualization. I've seen men cave in under the stress and go back to systems administration.

Also be forewarned, you are supposed to be the expert in this space and need to set standards and define good and best practices, but you will most likely be dealing with all the geeks from other technologies (networking, security, systems) and they will try to tell you they know a better way to do your job.

These insider insights will help you to be ready to show people (not tell them) you can do jobs like:

  • Administering Linux, speaking the language of hardware listed above, configure ESXi hosts in clusters across multiple locations on SAN storage connected with a 10Gig backbone.
  • Troubleshoot performance problems at 2AM when the phone rings because you are on-call (BTW – 24/7/365 on-call is the biggest gripe most virtualization admins have – get used to it if this is the career you want).
  • Meeting with network, storage and security people in a room, and white boarding your ideas on the solution you are proposing for the next data center (Be willing to argue your points without holding a grudge, and be open to not getting your way all the time).

Now its time to take the next step and get your resume updated... but first READ my 5 VMware resume tips so your resume will shine and get noticed above the rest.

Extra Insight - Virtualization is not Just a Man’s Job or World

A career in virtualization technology is a wide open opportunity for anyone who will put in the time to learn what it takes to become great at it.

As a bonus to what I've already written, my recommendation to any woman who wants an advantage in the virtualization (or cloud) world is to focus her efforts on becoming an expert in the area of automation. This means becoming an expert in scripting languages (Ruby, .Net, Perl, Powershell ) and writing code that allows vSphere and other cloud software to do things automatically through an API with REST commands.

The secret I'm sharing here is -- automation scripting skills are high in demand and command top salaries due to all the private and public clouds being built. These jobs also do not require as much hands on with hardware or dealing with the IT staff. Basically, someone builds the infrastructure and you create the magical code that gives customers the "Wow" of clicking an easy button and getting a VM built in seconds…

Conclusion:

This sums it up and hopefully has been informative for anyone wanting to join the ranks of virtualization. Good Luck taking the next step!

Read more hubs: Get Virtualized, Why Virtualization Fails & 10 Must Ask VMware Engineer Interview Questions, Second Interview Questions.

To find out more about the author of this post you can visit Joe's Linked in Profile.

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    • Mitchs19 profile image

      Mitch 4 years ago from Florida

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