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IT Skills Development: Top 10 Essential IT Skills

With the rapid pace of technology development and changes in business processes—and a lousy economic background—it’s more essential than ever to keep your IT skills top-notch.

Brien Posey

After two decades of working in IT, I can honestly say this profession has changed more in the last few years than ever before. Some of these changes have been advances in technology, while others have been spurred by government regulations.

Whatever the reason, IT is almost unrecognizable from what it was even five years ago. So how is an IT professional supposed to keep up with all these changes? It isn’t easy, but there are certain skills you should be focusing on to ensure you don’t get left behind. Here’s a look at the top 10 essential IT skills for today.

1. Windows PowerShell

A thorough understanding of Windows PowerShell is essential because it’s starting to show up in more and more Microsoft products. For example, in both Exchange Server 2007 and Exchange Server 2010, the GUI-based management tool is built on top of Windows PowerShell. This means that any administrative action you can do from the GUI, you can also do from the command line or through a Windows PowerShell script.

The simple fact that you can use Windows PowerShell to administer various Microsoft server products isn’t enough to qualify Windows PowerShell as an essential skill set. The real reason learning Windows PowerShell is essential is because the GUI-based management in many of the newer Microsoft server products is only sufficient for performing basic administrative functions. Anything beyond the basics, you’ll need to do from the command line. As such, it’s increasingly difficult to be an effective administrator unless you understand and know how to effectively use Windows PowerShell.

2. Server Virtualization

There’s practically no denying that almost every organization uses server virtualization to a certain degree. Therefore, understanding how server virtualization works is an essential skill for any network administrator.

There are quite a few different server virtualization products on the market. You don’t need to learn the ins and outs of every single one, but it’s important to achieve competency with at least two different server virtualization platforms. Learning at least two platforms will help you understand how server virtualization really works and get a good feel for the standard features and functions of the various virtualization products.

Server virtualization is a science in and of itself. There are IT professionals whose entire careers are based on server virtualization. While it’s unrealistic to expect a general network administrator to have a comprehensive understanding of server virtualization, it’s a good idea to understand resource allocation, how to virtualize a physical server, and how to manage and maintain your virtual servers.

3. Failover Clustering

Failover clustering has been around for years in one form or another. Even so, it has only recently evolved into an essential technology. While it obviously adds fault tolerance to network servers, there are a couple of additional factors that suggest failover clustering has become essential.

First, most major organizations impose Service Level Agreements (SLAs) on their IT departments. The only way IT can realistically expect to adhere to those SLAs is by putting redundant solutions in place.

Another reason failover clustering has become essential is the rampant use of server virtualization. In the old days, if a server were to fail, the outage probably wouldn’t amount to much more than a nuisance. These days, because most organizations use server virtualization technology, the failure of a single server could cause the failure of many virtual servers. As such, server failures are far more critical than ever before, so it’s important to take steps to prevent them.

The decline in server hardware prices is one last reason failover clustering has become an essential skill. For a long time, clustering solutions were cost-prohibitive. Today, server hardware is relatively inexpensive, so there’s no reason not to cluster your servers.

4. SAN Management

Another critical IT skill is storage area network (SAN) management. It was debatable whether to include SAN storage on a list of essential IT skills. After all, SANs are expensive and learning about SAN storage may not be essential for administrators in smaller organizations who will most likely never have to even touch a SAN.

While this is a valid point, it has started to become far less common for servers to use direct-attached storage. Instead, multiple servers often connect to a single storage pool. This is especially true for organizations that rely heavily on server virtualization.

All of the virtualization hosts in my organization store the virtual hard drive files associated with virtual servers residing on those machines on a centralized storage array. Even though I don’t use a SAN, many of the storage management techniques I do use are similar to the techniques used in larger environments that make use of SANs.

Another reason to include SAN storage on the list is because cloud-based storage was a major topic at Tech•Ed this year. Almost all of the cloud storage providers are operating SANs. If you subscribe to cloud-based storage, you may end up having to know some basic storage management techniques.

5. Compliance

Many IT professionals hate dealing with compliance issues. For many years, some could avoid having to deal with regulatory compliance by simply avoiding companies within certain industries. Today, that strategy no longer works.

One reason the strategy doesn’t work anymore is because jobs have become so scarce. IT professionals who previously avoided working in heavily regulated industries may suddenly find themselves having to work in such an environment. If this happens, then it’s essential you have at least some background in IT compliance.

Another reason why it’s become more difficult to avoid dealing with compliance issues is the predominance of more laws. Just a few days ago, for example, a huge financial reform bill was passed. It remains to be seen how all of the new regulatory requirements will impact IT professionals. Even if you don’t work in the financial services industry, however, there’s no denying that IT professionals are having to deal with more and more regulatory issues from one year to the next.

6. Recovery Techniques

Probably the strangest-sounding skill on this list is recovery techniques. However, there’s actually a good reason why recovery techniques are an essential IT skill. Disaster recovery used to be a lot simpler than it is now. A few years back for instance, disaster recovery might have involved inserting a tape, selecting the files that needed to be recovered, and clicking Go.

Today, things aren’t quite so simple. Almost every Microsoft server product has its own unique disaster recovery requirements. For example, you wouldn’t use the same techniques to back up and restore Exchange Server as you would use to back up and restore SharePoint. Server products such as Exchange, SharePoint and SQL Server all have very complex rules governing the way information must be backed up and restored in order to be successful. Furthermore, these criteria can change dramatically if the server that’s being backed up or restored is a part of a failover cluster or a distributed deployment.

Realistically, most IT professionals probably aren’t going to be intimately familiar with all of the intricate requirements associated with backing up and recovering various server products. Even so, it’s important to understand that such products have unique requirements. It’s equally important for IT pros to familiarize themselves with those requirements.

7. Traffic Management

For a long time, traffic management meant setting up firewalls to forward certain types of traffic to specific servers, while blocking other types of traffic. Those types of configurations are still important, but traffic management is going to take on a different meaning and become much more critical in the not-too-distant future.

Eventually, most applications will likely run in the cloud. That means not many applications will be installed locally. As that scenario develops, organizations will find Internet bandwidth has become a scarce commodity. They’ll have little choice but to begin various bandwidth-throttling techniques. Realistically though, you can throttle different applications in different ways. After all, some applications are more critical or of a higher priority than others. The need for prioritizing cloud-based applications will require IT pros to learn all about traffic shaping.

8. IPv6

Another essential skill IT professionals will need to learn is IPv6. Microsoft tried to push IPv6 when Windows 2000 was released more than 10 years ago, but there’s a good reason why it didn’t turn into a mainstream technology a decade ago.

Back then, the dot-com boom was in full swing and people were attaching to the Internet in record numbers. This resulted in a critical shortage of IP addresses. Many believed this shortage could only be solved by transitioning to IPv6, but the problem was ultimately solved by Network Address Translation (NAT)-based firewalls.

NAT firewalls are still widely used today, but it seems NAT was a Band-Aid solution for a problem that will rear its ugly head once again in the near future. NAT works great as long as the computers behind the firewall don’t need access to the outside world. More often, however, people expect universal connectivity regardless of a computer’s location.

IPv6 solves the IP address shortage, and gives every computer a publicly accessible IP address. Furthermore, IPv6 includes security mechanisms that don’t exist in IPv4 without the aid of supplementary protocols such as IPSec.

9. Conferencing

Given the state of the economy, more organizations have begun foregoing travel in favor of online meetings. These online meetings take many different forms. It may be nothing more than a voice over IP (VoIP) conference call, or it may involve a video conference, or even a full-blown collaborative session. In any case, administrators are often surprised to learn that if they want to implement conferencing servers in-house, they have to learn about things that only telephony professionals previously cared about.

Last year, I wrote a book called “Brien Posey’s Guide to Practical Telecommunications.” The idea was to blend technologies like Exchange Server and Office Communications Server into a full-blown collaborative conferencing solution. While writing the book, I was forced to learn about things like call routing, normalization strings for telephone numbers and the Session Initialization Protocol. All of these technologies were more or less foreign to me a few years ago. Today, however, they’re things I work with on a regular basis.

10. Mobile Computing

The last essential skill is mobile computing. Even though mobile computing has been around in one form or another for at least 15 years, it has only been recently that people are really starting to take it seriously. Many mobile devices have come and gone. Ultimately, most have never really caught on with the masses. There are always factors holding back widespread adoption.

Some of the devices were too expensive. Others were overly complicated. Some devices simply did not have the computing power or the applications required for them to be truly useful. Expensive data rate plans also have contributed to the demise of many a device.

But today, almost everyone has a smartphone of some sort. Modern smartphones are inexpensive, well-connected and capable of running a wide variety of applications. As such, mobile-device connectivity to corporate networks has become a major issue. It’s important for IT professionals to understand the security implications associated with mobile-device use, as well as the safeguards required when allowing employees to use mobile devices.

Brian Posey
Brien Posey, MVP, is a freelance technical author with thousands of articles and dozens of books to his credit. You can visit Brien’s Web site at brienposey.com.

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