Storage Education Still on Hold

A trio of professors sound off on the barriers to storage curriculum in higher education. A move to more courses may wait on industry support or other outside influences, like the economic upturn.

The current state of storage education can only be described as "not in attendance," with only a few courses offered by colleges and universities across the United States. So where are the classes in storage area networking? Or more to the point, whats preventing them from being offered?

I discussed this in a recent column, and a number of academics in the field responded. Some pointed to internal factors within the ivory tower that prevent instruction on storage, while others decried the lack of support from the storage industry itself.

Here are a few of their responses:

  • Ed Anthony, the founding director of the Trevecca Institute of Computer Information Technology at Trevecca Nazarene University, pointed to a lack of communication between higher education and the enterprise about curriculum.

"Institutions of higher education have been slow in keeping up with what industry currently needs," Anthony said. "It would seem that if institutions were truly involved in the industry that the need for education in the area of SANs would have been known or anticipated."

"Of course, I have found the reverse is true, as well. That is, if industry is not involved in higher education—letting institutions know what is needed for their organizations and what trends they see occurring— then schools will not be offering education related to their areas of need."

"These two points together emphasize the need, not only for cooperation, but a joint understanding of what is needed by industry and what is being provided by the institutions of higher education. Im sure many companies will be just as surprised as you that there is little if any education in SANs," Anthony said.

He also mentioned another barrier to SAN coursework: the growing time gap between when the market discovers it needs trained professionals and how long it takes education to create the training programs to address that shortfall.

"Some universities, due to overly long approval processes or other institutional issues, are unable to respond quickly enough to industry needs. By the time academia catches up, the needs have already changed," he added.

  • Pat Fenton, the chair of the Computer and Information Systems Department at West Valley College, described barriers to the development of certification programs, and misunderstandings when dealing with vendors.

"The investment expenses proposed for these vendor programs do not seem to take into account that institutions of higher learning are generally not profit-making concerns. Now, when a commercial training enterprise invests in a program, it can be calculated as a business proposition with a proposed return."

"But we do not have the same parameters. Our return is the numbers of students who graduate and go on to lead a productive life in their chosen career; theres no monetary return to the institution for this."

"While I dont propose that we make a profit on graduation, the technology industry must begin to realize that if they desire trained employees, then they need to help fund the training opportunities. Their tendency is to complain that schools need to recognize the needs of industry. But industry must realize the limited resources we have to fund that type of education, and high-tech training tends to be an expensive proposition."

"If the Storage Networking Industry Association, or any other industry organization, truly wants to encourage the adoption of specific technical training in higher education—and not just in the Stanfords, MITs or Carnegie-Mellons of the country—then they must support it. They need to fund the training; donate the software; find ways to underwrite expenses for equipment and instructor certification; and very importantly, assign some industry experts to mentor and assist the schools in bringing the programs into being."

  • One of the few classes offered is at Carnegie Mellon University. Greg Ganger, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and computer science, offers a yearly class in storage, covering everything from the hard disk platter to the SAN server.

"Indeed, I think Universities do a poor job of treating storage as a first-class topic and educating future engineers and IT staff. As a result, companies have to try to teach them after-the-fact," Ganger said. "A few other schools now teach a similar class, building on our material, and I continue to work on the (very needed) textbook for it. One of these days, well get there."

While Im glad to read of Gangers courses and his future course materials, the need for trained storage admins and architects is immediate (and no doubt in some undetermined time when the textbook is finished and more classes are offered).

As mentioned by the professors, developing a technology educational program when its most needed—at the beginning of the product lifecycle—is very difficult. The required hardware is expensive and based on often evolving standards; and the curriculum needs to be developed from scratch. And industry support may be focused inwards, to support particular companies or architectures.

Worse, educations customers may offer mixed messages, since theyre focused more on fixing current problems, not next years. The leaders of companies that should hire trained students may not yet see the need for that education.

This all sounds very familiar. Like your usual CFO, the higher education administrator has had difficulty finding the return on investment in a nascent market such as storage networking. Especially, in the recent tough economic times.

Whats needed is vision to balance that ROI mindset. That may come from the schools or more likely, from the industry. The current situation must change, and soon. Storage Center Editor David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dot-com boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.

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