Whats Needed to Improve Storage Networking Education?

A CIS educator runs down current barriers to SAN programs in higher education. The dearth of classes doesn't mean there's no interest at colleges and universities. It's a matter of resources.

Editors Note: This guest opinion is offered by Pat Fenton, the chairman of the Computer and Information Systems Department at a college in the Silicon Valley. He addresses a recent column by eWEEK.com Storage Center Editor David Morgenstern, which noted the lack of university classes on the field of storage area networking.

The failure of higher education to offer courses on SAN, or for that matter on any other evolving information technology, technique or trend, is not for lack of interest. Rather, theres a more a significant stumbling block: resources (meaning time, staff and money). Or its lack.

When the craze for certification started with Novell education in schools, a very important intellectual debate arose within the education community: Should academic institutions effectively endorse a manufacturers product or service by offering exclusive training? Educators asked could equally valid training, and even more importantly an entire educational curriculum, be developed vendor-free?

Many of us, myself included, recognized the demand by students for the certification, what they then rightly viewed as a ticket to job placement, and many schools followed with classes in Novell Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Cisco System Inc. architectures and products. The Computing Technology Industry Association attempted to define an industry-based, rather than vendor-based, certification process, but it does not seem to have fully taken flight.

Now, many in higher education are wary of the whole certification trend. Though I have not examined the Storage Networking Certification Program from SNIA, let me speculate on it. The program probably has guidelines and requirements for equipping classrooms, training and certifying the instructors, software and hardware uniquely required and configured to do hands-on labs, and certification testing.

Each certification program has just enough uniqueness to require a significant investment by the school in order to teach the program.

For example, not long ago, I wished to expand our Unix offerings and investigated Red Hat Inc.s training program, which they were touting to colleges such as mine. The Red Hat representative enthusiastically told me how the program would benefit the college, how my students would succeed, how many jobs were waiting, and so on.

When I pressed him for start-up details, the rep mentioned that there was a "minor investment" of approximately $37,000, plus an annual fee schedule that would cost approximately $19,000. This payment would be on top of whatever the college would need to invest in specific hardware to support the program. In addition, we would have to send two or more instructors for training and certification—at our expense—to the Red Hat facility.

When I suggested that these expenses were quite a burden for a state-funded community college, the Red Hat rep countered with the idea we should charge our students a fee and that we could administer the certification testing and receive a fee for that service.

Well, in California, thats a tricky proposition as we are generally allowed only to charge tuition per a state regulation and additional fees are a very troublesome issue. Furthermore, the numbers of students we could handle—at best perhaps two classes per semester and another during the summer months for a total of 150 students—would result in a very small pool in which to amortize costs.

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-Melllons 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.

For far too long, this country has sent high technology manufacturing overseas, especially in electronics sector, where it is "cheaper" to assemble and build a machine. The effect is that now we dont do it here. The complaint we often hear is that we dont have the trained people here in the States. In fact, we shipped all the opportunity out of the country, training the population in other nations, and now we dont have it here.

This same trend appears in the computing industry where employers decry the lack of skills of our graduates, yet fail to invest in programs to make them productive. It was far too easy to appeal for a broadening of H-1B visa programs than to invest in our own citizens. Now, when those jobs have vanished in the down economy, software engineering has migrated, along with the skilled workers, back to places like India, to the lessening of opportunities here.

As the department chair for CIS in my college, located in the heart of Californias Silicon Valley, I would very much like to see us expand our technology base, to offer more employable training, to have several tracks of skills development. In California, with the states abysmal budget and the deleterious effect upon education that has wrought, theres precious little money to even maintain the classes we currently offer.

How would we possibly take on SAN, or any other new program with the attendant investment? If the industry valued it, we could do it, but it is time the industry started paying for what it says it needs, rather than complaining that we are not interested.

Pat Fenton is the chair of the Computer and Information Systems Department at West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif. He is the author of a number of college texts on computing and has developed both academic and commercial training programs. Prior to teaching he worked as a financial officer in a number of companies in the electronics industry.