Server Support Jobs Show Signs of Decline

September, 2013

Server consolidation, data center automation, and virtualization are all working to change the equation on optimum server support levels, and now there there is evidence that the ranks of data center employees who support servers and storage are beginning to shrink as a percentage of the IT staff.

Within our definition of server support staff, we include two categories of data center employees:

  • Systems Programmers, Engineers, and Administrators: This category includes systems administrators, programmers, and engineers, and it includes storage administrators and facility engineers.
  • Computer Operations Staff: This category includes functions in the data center environment such as computer operators, job schedulers, and production control personnel.

When viewed together, Figure 1 from our study, Server Support Staffing Ratios, shows that the two groups declined from 13.2% of the IT staff in 2010 to 10.6% in 2013. The study does not determine the cause for the decline, but viewing staffing ratios for the two groups separately provides some insight.

ServerSupportStaff Fig1 - Server Support Jobs Show Signs of Decline

Computer operations staff as a percentage of the IT staff continues to wane, as it has over the past decade. Computer operations personnel declined from 3.3% of the average IT staff in 2010 to 2.2% in 2013. The continuing decline of mainframe computing along with the automation of many data center functions has depleted the ranks of this staffing category.

Meanwhile, systems programmers, engineers, and administrators declined from an average 10.2% of the IT staff in 2011 to an average 8.4% in 2013. The decline over the two-year period is particularly significant as the ratio had been flat to rising from 2007 to 2010, during the early course of the recession.

To some degree, the decline is a reflection of growth in application development, project management, and big data positions with the renewal in capital spending. It does not necessarily signal an actual decline in the number of systems administrators, programmers, and engineers on the typical IT staff.

Over the past decade, systems administrators, programmers, and engineers have remained at a relatively constant percentage of the IT workforce. In 1997, according to our annual benchmarking study, they accounted for 9.0% of the IT staff, compared with 8.4% today. Over the same period, IT organizations have absorbed more and more computing power, and the number of servers and the amount of storage in the typical data center has continued to rise. Today the growth in physical servers is being augmented by a proliferation of virtual servers. What this means is that systems administrators have become more productive, and IT organizations have used that rising productivity to absorb more computing power. The net result is a relatively steady state for these positions.

Still, the two-year decline in this ratio may reflect a change in that steady state. Virtualization rates rose significantly over the period, from about 1.5 OS instances per physical server to 2.3 instances in 2013, as determined by the Computer Economics IT Spending and Staffing Benchmarks study. While virtual servers require administration, virtualization is accompanied by a rise in data center productivity.

Meanwhile, investment in data center automation technology and the consolidation of data centers has been ongoing. As such, the trend may finally be reflecting the start of a long-term decline in server support staffing requirements, which some analysts have been predicting. On the horizon, the rising adoption of cloud-based applications and potential for moving data center infrastructure into the cloud could accelerate this trend.

As such, benchmarking server support staffing levels with current data should be an ongoing exercise for data center managers. In the full study, we provide four key metrics for benchmarking server support staff: server support staff as a percentage of the IT staff, users per server support staff member, physical servers per server support staff member, and OS instances per server support staff member. We provide these metrics for small, midsize, and large organizations. We also assess how industry sector can influence server support staffing ratios. We conclude with recommendations for improving server support productivity.

This Research Byte is a brief overview of our report on this subject, Server Support Staffing Ratios. The full report is available at no charge for Computer Economics clients, or it may be purchased by non-clients directly from our website (click for pricing).

Do you also need staffing ratios for other IT job functions? Consider this collection of all of our staffing ratio reports, which bundles them all into a single report at a significant discount: IT Staffing Ratios–Special Report Bundle.