Periodically, the IT industry gets fixated on technologies, approaches or 'themes' that seem to come out of nowhere, totally rule our lives for a while, then disappear into the mainstream - think client / server, Object Oriented Programming, web services, ERP and so on.
Without question, this year's candidate for 'The Church Of What's Happening Now' has to be virtualisation - the transformation of multiple hardware devices and software applications into more large-grain, 'virtual' instances.
In February, IT analyst group Gartner predicted the worldwide virtualisation market will go up a massive 43 per cent this year, to $2.7bn (£1.7bn) from 2008's $1.9bn (£1.2bn), citing customer interest in 'the need to reduce the total cost of ownership, enhance the agility and speed of deployment of IT needs and minimise carbon footprint' as the main drivers behind the growth.
'Virtualisation helps organisations to cut costs, better utilise assets and reduce implementation and management time and complexity, all of which are crucial in this economic environment,' believes Alan Dayley, Research Director at the group.
Within that global figure, sales of server virtualisation tools alone will grow 42 per cent, the biggest area of increase, and there is no doubt that the 'Big Three' virtualisation suppliers in that area - VMWare, Citrix and new, but of course extremely credible, entrant Microsoft - are all set to continue to do very well as a result.
'Virtualisation is becoming mainstream', argues the group manager for UK partner skills development at Microsoft UK Garry Corcoran. 'We see real benefits for IT folk in customers and partners undertaking these certifications. It benefits them and also tells their community, "I know this".'
As a consequence, IT professionals with virtualisation skills are in high demand - and there seems to be a real case for arguing virtualisation-related industry qualifications are also of growing value to holders.
For instance, US IT recruitment trend commentators Foote Partners regularly monitor the most in demand, or in its terms 'hot' certifications (it tracks over 370): in April it listed the new Citrix version of the Citrix Certified Integration Architect (CCIA) qualification for virtualisation at number three in that category - and also put virtualisation (of all sorts) as highest category in non-certified highest-paid IT jobs for the period studied.
There is even a suggestion that virtualisation is to some extent recession-proof. Dice.com, another US jobs site, reported that the number of jobs for general virtualisation skills advertised from January 2008 through the first week of November 2008 increased by 37 per cent, even while for the same period the total job count was down 12, for instance.
In the UK, in January the National Computing Centre's (NCC) annual IT salary survey predicted that virtualisation as well as skills in .Net, C#, ITIL®, SQL and project management would be in high demand in 2009.
'They used to say no-one got fired for buying IBM,' jokes Janet Way, Sales and Marketing Director for IT training firm Global Knowledge. 'Now it's almost like you can't go wrong if you are getting into virtualisation. There's a lot of interest from customers who want to see if it can meet their twin current drives to save budget and also delivery of green IT.'
So how should IT professional react - should I just learn Citrix, for example, is it the 'only game in town'? Far from it - it turns out virtualisation is a much more complex area than that.
For its part, Gartner puts VMWare as the 'dominant vendor' in virtualisation - but also believes that by 2013 at least it will be facing stiff competition from Microsoft with its Hyper-V family of virtualisation products, especially among SME customers.
But it also cites suppliers as diverse as CA, HP, IBM / Tivoli and HP as players in the category as a whole, underlying the diversity of what is sometimes meant when people say something has been 'virtualised'; it can mean a lot more than just using one of the VMWare, Citrix or Microsoft suites.
Yet undoubtedly those companies are the one seeing the biggest amount of interest from customers. So what is available, qualification-wise, from them?
When we last looked at the skills market around virtualisation (March 2008) VMWare was very keen to talk up its imminent high-end certification, the VMWare Certified Design Expert (VCDX ), which it was situating as quite distinct from the more widely held VCP (VMWare Certified Professional).
But - we are sure for non-sinister reasons, as the VCDX is still being advertised - in 2009 VMWare only wants us to talk about two things, VCP and vSphere, its 'cloud operating system' release, announced in April and now generally available, a piece of software characterised by Chris Hammans, Regional Director for the UK and Ireland at the company, as 'meaning that more “tier one” software applications can finally start to be virtualised'.
As vSphere comes on-stream, doubtless such hype will become justified. In the meantime, the VCP accreditation based more on the existing product set is where the education action is, as Hammans acknowledges: ‘The industry sees this as very sought-after certification, as it gives the individual great potential to further their IT career.'
That may seem a strong claim. But then look at the value placed on the VCP by the IT team at The Pensions Regulator, a Brighton-based, non-governmental agency that regulates all work-based pension schemes in the UK. 'I don't see any other certifications anywhere near the level of the VCP, nor as highly regarded,' says Ray Heffer, Technical Infrastructure Manager. 'The VCP is the foundation for what we're doing here as a team.'
Neither had a problem with the fact that, to get the VCP, candidates must pass the vendor's own four-day residential course (which their employer covered cost-wise), with Heffer noting how it had been 'really good on storage and building my knowledge base there'.
'What was really good about the training was that it wasn't all self-paced and per exams, it was really useful face to face training,' adds his colleague Trevor Beck, Technical Infrastructure Specialist. 'I wanted this qualification for both my CV and my skill-set.'
From the IT training company delivery perspective, VMWare training partner Global Knowledge, a VMWare Authorised Training Centre, reports growing demand for the VCP. 'It's a key area of growth for us as a business,' says Way.
So what's going on with the other two - Citrix and Microsoft?
'As virtualisation becomes more pervasive and truly "end to end," certification is also becoming more vital,' says David Taylor, Citrix’s European Senior Director of consulting and education. 'As a result we are making sure we are also going to market with a full end to end certification stack to match.'
Citrix has four main products in this area: the Citrix XenApp (for application virtualisation), XenServer (for server), XenDesktop (possibly not a surprise for keener readers, for desktop) and Citrix NetScaler, which is more network-oriented.
It has in consequence three tiers of virtualisation certifications: Citrix Certified Administrator (CCA), Citrix Certified Enterprise Engineer (CCEE) and Citrix Certified Integration Architect (CCIA).
The company has just (May 2009) announced a revamp where the CCEE and CCIA have been extended to cover XenServer and XenDesktop and not just the XenApp software, hence the claim that the new versions of these well-established certifications are now re-tooled for the bigger virtualisation picture.
'Citrix is definitely picking up in terms of interest,' confirms Kevin Ray, Trainer and Consultant at IT training giant QA.
As for Microsoft, which it must be stressed is relatively new into virtualisation - version 1 of its Hyper-V product only came out last autumn - the company in the UK tells us it is running a number of courses for partners over the next few weeks, has 'considerable on-line content for partners and customers' and has a new certification programme for server and desktop virtualisation available. 'At the moment we are seeing more interest from customers in pure Hyper-V or virtualisation training, less on the certification side,' says Ray.
So when it comes to virtualisation, VMWare is streets ahead, Citrix doing ok and Microsoft getting the wooden spoon? It needs to be made clear that that's far too simplistic. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, and a lot of IT trainers say clients are less interested in just one vendor's story than virtualisation in general, and indeed are pretty ecumenical when it comes to virtualisation certification.
'Customers use a variety of suppliers in this area and we see as much interest in training from all three as just one,' notes Ray. 'We are doing as much new VMWare training as Citrix, for instance, and customers do use both.'
Global Knowledge supports all three vendors' education stories, with Way pointing out: 'There are many very mixed environments, with a lot of the uptake in certification for VMWare and Citrix being driven by their very strong channel delivery models, which isn't so true of the Microsoft product.'
So there is no sense that we've reached any kind of 'lock-in around virtualisation and so no need to pick one horse solely at the exclusion of the others, and this is to some extent acknowledged by the suppliers themselves: 'The technology is becoming very broad now as it's becoming more mainstream,' says VMWare's Hammans.
Ray even goes so far as to wonder if what the IT user community really needs is some sort of generic, cross-vendor virtualisation qualification, 'as there would definitely be some benefit'.
That may be a bit idealistic given the realities of the IT market. Yet what can't be doubted is that virtualisation of some stripe is almost doubtlessly a reality in your organisation - and the good news is there are strong resources, education stacks and training paths available for both IT professionals and development teams out there.
There's nothing 'virtual' about virtualisation training, it seems.
Details of all the Citrix education and certification services, including the updated virtualised versions of the Citrix Certified Integration Architect and Citrix Certified Enterprise Engineer qualifications: www.citrixtraining.com
The new VMWare Cloud Computing product, vSphere: www.VMWare.com/products/vsphere