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Alorie Gilbert

Staff Writer, CNET

Tech workers take note: A steady stream of advances in data center technology could make your job obsolete over the next decade or so.

At least that was the message this week from technology researcher Gartner during a conference in Las Vegas. Gartner analyst Donna Scott predicted that over the next 20 years, changes in computing technology will erase the need for much of the work that employs information technology staff today.

Among the tasks on the way out are the administration and maintenance of computer hardware, software and networks, as well as help desk work, Scott said. By 2024, companies will employ half the number of people they do today in these areas, she predicted. More than half the staff in the average IT department is tasked with such duties today.

Driving this shift are numerous technology developments leading toward what Scott called “real-time infrastructure.” That’s Gartner’s vision of the less labor-intensive data center of the future, in which more-advanced machines and equipment administer themselves, automatically diagnosing and fixing problems, and allocating computer resources as needed.

On the bright side, Gartner predicts that jobs in IT systems design, development and project management will pick up some of the slack. The researcher advises companies to groom their best workers for these jobs.

“As IT becomes more standardized and automated, identify your agile employees and invest in them, providing new roles and education,” Scott’s presentation notes said.

In the short term, job prospects are looking brighter for IT workers, according to a recent Merrill Lynch survey. Chief information officers in the United States and Europe plan to increase their IT staff rosters next year, according to the November report. In addition, online ads for tech jobs have increased, and IT services companies have been hiring.

In the long run, though, the cost of running data centers will fall dramatically as fewer workers are needed for their upkeep, Scott noted. But lower labor costs aren’t the only reason for the predicted decline in data center costs, she said. Companies will make more efficient use of central computers, requiring fewer and fewer machines for an equivalent amount of data crunching. “Virtualization,” technology that enables computers to be pooled more easily into a single resource, will make that possible, she said.

“Companies could require as much as 40 percent less server processing power, which would have dramatic ramifications for the server market and server vendors,” Scott’s notes said.

Data center budgets could fall by between 13 percent and 37 percent, depending on the type of computers used, with the cost of running Microsoft Windows servers declining the most, Gartner predicted.