Distinctly data centres

What makes data centre techies different from their enterprise IT counterparts? E&T reports on the emergence of a converged professional profile.

The data centres sector remains a good place to be, despite the economic contraction that is crimping other aspects of IT expenditure. Growth continues among carrier-neutral co-location operators in the European market, with three of the largest providers - Equinix, Interxion, and TeleCity - all intending to increase technical data centre footprints through new developments, as well as continuing to build-out existing facilities ready for occupation. Smaller players are also reporting unflagging demand, and big self-provisioning players like Google are still augmenting their global data centre assets.

Concomitant with this success comes the question of staffing: data centres do not run themselves, and while their expansion is driving demand for technologists with the skills and competences that they require, the growth is also bringing notions of professionalism into sharper focus. Data centre personnel are commonly perceived as coming from the ICT industry, but the skills and competences required to operate in both businesses are different and distinct.

Data centres are increasingly complex environments where the needs of the computing element must be properly integrated with support technologies, such as cooling and ventilation, power supply, and physical security, for instance. And, because of the holistic way in which these elements must co-exist, the staff must possess a working knowledge of the main components in the mix.

This is not knowledge that can be acquired by dint of rote; and although specialist training in data centre management exists, there are no independent, industry-wide standards for such training. With data centres playing an ever-more important part in underpinning national economies, arguments in favour of greater formalisation of the profession are being aired.

The roles and responsibilities of a data centre personnel define their function, and also confer a sense of identity that seems destined to inform an emerging professional profile that they share. Events like DatacenterDynamics and Data Centre World are also helping to shape this profile.

"The role of a data centre professional has changed," declares Grant Bilbow, VP product management at Global DataCenter Management (GDCM). "Traditionally it was that of a 'racker and stacker', being told to place and cable a certain piece of equipment. Due to increased virtualisation, the role is now transforming into more of a critical role for delivering and maintaining a service and managing the capacity within the data centre." But are these skills that Bilbow delineates distinct?

"One could argue that they are becoming more blurred," he says, "as there is now increasingly a cross over between facilities management, capacity management, service delivery management, and data centre management."

Bilbow believes that the skills required to perform these types of tasks are expanding to becoming more analytical rather than physical - another by-effect of rampant virtualisation. And the role is being further challenged by critical questions such as how to increase the capacity of the existing environment while reducing costs.

Role bifurcation

A divide remains between two typical types of data centre professionals who have distinct, but different, roles, says Alex Rabbetts, managing director at Migration Solutions. "The first role is that of the data centre IT manager - who takes on the responsibility for all of the technology in the data centre, and is very much focused on IT," he says. "The second is the data centre facility manager - they are responsible for the infrastructure in the data centre such as power, cooling and protection."

While these two roles remain distinct from each other, there is a growing recognition that they are linked inextricably. "It is no longer the case that the IT manager can ignore the infrastructure," Rabbetts adds. "Power and cooling are critical elements in running the data centre; understanding the impact of installing a new server, data switch, or storage device, on the power and cooling, is essential."

Equally, Rabbetts points out, the facility manager cannot ignore the technology - most of the infrastructure (power distribution units, uninterruptible power supplies, generators, computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units, and chillers) no longer use proprietary protocols to talk back to the building management system; instead they provide SNMP traps to provide information about their status, alarms and availability.

In order to understand this information and how it works the data centre facility manager "will need to have an understanding of networks", adds Rabbetts, "and this is traditionally the role of the data centre IT manager. These two roles are converging - slowly but, without doubt, definitely".

It is from within this convergence that the new professional profile is asserting itself; and it ensures that the data centre professional's key roles and responsibilities will diverge from those of the traditional enterprise IT practitioner, which is evolving toward a different direction.

Soft skills

Data centre professionals are distinguished by the necessity for them to demonstrate high levels of communication and interpersonal skills. This aptitude has proved a stumbling block for those IT folk who have spent careers barricaded inside their comfort zones and will not accept the likelihood that IT is becoming more akin to a service department functioning at the behest of the business.

"The data centre mindset is much more service-oriented," believes Franek Sodzawiczny, development director at data centre specialist Sentrum. "Data centre people are better educated about delivering ongoing efficiency, and not regarding it just as a 'best endeavours' aspiration."

Rabbetts agrees: "Technologists have, in the past, been seen as 'geeks' who have little or no interpersonal skills; but the days when they could blindly state that 'your email didn't work because the MX record was wrong, and the reverse DNS was resolving to a different IP address', and then sit back and contemplate how clever they were, are gone," he adds. "The service factor is now far too important."

Data centre technologists must be able to communicate in a direct and open way, avers Rabbetts; a failure to do so risks losing the customer to a rival - and that's bad business. Unlike the relationship that many enterprise IT departments have with their end-users, an acceptance of the notion of service-level guarantees must be integral to their approach to the job - a cultural shift that many enterprise IT departments are reluctant to accept.

Pay and perks

The fact that the data centre professionals must possess a broad range of ICT and Facilities Management (FM)skills - and much more besides - does not necessarily mean that they can command better remuneration packages than their enterprise counterparts. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not, typically, as high as the pay available for an enterprise ICT professional. Rabbetts thinks that this is because the enterprise ICT professional is an 'expert' in a particular technology, and those employing them are often wary of the superior knowledge, which often leads to higher pay. Data centre professionals, particularly those that emerge from an FM background, are often not paid as much as their enterprise counterparts.

There are variations to this. Top-drawer data centre managers are often doing two jobs in one - IT managers and facilities manager. If we assume a typical salary of £60-70k for the former and £40-50k for the latter, a high-performing data centre manager with proven track record commands £100-120k, according to industry insiders.

However, while there remain relatively few organisations that recognise the need for this kind of 'converged' expertise, the pool of people who can fulfil the role is a small one.

Another factor in the grading scheme is that data centre professionals tend to 'fall into' the role, and the career progression structures that obtain in enterprise IT are still evolving in respect to data centre employment hierarchies; but this is changing as the industry matures, according to Migration Solutions' Rabbetts. "Data centre professionals are not seen yet as the 'experts' that they really need to be," he reckons. "In smart organisations this has already changed, but it is certainly not mainstream."

Further information

DatacenterDynamics [new window]

Data Centre World [new window]

IET Technical and Professional Networks

BETNET [new window]

Power Generation, Conversion and Utilisation Network [new window]

Power Systems and Equipment Network [new window]

IT [new window]

Communication Networks and Services Networks [new window]

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