Data centre

Data centres - the next big challenges

Data centres are now integral to our economies and to national security, but just how ready for full-on professionalism is the data-centres sector?

'How many data centres does government currently own itself? How many data centres are actually owned by system integrators and service providers to government?'

These questions were posed to the UK Cabinet Office back in May 2011 by the Public Administration Select Committee investigating planned public-sector data-centre consolidation in advance of the formulation of plans for the controversial G-Cloud initiative, part of a general inquiry into 'The effective use of IT and good governance'. The Cabinet Office replied that a survey commissioned by the CIO Council during June 2010 counted 220 data centres across central government. The Council brings together CIOs from across the public sector to address IT issues, and improve public service delivery. It adds: 'Outside of Central Government, the police have at least 88 data centres, while the estimate for local government and the wider public sector is in excess of 600 data centres.' However, who actually owns each of these facilities is as yet unclear. 'Information is not currently held which distinguishes ownership for these data centres. Confirmation of ownership is planned for early stages of the data-centre consolidation initiative.'

Such admissions are revealing for anyone seeking to understand more about the dynamics driving expansion in the data-centres sector, and for a range of reasons. The rate at which the world has come to rely on data centres has outpaced general understanding of their role for many organisations that rely on them.

Greening of data centres

Data centres are rallying points of the green ICT movement – central to establishing best practice for the nation's carbon management. Government and business are realising that a good deal of economic stability, not to mention critical national infrastructure, depends on privately-owned data centre facilities, and realisation has highlighted knowledge gaps about national data-centre 'estates'.

The need to control heat dissipation, cooling and ventilation inside data centres, for instance, has produced some of the most innovative methods for internal environmental controls to be found in any industry. Last May's Data Centres Europe conference in Nice, for instance, showcased a good deal of leading-edge research and development work from vendors and academics addressing this problem.

Yet despite all this activity – the pioneering R&D, and society's dependency – there are as yet no regulatory bodies or trade associations directly governing data centre operations, and nobody knows for sure how many people are employed in this increasingly important profession. Until recently there has been little consensus over the baseline skills and competences data centre staff require to develop professionally, and no formal accreditation for data centre managers, apart from the standard security clearances. Change initiatives, such as the programme to establish a standard data centre professionalism model by the Data Centre Council of the ICT trade association Intellect UK in partnership with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), are taking a lead toward addressing this situation (see box-out, 'Toward Professional Registration for data centre expertise').The headcount question may seem academic: does it really matter if the number of techies working in data centres is unknown, so long as there seems to be enough of them to keep systems going?

It's hard, though, to think of another sector of such importance where so little is known about the profession responsible for running things.

There are reasons for this. In respect to in-house enterprise data-centre functions, it's often hard to ascertain where traditional IT staff roles end and data-centre roles start; in many cases there will be much overlap. In the independent data-centre realm the picture is perhaps more clear-cut, although according to Sid Barnes, executive director at recruiter Computer People, data centre specialists now represent something of an 'elite corps' within the IT general practice.

'Data centre engineers typically have a broader range of skills than conventional IT professionals,' Barnes says. 'They can do server and storage management, security software and firewalls, configure routers, administer management applications, and so on. They might also know about data-centre architecture and design, power management, and have experience of overseeing mergers and acquisitions.'

When recruiting data-centre managers, Barnes adds, experience is the key prerequisite – plus personal security clearance that comes from working for an employer with List X accreditation. As a result of their esteemed status, data-centre staff can typically command 10-15 per cent premium on average IT salary scales, with salaries starting at £44k going up to £100k+ for seasoned individuals.

Mapping the data centre universe

New builds, and expansion of existing facilities, is in part ensuring that demand remains high. No independently-audited register of UK colocation data centres exists (although website Data Centre Map suggests there are at least 144).Again, because data centres vary so much in size and capacity, arriving at a headcount figure can be only an'educated estimate.

'We guess that there are around 10,000 people employed in approximately 250 commercial data centres, (colocation, hosting, managed services, wholesale),' says Alex Rabbetts, managing director of data centre design and build consultancy Migration Solutions. His figure is drawn from assumptive calculations based on a proportion of the known number of UK data centres (250), factored against the number of registered UK business, and the assumption that at least 50 per cent of these will have some data centre operations supporting corporate applications. 'It's a bit of a finger in the air figure,' Rabbetts acknowledges, 'but it is a figure.'

Ten-thousand UK data-centre professionals sounds on the high side, but not wildly improbable when compared against another metric: attendance figures for industry events like Data Centre World, which for 2011 claimed 2,541 visitors. That somewhere around 25 per cent of a given profession should attend a trade show is another reasonable assumption; Infosecurity Europe 2011 had 10,482 visitors, out of 1.5 million people employed in UK IT, as reckoned by Sector Skills Council E-Skills UK. However, in any assessment of data-centre employment it is important to remember that it includes not just IT specialists, but engineers responsible for CRAC/CRAH (Computer Room Air Conditioners/Computer Room Air Handlers) equipment, cabling and power engineers, and (at standalone premises) facilities management colleagues.

Now in addition to everything else, the data centres sector provides employment for some 10,000 people, and provide livelihoods for millions more. So what are the driving issues that this massive responsibility present to the data centres profession? E&T put this question to a quartet of data centre industry insiders: their contrasting views are featured in the box below. *

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