An employee walks past servers in the Facebook data center in Forest City, North Carolina. Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images
An employee walks past servers in the Facebook data center in Forest City, North Carolina.

Data Center Trends Shift Staff Workloads

Data centers are becoming lean, efficient strategic assets as they adopt cloud computing, XaaS, self-provisioning models, colocation, and other still-emerging technologies. Achieving the promise of these technologies, however, requires changing work assignments and updating skill sets.

“These trends are redefining the data center work environment by reducing the number of physical devices that need human intervention,” says Colin Lacey, vice president of Data Center Transformation Services & Solutions at Unisys. “This elevates the required skill sets from ‘racking and stacking’ to administering tools and automation.” While some hands-on work will always be required, it’s much less in highly automated or outsourced data centers.

Tasks Shift

Removing lower levels of work does free employees to focus on strategic business priorities, but it also establishes new tasks that didn’t previously exist. As Lacy explains, “Those new tasks relate to how you approach the cloud from a network, security and resilience perspective.”

“Take clouding computing as an example,” he continues. “When you move to a cloud, you immediately remove some administrative details. Infrastructure is prepositioned, and automation, monitoring and reporting capabilities already are in place. That eliminates some of the physical aspects of operating a data center, but it also brings a new set of responsibilities for the client.”

See also: How to Get a Data Center Job at Google

For example, while moving to a cloud has the potential to improve disaster recovery, that feature isn’t automatic. As Andrew Mametz, VP of partner operations and governance for Peak 10, elaborates, “We have a disaster recovery plan to guide recovery of our services, but it doesn’t extend to individual customers.”

Clients migrating to a cloud, therefore, must redesign their disaster recovery plans for that specific environment, either purchasing disaster recovery as an added service or designing a different strategy. The point is that data center managers can’t simply migrate to a cloud and think everything is done.

Security details also change. “Data centers probably will need a higher level of security in a public cloud, so data center managers must build that security into their cloud-based architecture rather than focusing strictly on internal security.”

Understanding the many layers and potential entry points into their cloud is vital. That’s true, too, for XaaS and virtual environments.

“Although data center management software or vendors promise certain levels of achievement, the data center managers sometimes realize the resources needed to attain those levels are so overwhelming that they delay or never fully adopt the solution,” points out Jeff Klaus, general manager of data center solutions at Intel Corp.

Incorporating sensors for the Internet of Things (IoT) into data centers is one example of how personnel can become overwhelmed, Klaus says. “Managers have the opportunity to simplify deployment, but deploying the tools to make their work lives easier often has been a nightmare in the past. Companies sometimes have found the path to the promised capabilities is three times more challenging than anticipated.”

See also: How to Get a Data Center Job at Facebook

As Mametz says, “If you see migrating to a cloud as a 1:1 move, you’re not taking advantage of the cloud’s benefits.” Achieving those benefits is most likely when one person is in charge of implementing the new solution to ensure it works and that its full value is realized.

“You can’t assume the existing staff can or will integrate the new solution,” Klaus says. “Adding a specific person to focus on any particular initiative adds costs, but reduces the risks of failure.”

Staffing

Changes in headcount depend on the compute solution and its role in the company. “One of the biggest misconceptions in moving to a cloud is that you’ll need fewer employees,” Mametz says. While staffers may no longer be needed to handle the physical equipment, they are needed to maintain the operating system. “They work remotely. It’s a different value proposition.”

“If an organization develops a private or hybrid cloud internally, it may need more resources to deal with the increased complexity,” Klaus says. “Likewise, using even an external cloud or SaaS as a strategic asset to gain more revenue, products or service may require more technical help.” When Intel adopted the Salesforce customer relationship management application to manage its leads, for instance, it still needed experts to adapt and manage the baseline templates to ensure they fit its mission.

The adoption of hybrid IT is transforming the role of IT itself, says Tamara Budec, VP of design and construction at cloud and co-lo provider Digital Realty. With its reliance on new technology to connect internal and external services, sophisticated approaches to data classification and service-oriented architectures, “Hybrid IT creates symmetry between internal and external IT that will drive the business and IT paradigm shift for years to come.”

Consequently, she continues, “The traditional role of the enterprise IT professional is becoming multifaceted. Workloads will move around in hybrid internal/external IT environments. For example, the network engineer and application engineer will be one and the same job.

These data center trends mean, “The border between cloud computing and networking infrastructure will start to blur, as the distinction between networks and what connects to the cloud disappears. This will require skill sets to merge between telecommunication and cloud computing engineers.” While each of those specialists has specific knowledge from past architectures, in this new, blurry infrastructure environment, “They will need to learn to speak the same language,” Budec says.

DCM or Vendor Manager?

As tasks within the data center shift, so, too, does the role of the data center manager. “There is a slight, but important, difference in the competencies needed to manage a data center and to manage service providers,” Klaus says.

“In the past,” Lacey explains, “data center managers focused on capacity for servers, power and cooling. Today, with the cloud or hybrid model, that construct is becoming less challenging.” In the new, outsourced, automated, cloud or XaaS-based data center, managers are faced with managing the compute environment beyond their center’s physical boundaries.

“Data center managers need to adapt quickly or risk becoming extinct,” Mametz says. The term “endangered” may be more accurate. As smaller data centers outsource physical operations or are consolidated, the remaining data centers are becoming larger. Facilities of 100,000 square feet run by large teams are not uncommon.

With data center managers focusing externally, some of their senior administrators may step into the role of consultants. At Intel, for example, the data center capability planning manager not only evaluates new IT technology but also sometimes accompanies Intel’s sales force as a subject matter expert.

Governance

The ability to scale computing resources in a matter of minutes makes it easy to lose sight of what’s been requested and deployed and, importantly, what was never decommissioned. Managing this necessitates fresh attention to governance and core business issues.

IT governance in today’s environment requires a multidisciplinary approach that actively involves multiple departments within the organization. At Unisys, Lacey says, “We look at each tower – IT, security, finance, service, maintenance, etc. – and build linkages among them for a coordinated approach to the adoption and utilization of the new compute structure. Building a cloud without those components aligned is suboptimal.”

Retraining

The shift towards automation, including clouds, XaaS and colocation, clearly isn’t seamless. Data center employees need retraining to develop the new skills needed to operate efficiently in these streamlined environments.

“Generally, it’s the technical training people need,” Lacey says. “For example, they need to be trained to use VMware’s vCenter interfaces, and scripting and automation to support deployment and provisioning models in a more highly orchestrated fashion.”

Much of the necessary training is available through automation or service vendors at little or no cost. Therefore, Lacey says, “It’s not burdensome for the data centers to provide, and it opens a good career path and valuable skills for employees.”

Getting the Most from the Shift

The changes affecting data centers stem from the need for IT to become strategic differentiators for their organizations, Lacey says. “Analysts predict that companies that don’t embrace digital transformation will be left in the dust,” he underscores. Therefore, “Align the digital strategy to the business,” with input from the departments that will be affected, such as finance, sales and human resources.

The transformations underway in data centers typically begin with isolated approaches within a business unit before being deployed throughout the organization. “Moving bits and pieces of workloads allows validation, but it doesn’t allow significant business benefits until the entire process is moved,” Lacey says.

While XaaS, cloud computing and related automation and outsourcing trends certainly change the way data centers operate, the extent of the disruption depends upon the data center’s strategy. The new technology opens doors to managed security and monitoring as well as enhanced disaster recovery options and easy scalability.

Data Centers 2020…and Beyond

“For the next five years, we’ll see a significant portion of data center workloads existing in the traditional environment,” Lacey predicts. Gradually, they will bridge between traditional and cloud-based models.

As this occurs, he says, “The key challenge is how to bring to hybrid workload management into the organization. An intentional strategy is critical to ensuring workloads run efficiently and to leverage the most appropriate, lowest-cost resources based on legal, regulatory and governance boundaries.”

This article was originally published in AFCOM’s Data Center Management magazine.

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