You've probably heard the mantra that successful businesses require people, processes, and technology. The data center industry, it sometimes seems, has forgotten the "people" part of that equation.
Rarely do humans feature in conversations about data centers. Nor do you often see people depicted in representations of data centers (indeed, my highly non-scientific research reveals that a Google image search for "data center" results in only one picture out of dozens that includes a person).
That's a shame, because data centers depend on people just as much as on processes and technology. You can neither design nor operate a data center effectively if you don't have the right people on your side.
To prove the point, let's look at the various roles that humans play in modern data centers — and that they will likely continue to play for the foreseeable future, despite long-standing predictions that robots will replace most people inside data centers.
Humans and Data Center Design
For starters, you can't design a data center without people. You need data center architects who possess a mastery of not only the complex technologies — from heating and cooling systems, to physical security controls, to backup power frameworks and far beyond — that factor into modern data centers, but also of business needs. There are far too many variables in data center design, and too many unique business requirements to consider, to take a cookie-cutter approach to data center design.
This also means, by the way, that AI won't be removing humans from the data center design process anytime soon. It might be nice to imagine a world where AI could assess a business's data center requirements and design a facility based on them, but that's a very difficult future to envision — because, again, data center design is too complex and nuanced.
Data Center Construction
Once your data center is designed, you need someone to build it.
Data center construction workers are easy to overlook because their role in the data center industry is temporary. They build a facility and then leave. But we still wouldn't have data centers without them.
Data Center Technicians
You need people to operate your data center once it's up and running, too. Those people are data center technicians — a group that turns out to be in short supply in recent years, due arguably to the lack of investment in educating people for the unique skills required to operate data centers.
The technicians who possess those skills play an absolutely essential role in keeping modern data center infrastructure running. They manage and troubleshoot the heating, cooling, and power supply systems that data centers depend on. They also often help to support the servers, networking equipment, and other IT infrastructure that exist inside data centers.
Offsite Engineers Inside Data Centers
Data center technicians are the humans who typically ensure that the lights stay on and the servers keep running during routine data center operations.
But when something goes wrong, offsite engineers — like site reliability engineers (SREs) who spend most of their time working from an office, not inside a data center — may need to travel to data centers to troubleshoot problems.
For example, when Facebook suffered a major outage in 2021, the company had to dispatch engineering teams to its data centers so that they could access affected equipment locally. (Somewhat ironically, the rigid physical access control systems designed to protect data center equipment against unauthorized access turned out to be so strong that they caused delays and extended the outage.)
The point here is that even engineers who rarely think about data center facilities and who don't think of themselves as data center technicians may occasionally have to work inside data centers, too.
The Future of Humans in the Data Center
You can find plenty of predictions out there that the data centers of the future will be automated to the point that they barely depend on humans at all. We'll have robots taking over the jobs of data center technicians, we're told, and they'll be much more efficient than people.
That might eventually happen. But while these predictions date back years (we wrote about the alleged coming of the robots on Data Center Knowledge in 2017, for example), they haven't panned out yet and it's hard to imagine them coming true anytime in the near future. As much as we might tend to forget about the humans who make data centers possible, they're not going away.