Operations: Keeping It All Up and Running

Data centers, which often are housed in glass-encased, temperature-controlled environments, are the most crucial part of most operations – particularly in corporations. Comprised of servers, disk arrays, networking equipment and layers of applications, companies rely on data centers to keep their day-to-day, 24×7 business operations moving along. So it is an understatement to say companies place a top priority on ensuring their data centers are performing at optimal levels, while at the same time protected from security breaches or natural disasters. Bottom line: Data centers must maintain high standards for assuring integrity and functionality of the disparate computer environment connected to them.

If you are thinking of building your career within data centers, realize you will be working in an environment that¿s similar to the military. Rick Sawyer, executive vice president for data center designs at Hewlett-Packard, likens data centers and the people who work in them as being no different than highly disciplined military operations, with each individual requiring the ability to work as part of a top-notch, coordinated team. It is a place with well-honed processes, security standards, and little room for error. After all, a corporation¿s survival depends on it.

In most organizations, data center operations involve multiple layers including storage, server and networking hardware along with the software and applications that run on the equipment. Today, data centers are experiencing a lot of technology innovation, which makes it a dynamic time for students who want to point their careers in this direction. Suffice to say in recent years, the data center has become a more complex environment that requires a broader set of job skills. Virtualization, cloud computing, unified communications, software as a service, and information management are just some of the technologies IT people focused on data center operations will need to be familiar with in the coming years.

Roles and Career Paths

Server and storage virtualization already has started to transform this part the industry, particularly in large American corporations as they seek to consolidate hardware systems and seek more flexibility. Next-generation technologies like virtualization are having a huge impact on how the data center is managed. "This process will continue in coming years as many data centers look to consolidate their networks into a unified environment in which virtual machines will play a major role," says Rich Miller, a data center industry observer and editor of the Web site Data Center Knowledge. "That means expertise in virtualization in general will be valuable to for some time to come."

Cloud computing will also be a major trend in the next few years, with more applications being shifted from in-house data centers to third-party facilities and Internet platforms. This is an area with enormous promise, says Miller. While cloud computing expertise is already in demand, it is extremely important that specialists stay current on the latest conversations about what the cloud is in its development and how best to use it.

Unified communications involves merger of voice, phone, and e-mail that is delivered via networks, meaning it unifies all forms of human and device communications into a common user experience Another area of growing importance is information management or content management, the process of storing data, classifying it, making it more easily retrievable and archiving it. Even throughout the current economic crisis, many content delivery networks have continued to hire staff, according to Miller. However, he expects there will be some consolidation due to the large number of venture-backed startups getting into the field.

Today, the biggest question many IT workers face is whether to become a generalist or IT specialist. While there will always be specialized skills in data center operations, another movement¿s afoot that likely will put more emphasis on generalists: energy efficiency.

Traditionally, data center workers have operated separately from those in IT power facilities. As Sawyer describes it, the "raised floor" of the data center is home to those involved in IT processing: hardware managers, software and application developers, networking and storage workers, all working under the direction of the data center operations managers. Behind the raised floor are electrical and cooling systems overseen by electricians, mechanics, and facility engineer and power experts.

As more demands are put on corporations to cut their energy consumption, those two sides of the data center house will have to communicate more effectively and achieve a better understanding of how the other side works. "In most organizations, there is a dividing wall between the IT process and the facilities," says Sawyer. "But the IT side will have to communicate more with the facilities side. We already are starting to see it with the more mature companies."

This means the crucial data center jobs – the data center facilities manager, the hardware manager, the software manager and the networking manager – will need a broader knowledge base that includes how IT power facilities operate. Miller says increasing cooperation between facilities and IT staffs requires successful data center professionals to be conversant in a broad range of issues that touch the day-to-day operations of the modern data center. "Folks in the IT department now have to consider how much power an application might require to ensure that the facilities staff has the capacity to support it and the ability to cool the resulting application," he says.

Skills and Qualities

  • Ability to work on a tightly coordinated team
  • Flexibility
  • Good communications skills

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