Data center jobs require more than IT skills

Companies are on the ropes trying to fill senior data center management positions because today's data centers require a jack-of-all-trades, with a mix of IT, facilities and security management expertise.

"Traditionally, data center managers did focus on IT. But today, they do so much more. With companies running out of data center space and encountering power and cooling issues, it's extremely important for data center leaders to be educated in other areas such as facilities," says Jill Eckhaus, CEO of AFCOM, an association for data center managers.

This combination of skills is so rare that AFCOM predicts by 2015, "the talent pool of qualified senior-level technical and management data center professionals will shrink by 45%." In 2006, 38% of respondents to an AFCOM survey said they had unfilled positions in their data centers, and 15% said it takes them six months or longer to fill open senior-level technical or management positions.

Neal Smith, data center manager for core services at Intel Corp.'s Oregon data center operations, says he understands the difficulty organizations face in finding skilled labor because data center responsibilities are much broader than IT.

"In IT, you often work in a limited group, such as messaging. The data center is where everything comes together -- networking, facilities, business units, security and storage -- all in the same place. You have to understand all these moving parts," he says.

In addition, the mounting pressures of compliance with regulatory mandates, energy constraints and real estate shortages often fall on the data center manager's shoulders.

John Oyhagaray, vice president of programs at the 7x24 Exchange International, a group for managers of mission-critical enterprise infrastructures, says the more IT professionals reach outside their comfort zones and get away from the traditional segregation of duties, the more successful they will be. "Senior management will not stand for finger-pointing between Facilities and Systems," he says. "There is no room for a segregation mind-set. In the data center, everyone is responsible for system uptime."

"The best thing an IT manager can do is to learn a little something in each of the areas they know nothing about and develop a base knowledge," Oyhagaray adds. For instance, IT managers can start by learning the correlation between changes in heating and electrical systems and hardware. "They should know how voltage variations and spikes in temperature affect devices," he says.

Smith agrees. "When a facilities person tells you that a UPS [uninterruptible power supply] is having issues, you need to know the implications. 2:00 a.m. is not the time to learn this. You need to learn it ahead of time," he says.

Power concerns and the move towards eco-friendly computing make electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, knowledge a must. "The density of computing has gone up tremendously because of technologies like blade servers. That rack that used to pull down a few kilowatts is now up to 16 kilowatts per rack. That has all sorts of implications on your overall data center power and cooling," he says.

Smith says his facilities knowledge is the product of 15 years of on-the-job training. "I'd buddy up with the facilities team; that's where I gained most of my knowledge," he says.

He also notes that most facilities teams are willing to teach you the basics. "They want you educated. It's to their advantage for you to know when to panic and when not to panic," Smith says.

Tim Mills, data center manager at Cardinal Health Inc., a medical products and services firm in Dublin, Ohio, says he picked up most of his know-how during his facility's upgrade from a Tier 1 electrical architecture with many single points of failure to a Tier 4 dual-bus infrastructure. "While I don't have to understand the details, I do have to understand the major components and know how to react if we have an issue," Mills says. To that end, he has installed monitoring tools around critical infrastructure to alert him to problems. "I have to have enough knowledge to know if something's wrong," he says.

Mills, who has an MBA and an engineering degree, says another important piece of data center management beyond traditional IT is operations management. "You have to know how to manage people and processes in a 24/7 environment," he says. This involves being able to create a continuity of business processes with a strong handoff between shifts. "This position is all about process. If customers don't get their drug orders on time [because of network delay], it can have a devastating impact. You need a certain mind-set that issues can occur at any time, and you have to be quick to react," Mills says.

He recommends that IT professionals undergo project management training to learn how to balance the demands of the job. "I make sure that we run by-the-book processes and keep on track with project priorities yet can be subject to interruptions," Mills explains. Project management can also serve as a foundation for compliance and process frameworks such as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library.

Doug Lauterbach, data center director at Bay Care Health Systems in Tampa, Fla., is also a proponent of process management skills and says these will become more critical as companies turn to lights-out, or utility, computing. "A lot of IT administrators like to hug their servers ... but data center managers have to have strong remote management processes in place," he says.

Lauterbach believes that going forward all data center managers will also have to be skilled in ecologically friendly computing. "We have extreme environmental pressures, and I have had to educate myself on what it means to be a 'green' data center. This is not something that the typical IT person has in their bag of tricks," he says.

Part of his challenge is learning how to manage power and cooling as a fixed resource. "I'm trying to lower the ceiling of power consumption," Lauterbach says.

One approach he has taken is to install motion sensors on the data center's overhead lighting. "Half of the lights shut down if there's no motion on the floor," Lauterbach says.

He also pays close attention to trends in data center provisioning. "It's no longer about putting a server wherever there is a raised floor," Lauterbach says. "You have to plan, record and manage what types of infrastructure goes on to the floor and how to manage that heat load. You also have to closely watch your inventory and update it regularly."

Lauterbach recommends joining organizations like AFCOM and attending classes online or at local colleges to extend your knowledge beyond IT.

"If you really want to make sure you own the data center management space, you have to dig deep. You can't just hand decisions over to someone else. Every time something happens, you have to understand how you got there and how to avoid that misstep in the future, and that knowledge has to be more than superficial," he says.

Sidebar: Book smart

John Oyhagaray, former data center manager and currently vice president of programs at 7x24 Exchange, says IT professionals can gain a lot of their data center smarts from reading. Here are his top five picks.

Gittlen is a freelance writer based in greater Boston and the author of Computerworld's "Networking Know-How" column. She can be reached at sgittlen@charter.net.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon