Column: The Dynamic Data Center

It takes more than fancy facilities with high-tech bells and whistles to make a data center truly impressive.

May 20, 2005

4 Min Read
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Then there was the time the director at a prospective client company, in an effort to impress me with the effectiveness of the data center's UPS system, waltzed over to the power plug and yanked it out of the wall socket. The data center went dark, and the director's face went red. Apparently, no one had bothered to check the UPS batteries. So much for regular systems maintenance.

I also remember an incident in which a potentially damaging e-mail message about a client company's president was sent to a companywide distribution list. Incensed, the president ran to the data center, grabbed the nearest operator and instructed him to stop the mail immediately. The inexperienced employee, clearly intimidated, pulled the plug on the mail server--literally. Corporate e-mail service came to a screeching halt. A more seasoned staff member would have disabled POP3 and IMAP, preventing the distribution of that one message and leaving the SMTP service intact to maintain operational integrity.

Put these tales together and they hint at a bigger story: The underlying cause of most data-center disasters isn't hardware malfunction or software snafu, it's good old human error caused by mismanagement, lack of management, understaffing or lack of qualified staff. And that all stems from myopic corporate staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures, including offshore outsourcing and "intelligence in a box" solutions that down play the importance of skilled personnel to design, manage and operate your data center.

Who's at the Wheel?

Customer service is in serious danger. Consider the following trends:• The top 50 IT service companies worldwide employ 173,000, or 14 percent, of their 1.25 million workforce in India, as they tap into that country's low-cost IT and back-office skills base, according to ComputerWire. And the worldwide market for offshore IT services will grow to $17 billion by 2008, according to IDC.

• Because HR is one of the biggest expenses in IT budgets, almost every company is trying to reduce the quantitative aspects (head count, for instance), while devoting less attention to qualitative measurements like service level, response time and customer satisfaction.

• Vendors continue to push intelligence-in-a-can products such as firewall appliances and megamanagement tools, and corporate America is buying their stories. Solve our problems with a single product instead of expensive personnel with talent and skills? Great. Companies that opt for the fairy tale hire inexperienced, untrained workers to sit on the phone with overseas support personnel trying to figure out why shoddy products don't work and poorly selected products lack the functionality to get the job done.

• Corporate users bear the brunt of these decisions. Even as IT products become more complex, IT support becomes more limited: Helpdesk staff isn't knowledgeable in all hardware products and applications, equipment upgrades are infrequent, and user training is minimal or nil. Users complain about IT, giving management an excuse to cut in-house IT even more. It's your quintessential catch-22.

Turn This Baby AroundThere's no solution in a box when it comes to data-center management. You must tackle this challenge creatively, with an eye toward your company's unique personnel and corporate "quirks." Remember that successful data centers don't simply maintain the status quo, they help propel the company forward by researching, proposing and implementing dynamic projects.

Here are some guidelines:

• Hire knowledgeable, flexible staff. Experience with a particular platform or system may be critical, but don't underestimate the importance of adaptability and problem-resolution skills. Try to identify job candidates who will think before they act, yet act quickly when necessary. These are the people with potential long-term value.

• Compensate and reward employees. Start people at appropriate salaries, and give them reasonable increases regularly. If cash bonuses are a thing of the past, send a staffer out to dinner for a job well done, pay for attendance at a work-related conference or offer a prize for "most productive employee of the month." Solicit staff input on projects under consideration, and give employees credit for their ideas when presenting plans to corporate. Make it clear you appreciate hard work and dedication, and that it pays off.

• Provide training and career opportunities. Get data-center staffers trained in emerging technologies early. In addition, involve them in major product and system evaluations and selections, as well as ongoing projects like hardware deployments and software upgrades. A viable data center is a hub of activity and an ideal training ground for anyone who wants to learn.Richard J. Brown is an independent systems consultant and owner of Business Applications Ltd., a technology consultancy and provider of Web hosting and e-mail services. He has worked at and managed corporate systems groups for more than 25 years in the high-tech, finance and manufacturing fields. Write to him at [email protected].

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