No more pencil and paper: How digitization brings dramatic improvement to data center operations

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At the recent Data Centre Dynamics (DCD) event in San Francisco, I gave a talk that touched on the idea of a digital data center, including what the concept means in practice for data center operations and how to get there. For those of you who couldn’t attend, I thought I’d sum up my talk in a blog post.

When I started in this business more than a few years ago, one of the first things I noticed was people were managing data center gray space literally with pencil, paper and spreadsheets. I thought there had to be a better way. Think about it: data centers are conceptualized by people who hold PhDs, engineered by people with masters’ degrees. Do we really want to manage them by running around with clipboards? No, we don’t – at least, not anymore.

Today we’ve got tools that make data center operations and maintenance far more efficient, accurate, and less costly. On the IT side of the house, in the data center white space, such tools have been in place for years. The IT folks are close to the concept of a “lights out” data center, where no humans are required. By 2022, IDC predicts 50% of all IT assets in data centers will be able to run autonomously because of embedded artificial intelligence (AI) functionality.

On the gray space side – which houses infrastructure like power, cooling and UPSs – I don’t expect I’ll ever see the day when we’ll have no humans at all in the data center, because there’s always going to be the need for smart humans in the loop. Although we’re getting closer.

Defining the digital data center

We’re getting there because our data center infrastructure is getting smarter. That’s part of what it takes to build a digital data center. In my view, the concept means you have infrastructure that’s instrumented, connected and integrated on multiple levels. From a centralized management console, you should be able to monitor and manage the gray space and white space. And you should be able to tap into the management system from anywhere, via a web browser or perhaps a specialized app.

The goal of the digital data center is to reduce human error, improve efficiency, optimize staff and increase transparency. These are likewise imperative when you consider that human error and mechanical failures are the leading causes of data center outages.

Digital data centers can help on both fronts. We all know a data center can’t operate for any length of time without having some kind of human error introduced. By implementing digital data center concepts, we can minimize those errors by documenting all policies, processes and procedures. Any errors that are introduced are likely to be less costly, because they will be detected early and reversed, thus preventing downtime.

On the mechanical front, digital data center concepts introduce the idea of predictive maintenance. When infrastructure is well-instrumented, we can constantly collect data from it that gives us clues as to its health. Combine that with AI, and we’re able to determine when a piece of equipment is performing outside its normal baseline, and take steps to remedy the situation.

Schneider Electric digitizes critical facility operations

I can say with confidence that the approach works because I’ve seen it over the last several years working with the Schneider Electric Critical Facility Operations team. We’ve developed a set of software tools that digitizes data center management based on our proven methodology – no more pen and paper, now it’s tablets and software.

We announced at DCD-San Francisco that our Critical Facility Operations team, which runs some 100 of the largest data centers in the world, will now be supported by innovative technology and software customized to the site. The benefits to customers are many, including:

  • Minimized risk of human error
  • Improved employee efficiency
  • Increased transparency
  • Efficient IT planning and execution
  • Global consistency between sites
  • Complete lifecycle management
  • Reduced costs

To get at the integration angle I mentioned above, we also announced we’ll now be managing data center white space as well as gray space. White space services include hardware and strategic IT planning, inventory and lifecycle management, hardware and software setup, online technical assistance and more. We’ve been doing it for a couple of large customers for a while now, and are now offering it to all customers. This gives customers a single provider to manage the entire data center – the proverbial single throat to choke (although I doubt you’ll be tempted).

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