Rise of the robots and the global war on talent


    The data centre industry has changed at a rapid pace in the past 10 years and will continue to change during the  next decade. But what will this mean for data centre professionals? Will they be replaced by robots and will they still be working in large data centres?  What will the sector look like in 10 years’ time and what skills will be required?  Louise Frampton reports 

    CBRE Data Centre Solutions has grown 50-60% year-on-year and currently has more than 6,000 data centre technicians, employed across 800 data centres worldwide. 

    As the data centre sector continues to grow exponentially, recruitment is becoming highly competitive and there is a “global war on talent” according to CBRE’s COO, John Dunstan. This is presenting the sector with challenges, as well as opening up opportunities for skilled professionals. 

    Speaking at Anglia Ruskin University, at a ‘Tech Leaders’ Address’, Dunstan commented that data centre leaders must be adept at managing change, while embracing technology that can enable data centres to operate more efficiently – including augmented reality and artificial intelligence. Qualities, other than traditional technical skills, are becoming increasingly important and staff will need to be multi-skilled. 

    “Ten years ago, the typical facility was on premises for enterprise end users, resilience was built into the M&E structure, it was hugely complex and there was a race to build the most resilient data centre in the world. Sometimes, this actually decreased resilience because of the complexity. Therefore, we needed highly technical staff,” explained Dunstan. 

    He pointed out that there was a clear line between M&E and IT, and they rarely met, while the data centre sector was a very secretive industry. “People didn’t really know about data centres or understand them,” Dunstan continued.

    From a portfolio perspective, there have been significant changes, he pointed out: “Today, people are maintaining a hybrid approach. There is cross training of technicians to provide converged services across IT, M&E and other projects. This is good news for technicians; this multi-skilled approach has made the profession much more attractive. The industry as a whole is exciting and much more public, today – it is now a talking point at a party; in the past, people didn’t know what you were talking about.” 

    He added that staff now have to be much more focused on end user clients, as reliance on customer service in data centres has increased significantly.

    “Only a few years ago, the scenario in the industry was ‘this is what you get and this is what you pay for it, whether you like it or not.’ Today, there is so much choice and variety that data centre providers have had to become much more customer focused – data centre professionals need to have skills in this area, therefore,” Dunstan explained, adding that it has also become important to have the ability and desire to ‘learn, change and evolve’. 

    “If they don’t have this desire, they are in the wrong business,” Dunstan continued. 

    Key trends

    He pointed out that the emphasis is now on flexibility and there is a trend towards non-24/7 coverage – 45% of CBRE’s operation, globally, is now non-24/7. 

    “Five to six years ago this would have been unheard of,” said Dunstan. 

    “We now have clients building big, hyperscale data centres with no power resilience because they take the view that the grid has been up 99.999%. They install a pretty big UPS for a flip, and they are done,” he continued.

    However, outages have a higher impact on businesses, today, and incidents have become much more public, as there is increasing reliance on data and technology in business and in our everyday lives. A different set of skills is now required, therefore, and leaders must be able to manage this. Nevertheless, organisations such as banks, for example, are building resilience into their software layer. CBRE believes that this will continue to be an important trend. 

    He also highlighted the fact that there is more collaboration across the industry, today: “We have moved out of the shadows and into a more collaborative industry, so there is a need for ‘softer’ business skills for our technicians and leaders, rather than just good technical skills.” Other important trends include the fact that energy management is much more important today, compared to just a few years ago, and knowledge and skills in this area are key to delivering the business objectives of the operation. 

    Robots and AI

    In the next 10 years, CBRE believes that there will be an increased focus on edge data centres, based around a ‘hub and spoke’ model. This is being fuelled by the need for instant data. CBRE also predicts that 99% of data centres will be “non-24/7” in the next decade. 

    “There will be an increasing need for mobile technicians. They will be lone workers but we will still need to ensure they remain connected with the centre of operations,” commented Dunstan. “We will see the need for deeply technical engineers, located centrally and engaged via technology (possibly augmented reality), with semi-skilled technicians on the ground. They will be able to walk them through procedures and diagnose problems, enabling them to fix any issues. We are investing a huge amount of time and money in making sure we are ahead of the game in this respect,’ he continued. 

    Robotics and artificial intelligence will have a greater role to play in data centres in a very short space of time, according to Dunsten. He revealed that CBRE is working closely with IBM and other partners to this end. 

    “We are already seeing clients building data centres that allow the installation of 9ft high racks. We won’t be carrying step ladders around the data centre. In the future, robots will be employed to pull out servers and replace components. AI is an exciting area for us,” adds Dunstan. 

    At present, engineering talent is being used for ‘checking’ the data centre operations but AI will increase the efficiency of fault finding and monitoring, moving forward, he pointed out.

    Preparing for the future

    So how is CBRE preparing for tomorrow’s data centre operation? Dunsten revealed that CBRE is currently exploring posibilities for a central engineering hub, with the top technical leaders from across the world, located in one place, and connected via AR technology to technicians on the ground. They have also hired a dedicated chief reliability and innovation officer, Mike Doolan, who is responsible for looking to the future, where the next rapid change is going to happen, and ensuring CBRE moves quickly and innovates to stay ahead of the game. Most recently, Doolan has been working closely with AI company Litbit. Earlier this year, CBRE and Litbit announced a strategic relationship to transform facilities maintenance within data centres and critical environments. 

    Developing REMI

    CBRE is training a Litbit AI persona named ‘Remi’ (Risk Exposure Mitigation Intelligence) on the normal operating conditions of its data centre facilities and equipment globally, which can then be used by CBRE’s expert teams for predictive maintenance and rapid problem diagnosis. Remi will run both in the Cloud via smartphone and on the edge via permanently deployed computing devices. 

    It will aggregate the knowledge of CBRE’s worldwide service experience, thousands of technicians, and millions of machines into a single system. It is hoped that the AI solution will provide improved coverage for manned locations and basic coverage in sites that are not currently viable for human staffing. He went on to highlight some of the important considerations for CBRE, moving forward over the next 10 years, including: the need to understand regional variances in data centre maturity models;  maintaining flexibility in a rapidly changing environment and embracing technology. 

    “If we stand still for a minute, we will die,” he concluded.

    Global impact

    Utimately, data centres have become the powerhouse of the growing global economy and merged with our everyday lives. Speaking at the keynote address, Alfonso Aranda Arias, head of global data centre operations, IBM, pointed out that data centres have become part of the “fabric of society”; innovation in science, energy, manufacturing, healthcare and education are all powered by data centres. 

    Arias quoted Mark Weiser, chief scientist at Xerox Parc (widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing) who commented that the most profound technologies are “those that disappear. They weave themselves into everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” 

    While data centres have weaved themselves into every day life, they are now more visible than ever before, as our reliance on instant data is at its most transparent when an outage interrupts normal service. 

    In the past, data centres were discussed at a technical, facilities level but they are now of such strategic importance to global business, discussion has been elevated up the ranks to the top layers of management. 

    “They are key components to the organisation’s journey to value. Data centres require a different kind of mindset. It is not just about M&E and IT. Finance is now part of the equation,” commented Arias, adding that the data centre has become a ‘utility’ component. Data, market intelligence, artificial intelligence and financial management are becoming integrated.

    He observed that AI is constantly evolving and this means less people on the floor, as sensors and machines are performing the functions once undertaken by humans. These people are now in the central office, interpreting the data and managing contracts. 

    “At the moment, I am not seeing less people,” commented Arias. 

    However, he observed that we are moving out of a ‘microscope phase’ (focused on optimisation) to a mixed environment, where we are also entering a simultaneous ‘telescope phase’ – looking to the future and the next thing. “You need to do both. We are in a hybrid era,” he concluded.

    Pictured from left to right: Andrew Stevens, CEO, CNet; Dr Terri Simpkin, Programme Leader and co-author of the Masters Degree in Data Centre Leadership and Management; John Dunstan, Chief Operating Officer, CBRE; and Alfonso Aranda Arias, Head of Global Data Centre Operations, IBM.

    CNet Training, a provider of technical education for the digital infrastructure industry, hosted the Tech Leaders Keynote Address at Anglia Ruskin University, in Cambridge, with tech giants IBM and CBRE. The address, which was in support of the world’s only Master’s Degree in Data Centre Leadership and Management, explored the key issues associated with data centres being the powerhouse of the growing global economy. 



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