Is skills gap putting critical infrastructure at risk?


    Startling findings from a major survey of data centre professionals show there is an urgent need to improve the industry’s skills and knowledge of power management in order to minimise the threat of outages and improve efficiency. Louise Frampton reports 

    Research conducted by independent industry analyst firm Freeform Dynamics reveals that a chronic skills gap risks undermining attempts to future-proof infrastructure to meet the demands of increasing digitisation. With more than a third of respondents (36%) having suffered a prolonged and disruptive outage within the preceding three months (and human error indicated as a major cause), the findings highlight the importance of tackling this weak link.

    The survey of more than 300 European data centre professionals showed that only one in three (36%) were fully confident in their knowledge of power management – this skills gap is causing a lack of confidence in data centre resilience, as well as the ability to respond effectively to power-related incidents. The findings also cast doubt on the ability of data centre managers to handle the growing demands of the digital transformation of data centre infrastructure, and their ability to deal with the increasing complexity of power management.

    The survey, commissioned by power management company Eaton, also showed that more than half of respondents believed their facilities infrastructure needed strengthening in terms of power and cooling (53%) and resiliency and disaster recovery (55%). Furthermore, 35% said managing power distribution within the data centre was a significant challenge, while 42% said it was becoming more of a challenge.

    Some of the feedback given by respondents also suggests that too many data centre managers are using outdated power management techniques, leading to both energy inefficiency and power-related outages. Technology was highlighted as part of a solution to mitigating human error and interviewees acknowledged the growing importance of modern software power management tools, which can help to prevent mistakes being made – eg through policy-driven automation.

    One respondent commented: “The power side of things has historically focused on the physical infrastructure but it’s now moving towards building more intelligence into the system through software.”

    Another respondent pointed out that this can create yet another skills gap that needs to be plugged: “The increasing role of software has opened up a skills gap. The shift is taking power engineers out of their comfort zone. It’s difficult to hire people with relevant skill sets, so we have to train people. They then need to gain experience on the job.”

    Energy efficiency

    The research further highlighted a number of key challenges elating to energy efficiency: for example, improving PUE was considered a ‘significant challenge’ by almost a third of the respondents (32%) for today’s data centre, while more than half (48%) said it was becoming more of a challenge. Surprisingly, only 26% said that managing power related charges and costs were currently a significant challenge, although nearly half (48%) agreed that it was becoming more of a challenge.

    Many commented that they were seeing a renewed focus on energy efficiency. As one respondent stated: “The emphasis on green among our customers waned a while back, but this is now kicking up again, and that puts the focus back on energy efficiency as a competitive differentiator.”

    Other respondents agreed that sustainability is a significant consideration, adding that “most of the pressure for energy efficiency and transparency comes from investors rather than regulators”.  It is clear from the report that data centres are increasingly being questioned on their social responsibility credentials, as large consumers of energy. However, when it comes to driving improvement, it is often hard to secure cooperation and funding. As one respondent commented, while there is pressure to reduce power consumption, “the application and IT folks do not regard this as their concern. They think it is someone else’s problem.” Another respondent added that although there is a will to improve energy efficiency, they found it “difficult to get investment even with an ROI case.”

    The researchers point out that, if efforts in relation to the core data centre infrastructure are not going to be undermined, discipline is required elsewhere – not least within IT operations teams and among those involved in software development. Data centre professionals commented that poorly thought through installation of IT equipment can disrupt cooling efficiency, which consumes unnecessary power.

    “Many of our applications were built with no thought for efficiency, e.g. compute power consumed,” commented one of the respondents. “This has undoubtedly led to us wasting a lot of energy over the years.”

    Ongoing monitoring and management are also key to energy efficiency, so having the right tools is important, as the feedback from another respondent illustrated: “Power monitoring and management tools are critical. Yes, they are an expense, but without them you are running with a lot more waste and risk than you need to.”

    Commenting on the findings, Michael Byrnes, Eaton’s director of sales, data centre business, EMEA, said: “Data centre workloads are intensifying as the business places more demands on it. Those pressures are compounded by a lack of confidence in the skills, tools and expertise to manage the data centre environments effectively, particularly in power. IT managers and data centre professionals need a simple, holistic view and integrated control of the infrastructure so that they can be confident they are managing the data centre effectively.”

    Dale Vile, CEO of Freeform Dynamics, added: “Data centres are under a lot of pressure as they deal with continued growth and additional pressures, such as the growing use of virtualisation or new initiatives.

    “There seems to be a widespread lack of knowledge concerning the availability of new tools that would help data centre managers.”

    To address some of the issues raised by the survey, Eaton is publishing a series of papers – the latest provides data centre managers with essential advice on how to ensure power supply reliability is taken into account when commissioning a new data centre.

    The paper, Fast Track to Improved Power Supply Reliability, offers practical advice on optimising a data centre’s power chain and explains how, by considering the individual requirements of all components, a data centre’s power infrastructure can be designed to meet both current and future requirements to guarantee business continuity.

    Data centre power distribution systems in their entirety extend from the available power sources – typically incoming transformer, generator and UPS; out through the switchgear and circuit breakers to the supported ICT, cooling and associated loads. The paper points out that it is essential to appreciate issues not only related to each item of power equipment, but also how these items interact with one another. This needs special attention as the nature of these interactions can vary as the data centre load changes.

    The paper examines what needs to be considered in terms of power distribution and UPS components to achieve a system that is reliable and protected against unscheduled power event, while other topics include: three- and four-pole switching, the impact of a UPS on a power system, possible fault conditions including arc flashes, operation and maintenance issues, minimising exposure to human error, as well as the latest industry standards and possible consequences of failing to follow good design principles.

    The implications of future growth in the power infrastructure are also considered – how are fault scenarios and selectivity addressed as modules are added to scalable systems, for example? These and other questions are discussed, with the aim of tackling some of the gaps in current knowledge.

    While this paper looks at power distribution, other papers will also cover topics such as UPS and Power Distribution, Feeders and Optimisation. The  full series of papers will provide knowledge to improve reliability and safety, while preventing unnecessary outages.

    “Mission-critical applications rely on having a continuous supply of clean power under all conditions, making the design of the supporting power infrastructure crucial,” Byrnes concludes.  “An early consultation with an experienced supplier is essential for identifying and overcoming possible challenges, some of which the installers may not even be aware of, in order to ensure the system’s safety, reliability and availability.”

    The skills gap: the Uptime Institute’s view

    Phil Collerton, managing director of the Uptime Institute in Europe, Middle East and Africa, says that there is an ageing engineering workforce and universities are struggling to attract people into mechanical and electrical engineering disciplines.

    “There is a shortage of well-trained engineers and there is a big shortage of women in the data centre industry. We have been quite vocal in the last 12 months about the need to address this,” he comments.

    Collerton points out that, in the past, the focus has been on academic qualifications. Now the data centre sector is looking at how it can use new government levy schemes to fund training of the workforce to meet their requirements.

    One scheme in the US is focused on retraining army veterans and there are efforts to bring this model to the UK. The Forces are a great source of well-trained people able to work in a high pressure, critical environment. Some data centres set up ‘boot camps’ that were quite successful but there is a need to replicate this and to market it further, says Collerton. The difficulty, he explains, is recruiting at entry level.

    Anglia Ruskin University offers a Masters course in data centre management and there are some other courses now available, but Collerton believes that there needs to be a greater focus from the government. Currently, there is a lack of understanding of the internet at government level and the importance of these issues. More people need to be made aware of the possibility of working in a data centre and be encouraged to consider this as a career path.




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