There are some specializations that are unique to the data center industry, and expensive to hire. Here’s why they are worth every penny
As businesses seek ways to rationalize their data center construction costs, thrift-conscious finance directors may be tempted to cut corners and get interns to do some of the jobs on ’zero hour’ contracts.
This is a common mistake, since the value of data center specialist disciplines is not widely appreciated. Below, we talk about some of the unsung heroes of the data center industry and explain why they are indispensable.
Anyone can pack up a server in a crate, and sticking it in a minicab or the back of your car costs next to nothing. Many companies take the cheapest option when moving, but later, the project manager often has an embarrassing answer when the CFO asks “what’s the damage?”
Expensive servers can get destroyed or mislaid or misconfigured for several reasons. Inexperienced staff are likely to take risks when they carry heavy equipment. Many moving men regard the exercise as a test of their strength and there is a tendency to carry ambitious loads. The resulting lack of control inevitably leads to clunks against door frames and damaged servers. A server removal specialist, such as Sunspeed or Technimove, will limit staff to comfortable loads. Anything over 30 kilos has to be carried by two people, according to Sunspeed’s guidelines.
Another mistake that first time movers make is to generate tons of static as they scuff their way across the inevitable nylon carpets that the majority of offices use. If this static isn’t discharged in transit, it will take its deadly toll on the equipment when it’s packed into flight cases.
There’s also a danger, when hiring staff for a one-off job, that the de facto project manager had been unable to properly check out their background. There have been cases where removals staff made off with all of the equipment they were supposed to be transporting.
Any skeptical bean counter may find the entry for data center cleaning costs and wonder why they are twice as expensive as the cost of hoovering the office. But using an ordinary cleaning company would be a false economy, explains Brendan Musgrove, MD of Cordant Specialist Services.
An ordinary cleaning company may not drive a coach and horses through your security plan, says Musgrove, but they will frequently hold the door open. “The cleaners we recruit have to be paid more because they have some technical understanding,” says Musgrove. They will appreciate that it’s not a good idea to prop the data center doors open with a bucket so anyone can come and go – as happened with one of his clients’ previous contractors.
Source: Thinkstock / endopack
Inappropriate materials are another hazard. One cleaning horror story involves a corrosive substance being used to clean metal surfaces. This led to the creation of zinc flakes that were scooped up in the cold air drafts and circulated around the data center.
If one of these floating metallic items landed on a CPU, they could cause short-circuiting. Though unlikely, it is a very expensive accident waiting to happen. A good cleaning company will use anti-static cleaning cloths.
A more likely result of skimping on the cleaners would be that the levels of dust rise, leading to a dampening of performance of server fans, air conditioning units and other equipment. A high number of particles in the air means that filters get clogged more quickly too.
Some companies buff the floor (to make it look attractive to visitors), oblivious to the fact that they are kicking up extra levels of dust. A professional company will polish the floor but filter off the particles before they go into circulation. “I’ve seen cleaners walking round with a mop and bucket,’ says Musgrove. Specialist cleaning staff will be worth paying extra for as they will possess the attention to detail that such services encourage, and will understand physical security practices. “We’re starting to hire ex military staff as they have the right training,” reveals Musgrove.
Few FDs think interior design is important in a data center, but the choice of paint is crucial.
Though the job of painting a data centre is no different from any other kind of industrial scale toshing, the paint is unavoidably expensive, says Mick Higgins, MD of H&S Decorating Specialists. This is because, like every other material in the data center, it has to be anti-static. Financial directors may also be skeptical about the fact that labour charges are higher. Again, this is because there is a premium on finding the right staff, with security clearance and some understanding of the sensitivities involved.
“It’s alright when you’re painting before construction,” says Higgins, “but once it has been completed it’s like being in a high security prison. If your staff don’t turn up with passports, they’re going to lose a day’s work because they won’t get in. So you need people who know how to behave, are reliable and know the environment.” These specialists are generally harder to recruit.
Materials that are prepainted before construction are a lot easier, according to Higgins.
However, pre-constructed data centers bring their own challenges. Given that pre-fab modules are a popular data center option for extreme environments, like tundras and deserts, they also call for specialists. The ability to clean and maintain a data center in marine environments or at extremes of temperature must call for rare skills.
Engineering manager Mark Awas, who installed modular data centers for Cannon Technologies in a remote desert base, says you have to specialise in fighting a new enemy – talc-like sand which penetrates everywhere.
Specialists here are used to putting dust sheets around everything - and constant vacuuming. It’s a bit like being in a Martian space capsule as you must never leave your ‘white space’ exposed to the hostile outside elements. Staff must leave cleanroom clothes in the module and use the man trap / air lock to get changed – otherwise they’ll bring in deadly dust every time.
In hot conditions a module can hit 40°C for months on end. Here, specialist knowledge is needed too. “Bring in the cooling units in stages over a week,” says Awas. Rapid cooling would be as damaging as fast heating.
Dave Wolfenden, MD at Mafi Mushkila, says any data center service provider has to go against conventional IT wisdom and ‘sweat the small stuff’.
“Watch how your supplier is planning the works, get references, check their liabilities and insurance,” he says, “plan to witness everything. Never assume the supplier understands how things are to be done and isn’t cutting corners when you are not looking.”
“Always pack the server with its rails and fixings. I watched movers put all the rails for 50 servers in a single crate – the installers then spent hours working out which rails went with which server!” says Wolfenden. ”Take photos to prove previous damage and note the state of everything.”
A twenty-year veteran of data centers, Wolfenden’s analysis applies universally across all disciplines involved in managing a facility. Never assume anything, and never cut corners.