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The lack of interdisciplinary knowledge, skills and communications has long bedeviled the data center industry.

The industry often laments that IT does not understand the needs of facilities operations, and facilities managers can’t explain their needs to an unhearing IT, and vice versa. Neither party thinks they can effectively communicate their concerns and requirements ‘up’ the food chain to non-technical ‘C-suite’ executives. In turn, senior management often doesn’t know how to ask the right questions of their IT and facilities experts responsible for keeping mission-critical IT and the data center train running – on time and on the tracks.

The issues in forecasting long-range enterprise-wide capacity planning are also daunting… for everybody.

Some hyperbole? Maybe, but then there are all the stories, right? The ‘truth’ varies as widely as the quality and capability of data centers themselves. For as much R&D and innovation progress that has been made, and as central to the global economy as the data center industry is, it nevertheless remains widely varied and highly idiosyncratic.

Until now, no formal graduate-degree-level interdisciplinary academic approach existed to help data center-owning organizations – in a professional, structural and holistic way – bridge this knowledge, skills and communications gap in planning, design, operations and the management of mission-critical facilities.

Mastering the data center
Beginning this Fall in the US, the Southern Methodist University will run a first-of-a-kind Masters of Science in Datacenter Systems Engineering (MS DSE), aided by a corporate advisory board of acknowledged data center industry thought leaders. Its timing is spot on. The Internet of Everything is forcing rapid, transformational change. Big data, mobility, 3D printing/manufacturing, robotics, gaming and interactivity, autonomous cars, telemedicine, YouTube cat videos – all are co-conspirators to this global economy transition. Worldwide, data center IP traffic is exploding at a 25% CAGR (and for the Cloud even faster at 35%).

The world is speeding up and automating, including data centers. This now presents a new level of challenge and risk (if not addressed) to the owners, operators and buyers of third-party lease space, hosting, managed services, colocation capacity and cloud services.

Eric Wells, VP of technology at Fidelity Investments and a member of the MS DSE advisory board, says today’s data centers serve technology needs at rates and volumes never seen before. And these are critical to powering the technologies and applications that enable individuals, companies and entire countries to operate.

“There are many disciplines involved in data centers, from technology and real estate to environmental and regulatory considerations, as well as business and economic factors,” Wells says. “To fully capitalize on future opportunities and effectively address emerging challenges in the ever-evolving data center space, our future leaders need to have a broad professional understanding of these
different subject matters.”

Jim Sargent is the chair of the advisory group and an HP executive director for AMS Services. He says as the technology landscape continues to transform the demand for highly efficient, powerful, flexible, eco-friendly computing facilities required to drive this new style of IT will increase. “However, the number of engineers with the experienced and skill to design, build and operate these data center environments is not meeting that demand,” Sargent says.

The DSE vision
“When engineers are hired straight from college to fill this gap, it can take as long as 36 months to cross-train these single-discipline people in the multi-discipline world of data center engineering,” Sargent says. “The most highly valued engineers and data center leaders understand a broader set of disciplines. The vision for the DSE program is simple: Establish a cross-discipline engineering program that will accelerate an engineer’s time to value in a data center environment, while increasing their overall career marketability by exposing them to the most forward-thinking data center companies in the world.”

SMU Lyle’s director for the new MS DSE program, Dr Edward Forest, says the university will be targeting students from the ranks of both IT and engineering, including those already employed in the space who want to broaden and deepen their skills.

“Although falling within Lyle’s existing disciplines, the breadth of the multidisciplinary data center field extends beyond the reach of any single specialty. It is important to completely encompass the field as it currently exists. This wide diversity produces a ‘separatist’ culture rather than an interdisciplinary one. Creating a situation where effective communications between the ‘silos’ of the essential technical functions is often problematic,” Forest says.

The MS DSE program encompasses five required core courses including, by title, Analytics for Decision Support, Cloud Computing and Virtualization Technologies, Data and Network Security, Management of Industrial and Mission Critical Facilities and Power Management for Industrial and Mission Critical Facilities. These account for 15 of the total required 30 credit hours set aside for the program. Beyond the core, students are required to select three courses from a rich, wide-ranging offering of 40 suggested engineering and technical electives that cover the skill sets of three technical specializations: facilities engineering; data engineering and analytics; and networks, virtualization, and security. Finally, a second group of electives, comprizing six credit hours, bring in other SMU academic disciplines including, potentially, business, finance, economics, physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Intended for both full- and part-time students, the program will be offered both on the Dallas Campus and via distance learning.

Home for over 50 data centers itself, the greater Dallas area may have a ‘home-field advantage’ but Forest is quick to point out that SMU is a pioneer in distance engineering education – it is the second university to offer graduate engineering distance education.

The Lyle MS DSE program is intended to “serve the world’s data center industry,” Forest says. “After all, it’s through data that we get the chance to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems and reveal new opportunities.”

The design of the MS DSE curriculum, with ample industry input, according to Forest, results in a “technically flexible program, offering dual academic paths to the student, either to deepen skills in one of the engineering disciplines or to achieve the necessary broadening required for a management and leadership role to more effectively function at the interfaces of two or more disciplines.”

Jason Velody, MD of DCProfessional Development, says professional development is vital if you want to keep up with the rapid progression of the data center industry. “The MS DSE program is a unique way to help bridge the skills gap that is emerging throughout the industry,  but we must remember that regular training throughout a career is the only way for data center professionals to keep up-to-date in this fast-paced mission-critical environment,” he says.

Designing for the future
Don Beaty, founding principal of consulting engineering firm DLB Associates, says he thinks the ever-quickening pace of change is driving the need for this interdisciplinary approach. He refers to tech innovator and investor Marc Andreeson who wrote in a 2011 Wall Street Journal essay “software is eating everything”. “We’re now in the era of software-defined networking and the software-defined data center. Software is eating facilities and hardware,” Beaty says.

“The requirement for integration is way beyond anything needed in the past. Space, power, cooling – all now need to be tightly integrated with computing. This program intends to address that integration at a higher level. This increases the probability of developing generalists who can more easily comprehend the depth and breadth of the problems to solve.

“While the movement to data center infrastructure management, for instance, appears to be having a long adoption cycle, the trend is constantly upward. These technologies may not yet be perfect but they’re far superior to doing nothing. People who approach us to design a next-generation data center tend to be risk averse and are often ill-equipped to understand the transformational change that things like big data and cyber security are driving.

“In general, the technical people who control today’s data center can’t put aside the past in order to be able to design the future. SMU’s long history of doing multi-disciplinary programs like this, plus their experience in distance learning and in forming strong partnerships with corporations, makes them particularly well-suited to tackle something like this.”

Realizing the opportunities
Peter Gross, VP of mission critical systems for Bloom Energy and founder of HP/EYP Mission Critical Facilities, a global data center consulting engineering firm, agreed that the pace of change requires a new and higher level of thinking and multidisciplinary engineering capabilities.

“At the same time as we have this demand growth that challenges our thinking in energy and power alone we also have new, exciting options and alternatives in mission-critical technologies. But the decisions are complex; it takes knowledge and analytical skills to know how to evaluate and address them at the level of design, in operations and in executive and financial decision-making,” Gross says. “The level of expertise required as we increasingly automate these systems – both on the IT and the facilities sides – will be increasingly greater. A program like this points us in the right direction.”

This article first appeared in FOCUS Issue 36, available online here