Cool career opportunity: Data center architect

This New Data Center role could put you on the path to the executive suite

Are you a go-getter who has experience managing servers, storage, security and facilities, and wants to get into the next big thing? If so, you just might be the perfect person for a role that is growing exponentially in importance: data center architect.

Many companies' data center responsibilities are broken out piecemeal, but experts say that companies embracing New Data Center technologies, such as blade servers, grid computing and virtualization, will succeed by consolidating the management of all critical functions into a single role. Using these advanced technologies begs for someone capable of bringing an integrated, holistic approach to data center architecture and design, says Johna Till Johnson, Network World columnist and co-founder of Nemertes Research.

For a data center to be secure, its architect must factor in facilities design and architecture, Johnson says. Likewise, to create a sturdy server and storage architecture, the architect must plan for manageability and operations. By placing all such responsibilities under the purview of a single person, the company gains strength in long-range planning and short-range execution. On the other hand, Johnson says in her "New Data Center Strategies" newsletter, companies that don't risk failure.

Len Eckhaus, founder of AFCOM, a data center management group with 3,000 member organizations, agrees. "Years ago, a data center architect simply ran jobs and processed payroll. It was an entry-level position. Today there is so much complex equipment with specific security, space, power and cooling requirements that you need someone who can manage not only the equipment but the whole data center environment," he says.

Where it's at

IT professionals who are well-versed in server, storage and security technologies can advance their careers by adding heating and cooling, power and other facilities management expertise to their résumé, Eckhaus says. Those who do may even find themselves within spitting distance of such executive-level positions as CIO and CTO, he says.

"The data center is where it's at today. There's a huge awareness among corporate executives of the critical nature of the data center, therefore the data center architect is now in line for IT's top spot," Eckhaus says.

This rise in importance comes from the momentum within the data center industry, Eckhaus says. More than 70% of AFCOM members say they are moving their data centers, building new ones or expanding their facilities within the next five to 10 years, he says.

In addition, such New Data Center technologies as Power over Ethernet, blade servers, grid computing and virtualization have had a tremendous impact on data center capacity planning, Eckhaus says.

David May, asset and data center manager at H.E. Butt Grocery Co. in San Antonio, Texas, deals with these issues firsthand. As data center architect for the $11 billion company, which has 60,000 employees and 300 stores in Texas and Mexico, he oversees not only the servers, storage and network but also the security, power and cooling for the data center.

 

This holistic view is necessary because of the critical nature of the data center: "It can't be treated like any other building because it's not," May says.

Ins and outs

May learned the ins and outs of power and cooling so he could lead the decision making for the company's data center, as well as its expansion. "Blade servers have a lot of benefits, but they are energy hogs. We are just now finishing a three-year electrical upgrade to put a megawatt of redundant power on the floor," he says.

IT professionals must lead the charge because they understand the ramifications of environmental changes for equipment. And a data center architect should report to the CIO or CTO, May says. "The data center architect is going to make decisions that aren't very popular," he says. For instance, a data center architect will go to battle over temperature costs. Facilities says if we crank up the temperature five degrees, we can save money, but that puts the equipment in jeopardy," May says.

The data center also has to be engineered with redundancies that can be costly but are critical for disaster recovery and business continuity, he adds. For instance, May has placed the data center on a separate, backup generator in case of a power outage on the main campus.

Increasingly, companies are anointing a data center architect to justify the costs in hot-button budget issues, such as space allocation, says Andreas Antonopoulos, senior partner at Nemertes. "There might be a situation where the data center appears to be only half-full, but the empty space is misleading because of the power and cooling requirements of technologies such as blade servers," Antonopoulos says.

"We've gone from using 1.5 to 3 kilowatts of power to where 15-kwh racks are not uncommon. Many data centers can't support that and need to be upgraded," Antonopoulos says.

Becoming a facilities expert on top of keeping pace with the latest IT technologies isn't easy. H.E. Butts' May recommends digging deeper into such unknown territory as electricity and HVAC by taking courses at local technical schools, subscribing to industry journals and researching vendor Web sites. "Eventually, all data centers will be completely isolated from other parts of the campus. All of their considerations - electrical, cooling, water - will be separate," he says. "We're not there yet, but you need to be ready."

Gittlen is a freelance writer in Northborough, Mass. She can be e-mailed at sgittlen@charter.net.

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