Addressing the datacentre skills gap by changing the cloud conversation

Ahead in the Clouds recently attended a tour of IO’s modular datacentre facility in Slough, along with a handful of PhD students from University College London (UCL).

The event’s aim  was to open up the datacentre to a group of people who may never have stepped inside one before to enlighten them about the important (and growing) role these facilities play in keeping the digital economy ticking over.

And, based on the reactions of some of the students on the tour, it’s a lesson that’s long overdue.

For example, all of them largely understood the concept of cloud computing, but seemed surprised to learn that it is a little more grounded in the on-premise world than its name may suggest.

Indeed, the idea that “cloud” has a physical footprint – in the form of an on-premise datacentre – seemed to come as news to almost all of them.

For most people working in the technology industry today, that’s either a realisation they made a very long time ago or can be simply filed away in a folder marked “things I’ve always sort of known”. But, if you’re an outsider, why would you?

The datacentre industry prides itself on creating and running facilities that, to most people, resemble non-descript office blocks, if they bother to cast their eye over them at all.

Given the sensitivity of the data these sites house, as well as the cost of the equipment inside, it’s not difficult to work out why providers aren’t keen on drawing attention to them.

At the same time, datacentre operators often talk about the challenges they face when trying to recruit staff with the right skills, particularly as the push towards converged infrastructure and the use of software-defined architectures gathers pace. 

On top of that is all the talk about how the growth in connected devices, The Internet of Things (IoT), big data and future megatrends look set to transform how the datacentre operates, as well as the role it will play in the enterprise in years to come.

The latter point is one of the reasons why IO is keen to broaden the profile of people, aside from sales prospects, who visit its site.

 “Getting people from different walks of life with different skillsets and different capabilities to comment on what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and what the future might look like is really important,” said Andrew Roughan, IO’s business development director, during a follow-up chat with AitC.

“We’ve got to listen to them and get involved with their line of thinking as that group will be tomorrow’s customers.”

Opening up the datacentre

The range of PhD students the company invited along to the IO open day included some from an artsy, and more creative background, whereas others were in the throes of complex research projects into the impact of the technology industry’s activities on the world’s finite resources.

It was a diverse group, but isn’t that what the datacentre industry is crying out for? A mix of mechanical and software engineers, business-minded folks, creatives, as well as sales and marketing types.

But, if these people don’t know the datacentre exists, thanks in no small part to the veil of secrecy the industry operates under, why would they ever think to work in one?

In this respect, IO could be on to something by opening up its facilities and holding open days, but – as previously touched upon – that’s not something all operators will be able or willing to do.

IO is in a better position than most to, as its customers’ IT kit is locked away in self-contained datacentre chambers that only they have access to. It’s a setup akin to a safety deposit box, and means the risk of some random passer-by on a datacentre tour tampering with the hardware is extremely low.

What might be altogether more effective is getting the entire industry to rethink how it positions the datacentre in the cloud conversation more generally, so its vital contribution is more explicitly stated.

Otherwise, there is a real risk the datacentre will continue to be overlooked by the techies and engineers that UK universities produce simply because they don’t know it’s there.