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Keeping the lights on: Managing datacentre engineers through Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has seen datacentre engineers reclassified as “essential workers”, but how are their employers ensuring they can continue to do their work in a safe and secure way?

Against the backdrop of Covid-19, the term “key worker” instantly brings to mind thoughts of front-line NHS and social care workers, as well as supermarket staff. But another subset of key workers that perhaps go unnoticed are those working in datacentres.

The NHS and leading supermarkets all rely on datacentres to function, particularly at a time when they are being asked to provide new types of service or scale up to meet unparalleled demand, and directly or indirectly rely on datacentre employees.

But although consumers may be unaware of the importance of datacentres, many governments are, according to John Shorten, senior director of operations Northern Europe at colocation giant Equinix Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA).

“Datacentres are usually considered critical infrastructure – and we’ve been able to make sure that our staff are able to get to work without being impeded by the authorities,” he says.

Equinix has 200 datacentres in 55 markets around the world, so this has been a monumental task for the organisation, but ensuring “staff are safe, are able to feel safe coming to work and that they’re not exposed to the Covid-19 virus unnecessarily” has been a top priority throughout the pandemic, says Shorten.

Clear guidelines have been given to all datacentre staff and suppliers in the UK and other countries, stating that anyone with coronavirus symptoms or with family or household members with symptoms should not attend sites. Datacentre operators have also enabled many of their staff to work from home, and in some instances have created a rota for on-site work, to limit the number of people who could be exposed to the virus.

To protect their staff, Equinix started to re-evaluate every aspect of its datacentre employees’ working lives, starting with how they get to work, with an emphasis on minimising their reliance on public transport where possible – by using cabs or rental cars, for instance.

Once at work, datacentre employees, customers, suppliers and contractors all have to go through a screening process to ensure they do not have any virus symptoms. This includes temperature checks with non-contact thermometers as well as some questions about how they feel. Then they are asked to wash their hands before accessing the site.

The new normal

Dan Smith, head of service delivery at Manchester-based colocation provider Teledata, says that before the pandemic, people would come in and out freely throughout the week to access the company’s two datacentres and offices. But since the end of March, the company has imposed access restrictions and it is Smith’s job to ensure people are adhering to the new rules.

Restrictions include controls on how people enter the car park, the building and the datacentre, and people wanting to access the server farm have to make an appointment. Teledata has also limited the number of people who can be in the same datacentre at the same time to a maximum of three, but ideally two.

“The number of people coming in has reduced, and it’s very rare that you get more than two people wanting to come into the same area at the same time,” says Smith. “However, we’re limiting this to two people for any one job, and we expect them to adhere to social distancing.”

Some datacentre operators have chosen to create different routes for customers entering the sites to limit the potential spread of infection and contamination around it, and to help with social distancing.

Many companies, including Teledata, have temporarily limited access for customers, only allowing people to go on-site in emergencies. This has meant these companies now have to carry out additional work on behalf of their customers.

“We can help with things like rebooting systems, plugging in to see if there are any errors on systems or hot swapping hard drives,” says Smith. “But in situations with failed systems or more in-depth investigation, we’re still allowing critical access.

“We’ve got customers serving a variety of people – people working from home are using services from our datacentre, and we’ve got customers who serve the NHS as well.”

Outside of critical site maintenance, non-critical sites are temporarily deferring maintenance or installation upgrade visits, while major equipment upgrades have been put on hold at critical sites.

Staying safe

It is critical that datacentre staff, or anyone accessing a datacentre, has adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic – including face masks and gloves – and access to other infection-control substances, such as hand sanitiser and surface disinfectants.

Annalisa O’Rourke, COO of Surrey-based hosting provider Memset, says: “The datacentre operators we’ve been working with have been ensuring workers are equipped with PPE and disinfection equipment, where required. They are trained to use the disinfection equipment on entry, wiping down any areas they will touch prior to working and doing the same when they’re leaving the premises.

“These datacentres are also ensuring that there are clear logs of entry, stating the path of entry and the location of work carried out within the datacentre. In addition, these sites are keeping logs of staff and their health status to ensure immediate detection if anyone with the virus comes into contact with any areas of the datacentre.”

Smith says the Teledata datacentres are cleaned as part of a daily routine, including wiping down doors, door handles, and anything else people may touch on their way around the site.

Read more about the datacentre community’s response to Covid-19

Equinix does not touch any of its customers’ equipment without prior authorisation, but does wipe down any key touchpoints. In other areas, such as cabinets, it is refraining from touching surfaces until it is sure the virus cannot be present.

“This tends to be up to 24 hours on things like metal or plastics, but if we did need access to a cabinet or an area where there’s technical equipment, then we would have to wear appropriate PPE, such as gloves or coveralls, which are available on-site,” says Shorten.

Cleaning and disinfecting has to be even more thorough if it is discovered that an individual with Covid-19 has been in the datacentre.

Chris Wellfair, projects director at Secure IT Environments, a UK designer and builder of datacentres, says: “The area will need to be sealed off and a deep clean has to take place. This would include cleaning all surfaces above head height, starting from the furthest reaches of the datacentre and working back to the doors.

“As each section is cleaned, this is also sealed off as the team works with the appropriate PPE and social distancing to clean through the datacentre. The health protection team at Public Health England, or other relevant authority, would also be contacted to help assess the risks, and any further action required.”

Critical sites, including supermarkets and NHS premises, have to take into account all the above advice in order to allow visits for preventative maintenance of air-conditioning systems, uninterruptible power supply and generators to take place.

Part-way through the pandemic review

Smith says he is happy with the action Teledata has taken to minimise interactions and protect staff. He believes the company is receptive to any changes that staff or customers may flag if there are concerns about safety.

Susan Bowen, CEO of hosting and cloud services provider Aptum, says that while social distancing rules and guidelines limit the risk of infection and ensure the safety of datacentre engineers, it may add to workloads and shift duration.

This may make some staff even more anxious about their safety if they are expected to be on-site for longer periods. This may be counteracted by the use of rotas, with half the team working from home and the other working on-site.

Some companies are taking the approach of not forcing staff to go into the datacentre at all.

Andy Horn, CEO of managed services provider IntraLAN, says: “We’ve had to go into the datacentre once to change an old server – it wasn’t an order of if you’d like to go, it was an option if you’re happy to go.”

The general consensus is that datacentres do require some staff on-site, but operators should abide by government guidelines as much as possible.

Although datacentre staff may not be the first people who come to mind when you think of key workers, they may offer an indication of how other types of workers may have to operate as the government’s lockdown gradually eases.

Read more on Datacentre systems management

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