Opportunities in the datacentre

Working in a datacentre may not sound like the most glamorous corner of IT, but for staff who like to work in a close-knit team using the latest technologies and who can handle occasional periods of high stress and out-of-hours working, it is ideal. It is also a great place to develop specialist skills while getting a grounding across the full spread of IT operations.

Working in a datacentre may not sound like the most glamorous corner of IT, but for staff who like to work in a close-knit team using the latest technologies and who can handle occasional periods of high stress and out-of-hours working, it is ideal. It is also a great place to develop specialist skills while getting a grounding across the full spread of IT operations.

Within the datacentre, staff are typically divided into two broad types, says John Skelton, UK managed service director for datacentre operator Colt. The implementation team will consist of implementation managers who effectively act as project managers for new customer requirements, supported by generalist engineers who handle physical installs and cabling. The operational or service assurance team will be responsible for configuring the equipment and managing it once it has been installed, and will consist of specialists of various levels of seniority in areas such as server management, database management, storage and backup, networking, and system monitoring, as well as helpdesk staff.

Alex Rabbetts, managing director of Migration Solutions, which helps companies set up and staff datacentres, says there are other staff in the datacentre who are less obviously involved in IT work but still need IT knowledge, such as storemen and power and cooling specialists. Storemen are typically required to track and handle correctly high volumes of very valuable equipment while, he points out, "much of the infrastructure managed by facilities engineers - power, cooling, fire detection and suppression, and security systems, for example - is now managed using IT-based network management protocols."

Above these operational teams, says Ben Catchpole, a managing consultant with recruiter Hudson, will be infrastructure architects ensuring the datacentre is well designed and that all the supporting services such as power and cooling are in place, and project managers looking after major installations. At the top of the tree is the datacentre manager who, Rabbetts says, needs a broad understanding of everything in the datacentre from facilities infrastructure, such as power and cooling to the servers, network and operating systems and applications, as well as processes and procedure. Alex Rea, a branch manager with recruitment consultancy Computer People, says these roles typically go to people who have experience in a datacentre or perhaps in network operations for a large telco.

The work itself tends to be a mix of routine and reactive tasks. "For implementation staff, most of the work is planned and you have a reasonable amount of time to plan and deliver it," Skelton says. On the operational side, he says "it is more reactive, but at Colt we try to use proactive monitoring tools to allow us to plan for tasks such as hard disk upgrades. We also try to automate processes to take the strain of monitoring and other repetitive tasks."

However, datacentre work can be stressful. "You are typically working in a high-availability environment where customer uptime is critical and downtime means loss of revenue," says Riccardo DegliEffeti, operations manager of TelecityGroup's Powergate datacentre. In a hosted datacentre, service level agreements are likely to involve some of that cost being passed from the customer to the provider. DegliEffeti points out that the level of stress in a particular datacentre will "very much depend on how well the site is set up and how well it is maintained."

There are other differences between working in a corporate datacentre, however large or small, and an outsourced datacentre. "In a corporate datacentre, operators are much closer to the data, are more passionate and take more responsibility, but processes and procedures may not be so good and very often there will be one person around whom the whole operation hangs because they know the history, or they know how it all fits together. In an outsourced environment, staff tend not to be close to the data, but their role is all about service and the pressure is on maintaining maximum uptime," Rabbetts says.

Working in a datacentre is also not quite like working in most offices. "It is generally a very artificial environment: cooled, heavily air-conditioned and artificially lit, and often out of town in the middle of an industrial estate, and with few staff facilities you might expect to find in a large organisation, such as a canteen or gym. It is also a very security conscious environment, so it may not be that easy to pop out for lunch," Rea says.

Rabbetts says that, "datacentres, despite not being seen this way by many organizations, are inherently dangerous places to work. Equipment is heavy and often being lifted into high cabinets, while datacentres use huge amounts of power and generally at least some of this will be 3-phase. Plugging something into the wrong type of power can have catastrophic effects for the equipment, the datacentre as a whole and the operator."

People tend to get into datacentre work at a relatively junior level. Skelton says he would hire staff without an IT background for the most junior roles if they have "the gumption and the ability to learn. One of the key things about datacentres is that you have to have cross-functional working, so you need people who are team players, rather than people with great technical expertise but a tendency to create chinese walls between different specialisms."

Another requirement, says Mike Bennett, head of technical operators in Europe for datacentre operator Savvis, is a high degree of comfort with following procedures closely. "It is important to have proper processes and routine in place so that you have good control over the environment. You need people who understand that what they are doing will direct affect customers' businesses," he says. At the same time, Catchpole says, staff need to be flexible enough to deal with crises and to not have a rigid nine-to-five mentality.

Although moving up in a corporate datacentre can be difficult because there tends to be only a small number of staff in each discipline, promotion prospects in outsourced datacentres can be excellent. DegliEffetti's career is typical: he was hired as a mid-level engineer by a TelecityGroup datacentre in Italy around eight years ago. After being promoted at that datacentre, he moved to an in-house role with Bloomberg in Italy managing server racks housed in an external co-location datacentre, and then transferred to a similar role in the UK. Finally, he moved back to TelecityGroup around a year ago and is now manager of its newest London datacentre.

The career path is slightly different in each role. Bennett says that "staff on the support desk dealing with customer queries can become more specialised in the systems they support and may eventually move into specialist teams involved in fault resolution, installation and provisioning." On the implementation side, says Skelton, "junior engineers typically start out doing very reactive tasks such as rebooting servers and work towards handling small installations on their own before rising to implementation manager." Operational staff, Catchpole says, will begin with "feeding and watering of systems such as tape changes and batch runs" before developing expertise in server, network and storage management.

In more senior roles, Catchpole says, datacentres are looking for staff with expertise in change management, project management and ITIL-based processes as well as technical skills. On the technical side, datacentres want staff with certification in supplier courses such as Sun and Cisco, and will often support staff through the certification process, especially in service providers whose customers expect staff to be fully up to date.

Despite the breadth and depth of skills required by the datacentre, Rabbetts says salaries tend to be lower than equivalent roles elsewhere. "They do not yet fully reflect the importance of roles that are critical to the survival, let alone success, of many organizations," he says. "Datacentre managers can typically expect to earn £50-£70,000 a year in the south-east, which is low compared to, for example, a unix admin who has just one skillset." He says that in outsourced datacentres, which are run for profit, salaries are typically 5% to 10% lower than in a corporate datacentre.

However, Rea suggests that with the present skills shortage, datacentre pay is reaching comparable levels to similar roles in other parts of the IT industry, and shift work allowances can add considerably to basic pay. In more junior roles, Catchpole says salaries start from around £20,000 a year, and Skelton sees mid-level on-call or shift engineers earning £35,000 to £45,000 a year.

Shift work is definitely the norm, with implementation engineers often expected to work evening shifts because many planned changes are scheduled when customer systems are less busy. On the operational side, there is usually only one person in each discipline on duty outside hours, with most staff working a normal day shift but on call perhaps one week in five. "You will typically get called out once or twice in the week you are on call," Skelton says. Rabbets says that "in a well run datacentre, with good processes and procedure, the impact of being on-call should be minimal."

Even if salaries are lower, DegliEffeti says, they are offset by other factors. "There are plenty of opportunities to develop yourself in terms of technology and customer service," he says. TelecityGroup is typical in providing "regular training in specific technologies such as Microsoft, Cisco and cabling because we need our staff to keep up to date."

He says that because customers have varied needs, no two customer environments are the same, which provides exposure to broad range of system configurations. Bennett says that working in a datacentre allows you "to make a career change without having to go to a different company - as a company, we are happy to let people move around because we benefit from retaining quality people who have experience of other areas than their current specialism - while the culture is friendly, open and honest."

As a result, Bennett says, staff turnover tends to be low. However, if you do want to move on, ex-datacentre staff are highly sought after. "You can get to a pretty senior level in a particular technical discipline, while gaining a good grounding in other specialisms because the different disciplines have to work closely together. That means you could easily go to many other kinds of companies," Skelton says.

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