All posts by NickScott

Meet the data centre technicians – the people who keep the online economy working


According to IDC figures, there will be 8.6 million data centres worldwide by 2017, all powering the Internet economy. The technology analyst firm believes that, over the next five years, the majority of organisations will cease to manage their own IT infrastructure and turn to dedicated and shared cloud offerings in service provider data centres.

Smaller data centres and in-house server rooms are on the wane, being replaced by ‘mega data centres’ that house the servers that power the Internet, our cities, and the economy. IDC estimates that these will account for almost three quarters (72%) of all service provider data centre construction in terms of space, while also accounting for 44% of all new high-end data centre space around the world (up from 19% in 2013).

While large companies run their own data centres – Facebook, for example, recently announced it is spending at least $500 million (£324m) on a new facility in Fort Worth, Texas – most organisations either rent space, known as colocation, or buy cloud computing capacity.

Data centres are the engine rooms enabling the internet economy to run – and it’s an area where the UK is a leader. Research from Tariff Consulting shows that the UK data centre market is the largest in Europe by space and power. Tariff also suggests that the growth in demand has led to a surge in construction of data centres outside London, in places such as Slough and Manchester.

But these data centres need to be manned – and it’s these people who have the responsibility of keeping the internet economy running.

Around a dozen people will be responsible for running a typical data centre at any point in time, working around the clock on shifts to constantly monitor vital signals to ensure that power is available and the server rooms are kept cool. They’re a mixture of technicians, engineers, and facilities staff.

My job, as data centre services manager for CenturyLink, is to ensure CenturyLink’s data centre in Slough keeps running and is managed as efficiently as possible. This involves ensuring that equipment is installed and maintained properly, and customers that rent space in the data centre follow best practice guidelines.

An example of this is ensuring that cabling is installed properly. When it isn’t, it can interfere with airflow, which has implications for temperature control. Poor temperature control affects how much power is used, and potentially causes problems with the servers, if they overheat.

The first thing you notice when walking around a data centre is the quiet, with just the faint hum of hundreds of servers permeating the space. CenturyLink’s Slough data centre is roughly the size of an average supermarket, divided into dozens of server rooms, run by a small team of engineers, technicians, and facilities staff at any point in time.

For co-location customers, they bring their own servers in, with our job to ensure they have power and cooling to run their systems in an optimum environment. They are just responsible for what happens in their own cage and they don’t have interaction with any other company – it’s their space. As a result, security is paramount and data centre workers are thoroughly background checked before getting a job at CenturyLink. These are CenturyLink workers and not outsourced, which we – and our customers – feel is more secure and gives greater peace of mind. Even visitors entering the data centre are subject to numerous security checks.

An important part of the role is handling outages or safety issues such as fire or power failure. While these are rare in any data centre, to minimise any risk, preparation is key. These primarily involve monitoring systems, put in place to ensure we know what the ‘health’ of the data centre is at any point in time. Should anything happen that’s beyond our control, we have an escalation process to deal with it – such as standby generators and an uninterruptable power supply in the case of power failure.

Data centre technicians comes from a variety of backgrounds, but usually with a strong interest in IT, electronics, or electrical engineering. The technician role mixes desktop support, with knowledge of router and networking equipment, along with practical skills, such as cabling or repairing power equipment. It’s literally a hands-on job, and there’s more variety than you might think.

Technicians tend to stay in the industry once they join it, and as the likes of Slough and other areas outside London become greater hubs for data centres as connectivity costs dwindle, there are plenty of job opportunities for those who want to enter the profession. Working with people that share my passion for a good job well done is important – but it’s also rewarding to know that we’re an essential cog in the wheel of the internet economy.