We talk to Mark Wood about his experiences as a data-centre manager
An interview with Mark Wood
Unless you have your own server room and an IT guru who lives in it., your business probably relies on a data centre... somewhere... more than you realise. Maybe it's just the company email, maybe it's all your accounts in "the cloud". We call it the cloud, but really, everything is stored in a place like this. The scale is different depending on whether your host is Google or some guys in SA offering rackspace for $14.99 a month, but the principle is the same.
What does the job involve?
I work at Fasthosts Internet, where I'm head of operations essentially. I'm responsible for keeping the data centres powered and cooled, as well as installing and removing hardware. It sounds simple, but it's a big job: we have two data centres, one in our main premises that has 60 racks, and another dedicated data centre with more than 170 racks spread over two floors.
It's also a constantly evolving job, as the equipment is upgraded frequently. It's my responsibility to plan and ensure there's enough space and power for everything. There's a lot of maintenance involved too – I test devices such as air conditioners, uninterruptible power supplies, emergency generators and so forth.
What skills do you need?
There's a lot of planning involved – you need to think logically. That said, it also helps to be flexible and have the ability to think on your feet. You might be geared up to install a new set of servers, and then a last-minute change comes down the line – perhaps a supplier is swapping the hardware it uses, or a manufacturer has run out of stock of a certain type of hardware and we have to find an alternative. Although this doesn't happen often, it helps to be calm in a crisis.
A good grasp of the underlying infrastructure of your systems is essential. When things go wrong in the data centre, it's usually serious, in terms of critical services going down. You have to be ready to get your systems back up and running quickly. Thankfully this doesn't happen too often either!
What does your day look like?
No two days are the same. Some days, I'll be in front of my PC working on spreadsheets, capacity planning, raising purchase orders and so on. On other days I might spend time getting hands-on with the servers and cabling; I supervise this personally, because pulling one wrong cable could create an incident. My team is still quite new to this aspect of work, but it's learning, so over time I should end up doing less and less of this type of work.
What attracted you to the job?
It's fair to say that the data centre found me, rather than vice versa. Before taking on the role, I spent around ten years in various systems-support roles, which included regularly helping out in data centres. This naturally led to an offer to take up a position as a full-time data-centre engineer. Within a couple of years I'd worked my way up to manager.
How technical is the role?
As I've mentioned, knowing your own systems inside-out is invaluable, so you can apply quick fixes if need be. My team and I also help out with hardware diagnostics and replacing server components, so a good grounding in hardware is useful. I often still use my network knowledge when diagnosing cabling connectivity issues too. I dare say a more hands-off data-centre manager might not use those sorts of technical skills, but I find them useful.
What are the working conditions like?
The job can be stressful at times: I'm always aware that if something goes wrong in the data centre, many people's work can be affected. Some jobs can only be carried out overnight, to minimise disruption, so the hours can sometimes be antisocial. In fact, due to the 24/7 nature of data centres, you have to be prepared to be called on-site in an emergency. Wherever I am, I'm never too far away from my work mobile, although I can only recall two out-of-hours incidents in the past 12 months – so it isn't too bad. And I love what I do, so that really balances out the stress.
How would someone get into this career?
Having an IT background certainly helps, but a lot of day-to-day functions are process-driven – for example, we receive automated requests to rack new servers when stocks start to run low, and, conversely, we're prompted to remove old servers once a customer has finished with them. So you require little in the way of formal knowledge to get started; you just need an ability to learn and apply yourself. When it comes to climbing the ladder, the prime requirements are experience and exposure to real environments. There are training courses available, but nothing compares to hands-on experience.