As data centre operations manager for GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence and security organisation, Ian faces unique challenges. Here, he discusses inclusion in the data centre industry, the excitement of new innovations and how the younger generation views the infrastructure behind the technology they make use of every day.
The biggest challenge faced in the government data centre environment is running a mixed, hybrid data centre. The demands of the environment mean that the team has to operate many instances of technology in a space designed in the late nineties.
There are ‘old school’ air-cooled racks running happily at 4kW through to high density, water-cooled racks pushing 60kW, through to immersion cooled systems and super-compute.
Obviously, if a new data centre was planned today, it would be ideal to introduce some segregation to maximise cooling and energy efficiencies.
In this space, that’s not really possible, so the team is often looking for innovative, new technologies, to help make the savings and efficiencies that keep the CFO happy while still delivering the performance that the business needs to carry out its mission.
Inclusion in the data centre industry
There is a need to get evangelists out of data centres and into schools, colleges and careers fairs
For those who spend their life involved in making sure complex IT operations run smoothly, it may be easy to forget that many on the ‘outside’ exist unaware of the work that goes into running the technology they take for granted.
Looking at the younger generation can help with this. Ian notes that a significant portion of his son’s life exists online, whether that’s on a computer, phone, games console, smart TV, or any other modern, connected device.
And yet, until they had spoken about Ian’s work, there was little thought or understanding given to the architecture, power, space, cooling, compute, networking and storage that went into it.
This is, of course, understandable, but also an important point for those that are looking to create a more inclusive and diverse industry. By making more young people aware of what goes into the behind-the-scenes work, Ian feels confident that this fast-moving, exciting and rewarding industry will become more appealing.
He also argues that the industry as a whole is not very good at communicating outside of its immediate confines. There is a need to get evangelists out of data centres and into schools, colleges and careers fairs.
There is growing interest across the industry in developing apprenticeships, and defining the standards for the data centre technician role and what that would look like for somebody moving into the industry, something which Ian is actively involved with and looks to encourage.
All that being said, the data centre sector is no more troubled by diversity problems than any other. Ian notes the number of examples of companies that have made great progress, by changing their culture and implementing diversity policies.
Speaking from personal experience, Ian takes it as a great positive that he can look around his organisation and see a significantly more diverse workplace than when he started. There’s been a great effort to change, both in terms of culture and corporate beliefs, and this has had a positive impact.
There have been ever more rapid developments in cooling technologies and rack densities in recent years, and this looks to continue
To a large extent, this process has been helped along by legislation. Within his organisation, there are no barriers to entry on the basis of any protected characteristic as stated in the Single Equality Act 2010. As far as possible, the only entry requirement should be that the person is right for the job.
How the future looks
As these requirements become practice, attitudes change too. It is now becoming a common belief that diversity and inclusion are about recognising the value of individual differences and embracing them so that everyone can be themselves at work, and therefore able to give their best in a supportive environment. This is a belief that Ian holds strongly – he argues that diversity and inclusion is everyone’s responsibility.
Events like Data Centre World, and its Diversity and Talent Stream, are also part of the solution. Ian argues that conferences and exhibitions help promote the industry and can help open up a track for currently underrepresented groups to be introduced to the people and careers within it.
If the future of people in the industry looks more diverse, how does it look technologically? Ian cites a number of exciting developments being made in the fields of density and cooling. Immersion cooling, the linking of water-cooled systems together, and technology that requires different water temperatures until you arrive at a marketable hot water commodity at the end of the chain are among these developments.
Rack densities are constantly on the rise too, with Ian’s team pushing 60kW in a standard rack. There is even talk of one data centre manufacturer reaching 100kW, by using innovative water-cooled systems.
These rapidly rising numbers are just one demonstration of the pace of change within the industry, and Ian sees the next big change being in battery technology, where he thinks there will be an increasing focus thanks to driverless cars and the move towards green and carbon neutral policies.
Perhaps these advances will come as a by-product of other developments, but in the fast-moving data centre industry, pushing the pace of change is a natural part of life. Quoting computing giant Alan Kay, Ian believes that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”