Data center operations work around the clock, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, to maintain an uninterrupted flow of information. Their primary goal is to ensure the reliable and efficient management of IT infrastructure and services, which are critical for the storage, processing, and distribution of data.

Data center operations involve managing IT systems and facility infrastructure, ensuring the reliable functioning of servers and storage devices, as well as power and cooling systems. They also maintain network connectivity, security operations, and influence disaster recovery planning.

Dgtl Infra examines the wide-reaching field of data center operations that keep our digital world running smoothly. From the foundational components of physical, network, and security infrastructure to the nuanced aspects of management functions and standard operating procedures, each element plays a crucial role. Continue reading to uncover how management tools like DCIM and BMS, along with the key responsibilities of a data center operator, ensure the seamless functioning and resilience of these computing hubs.

What are Data Center Operations?

Data center operations comprise the activities and systems necessary for managing and maintaining the IT systems within a data center, such as servers, storage devices, and networking equipment. These operations include overseeing the physical facility’s infrastructure, ensuring reliable power supply and cooling systems, and managing network connectivity and security. Additionally, data center operations involve conducting routine maintenance, planning for disaster recovery, and monitoring the data center’s performance.

Data Center Operator Holding Device In Server Room for Operation Actions

Importance of Data Center Operations

Data center operations are crucial for several key reasons:

  1. Centralized Data Management: Data centers offer a central location for storing, managing, and distributing data. This centralization is critical for organizations that handle large volumes of data. It enables efficient access to and maintenance of the data, crucial for decision-making, business operations, and providing services to end users
  2. Reliability and Uptime: Aiming for “five nines” reliability (99.999% availability), data centers ensure high levels of uptime. They are equipped with redundant components, such as power supplies, cooling systems, and networking connections. This redundancy ensures continuous service availability, even during hardware failures, utility outages, or natural disasters
  3. Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery: In the domain of disaster recovery and business continuity, data centers are vital. They are typically outfitted with backup systems and data replication strategies. This setup is crucial for quick data recovery and minimal disruption to business operations in the event of disasters like earthquakes, floods, or fires
  4. Data Security and Compliance: Data centers play a crucial role in securing sensitive information. They implement advanced security measures, including physical security, cybersecurity protocols, and data encryption, to safeguard information against unauthorized access and cyber threats. Moreover, they adhere to regulatory standards like GDPR and HIPAA, which is essential for businesses handling sensitive personal or financial data
  5. Scalability and Flexibility: Data centers enable businesses to scale their IT infrastructure up or down as needed. This scalability allows for handling increasing data volumes and more complex computing tasks without significant upfront investments in physical hardware and facilities. It also ensures adaptability to evolving operational demands
  6. Support for Cloud Computing: Serving as the physical backbone of cloud computing, data centers host servers and storage systems. They enable cloud services from providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud. This infrastructure allows businesses and individuals to access applications and data over the internet, highlighting the importance of data centers in modern computing

Components of Data Center Operations

Understanding the multifaceted nature of data center operations is crucial, and this begins with a detailed examination of the core components that contribute to their functionality and efficiency.

Icons of Major Components of Data Center Operations for Managers to Scrutinize

Let’s explore each of these components:

IT Hardware and Enclosures

The foundation of data center operations is formed by servers, storage systems, and networking hardware. These critical IT elements are housed within physical structures such as racks, cabinets, and cages. This hardware underpins the operation of various software components, including operating systems, virtualization software, and applications. The area within a data center that holds this essential computing hardware is often referred to as the ‘white space’ or computer room.

Power, Cooling, and Air Flow Infrastructure

For continuous operation, power infrastructure like uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, power distribution units (PDUs), backup generators, and transfer switches are indispensable. They ensure a continuous power supply, safeguarding against power outages and fluctuations.

To prevent equipment from overheating and to maintain ideal humidity levels, cooling systems are critical. These include computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units, computer room air handler (CRAH) units, chillers, cooling towers, and humidifiers. These systems preserve optimal operational conditions and enhance the longevity of data center hardware.

Air flow is a key operational aspect in data centers. This involves the use of perforated tiles in raised floor setups for directed cool air flow, hot/cold aisle configurations, and physical barriers. These components effectively segregate and manage the distribution of hot and cold air. The area in a data center designated for the supporting power, cooling, and air flow infrastructure is commonly known as the ‘gray space’.

Network Infrastructure

The network infrastructure in data centers includes elements such as switches, routers, cabling, load balancers, firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs), and intrusion prevention systems (IPS). These components, a mix of hardware and software, work together to connect and secure the organizational network, while also ensuring efficient resource usage and traffic optimization. A critical aspect of this system is the Network Operations Center (NOC), a centralized location within a data center where IT professionals continuously oversee and maintain the network’s performance and security.

Network Operations Center NOC Team Working Together and Analyzing the Facility Environment

The architecture of data center networks typically involves either the traditional three-tier or modern spine-leaf topologies, which are focused on facilitating efficient server and client communication. They adapt to different traffic patterns, such as north-south and east-west, to provide scalability, reliability, and optimized performance in data center environments.

READ MORE: Data Center Networking – A Comprehensive Guide

Security Measures

Security in data center operations is critical, comprising measures to protect both physical and cyber environments. It involves conducting thorough risk and threat assessments, complying with regulatory and insurance requirements, and implementing a comprehensive security plan. This plan includes robust physical security systems, controlled access, video surveillance, IT security protocols, and fire prevention strategies. The aim is to safeguard critical data and infrastructure against various threats, such as cyberattacks and physical breaches, ensuring continuous operation.

READ MORE: Data Center Security – What is it? and How Does it Work?

Maintenance Activities

Maintenance in data center operations involves creating an equipment upkeep plan for regular servicing and repair of crucial infrastructure like power and cooling systems. Efficient management of maintenance contracts with external service providers is also vital. Additionally, conducting routine patrols and inspections, along with maintaining IT network and telecommunication systems, computer room airflow, and cabling systems, is crucial for optimal operational conditions. All of these activities help to identify and address issues promptly, preventing them from escalating.

READ MORE: Data Center Maintenance – A Comprehensive Guide

Disaster Recovery

Data centers require a comprehensive disaster recovery strategy, which is integral to an organization’s business continuity plan (BCP). This strategy must cover a range of threats, such as natural disasters, infrastructure breakdowns, technological disruptions, and human-related incidents (both accidental and intentional).

Disaster Recovery in Cloud Computing with Transfer Over Digital Circuit Board

Additionally, it’s important for the plan to adhere to local regulations and standards, for example, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1600 in the United States.

Organizational Structure

The organizational structure component of data center operations involves distinct functional teams, each tasked with specific roles. These roles include:

  1. Data Center Manager: Oversees all operations and ensures compliance with service level agreements (SLAs)
  2. IT Services Operations Teams: In charge of managing IT assets such as servers and storage systems, and maintaining connectivity within the data center
  3. Facilities Operations Teams: Responsible for managing critical infrastructure components like power and cooling systems

Other crucial roles include engineering support, capacity management, project management, and service management. The structure of these roles can vary depending on the data center’s scale, size, and geographical distribution (e.g., a single site or spread across multiple locations).

Data Center Operations Management

In data center operations management (DCOM), the primary objective is to ensure efficient operations, maintenance, and effective response to faults. This is crucial to meet the service requirements of internal users, as well as external customers. DCOM comprises the management of IT assets and facility infrastructure, including power, cooling, networking, and security systems.

Data Center Operations Management DCOM Staff Analyze Information and Environment

Components of Data Center Operations Management

To ensure the smooth operation of services provided by a data center, it’s crucial to manage various interconnected components effectively. These elements can be broadly classified into five key areas, with each category focusing on distinct aspects of data center operations:

1. Facility Operations Management

Facility operations management involves managing the physical structure of the data center, including its environmental conditions and critical support infrastructure such as electrical systems, cooling mechanisms, and security systems. The aim is to support the optimal functioning of both hardware and software systems within the data center.

Facility operations management is crucial for maintaining consistent service levels, adapting to environmental changes, and effectively managing various operational aspects. These include spatial organization, configuration, capacity planning, monitoring operating statuses, handling incidents, and optimizing energy usage.

2. IT Operations Management

IT operations management concerns the oversight and control of the data center’s technical infrastructure, which includes hardware, software, and networks, as well as the application components. The primary goal of IT operations management is to ensure efficient and uninterrupted functioning of the data center’s systems and services.

A vital element of this is monitoring and event management. This process involves the use of tools to continuously track services and classify events based on their importance. It also includes adjusting the technical infrastructure to provide the appropriate level of service for each customer.

Another significant part of IT operations management is technical management, which involves providing the necessary resources to operate the data center effectively. It spans the acquisition and retention of skilled personnel required for data center operations, managing relationships with suppliers, maintaining accurate documentation of past and current performance, and optimizing costs to ensure efficiency.

3. Service Operations

Service operations are primarily concerned with maintaining data center operations within agreed-upon service levels. This involves tracking, measuring, and monitoring a wide range of metrics, such as uptime requirements, Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), and network latency. In larger data centers or campuses, which may track thousands of metrics, specialized teams are often dedicated to service level management. Their role is to ensure that operational performance is in line with business agreements.

Service Operations Using Laptop with Digital Overlays of a World Map

For instance, a service desk is a centralized team responsible for logging and tracking all hardware and software operations and issues in the data center. This team serves as the primary point of contact for users and clients, managing various processes including incident, trouble, repair, and change request management.

4. IT Service Management (ITSM)

IT Service Management (ITSM) comprises the design, delivery, management, and improvement of IT services provided to an organization’s customers and end users. ITSM is important for integrating processes, people, and technology to maintain reliable data center operations and meet business needs. These needs include improved organizational alignment, enhanced productivity, and proactive issue resolution. ITSM frameworks, such as ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), provide guidance for managing these services, with ITIL 4 being the latest version.

5. Information Security Management

Information security management is dedicated to developing and enforcing security policies, assessing and prioritizing vulnerabilities, and continuously monitoring systems for threats. This area involves a team responsible for coordinating security efforts across various IT teams. A key component is the Security Operations Center (SOC), which manages data safety and resource access within the data center. Information security management typically aligns with ISO 27000 standards, ensuring adherence to international security protocols.

Functions of Data Center Operations Management

Data center operations management involves a range of specific functions and processes that support the components previously discussed.

Two IT Infrastructure Technicians Work in Collaboration in the Server Room

The following five key functions focus on the practical, ‘hands-on’ application of managing resources and services in data center operations:

1. Asset Management

Asset management is a core process enabling data center operations teams to track, manage, and optimize assets throughout their lifecycle. This process involves compiling and using various types of asset-level data:

  • Physical: Information about devices such as servers, storage systems, and switches
  • Locational: Details on the physical locations of rooms and racks, including their layouts and dimensions
  • Logical: Data about virtual machines (VMs) and applications
  • Operational: Metrics on power usage, server performance, and maintenance records
  • Ownership: Information on contact details, warranty specifics, and service level agreements (SLAs)

This systematic approach to asset management supports efficient data entry, searching, and reporting. It also allows for graphical representations of key data and informs decisions on the physical placement of assets to maximize operational efficiency in the data center.

2. Connectivity Management

Connectivity management involves overseeing, organizing, and maintaining the data center’s physical network and power connections. It enables operations managers to control and understand the current switch configurations, patching, and power availability in the facility. A crucial aspect of connectivity management is monitoring and managing port-to-port network connectivity, which includes overseeing network circuits.

This process helps ensure that networking changes are accurately and efficiently completed, while also improving the capacity for network infrastructure repair. Furthermore, connectivity management plays a key role in understanding the impact of outages and modifications in connectivity, thus enhancing an organization’s overall resilience and efficiency.

A key component of connectivity management is network discovery. This involves identifying and mapping all devices and connections within a data center’s network. Understanding the network’s structure and components is vital for identifying and integrating new equipment, such as servers and switches, into the network.

3. Power Management

Power management is critical in controlling the distribution and quality of power delivered to the equipment in data centers. Essential to this function is the accurate monitoring, measuring, and modeling of electricity consumption within the data center. Key activities in power management include overseeing uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, managing power distribution units (PDUs), and ensuring power usage is both efficient and reliable.

Electrical Engineer Inspects Power Management Equipment with Handheld Device

Additionally, this process involves managing the transition between AC (Alternating Current) from the utility and DC (Direct Current) power used by the data center’s equipment, tracing electrical circuits, and conducting failover analysis. A comprehensive understanding of the entire electrical distribution path, from individual devices to the utility feed, is also a crucial aspect of the power management function.

Power management helps control operational costs, which is vital since electricity typically represents the largest expense in data center operations. This process enables an in-depth understanding of the power infrastructure and capacity utilization, which is key for carrying out tasks such as outage analysis, reclaiming stranded capacity, and balancing power phases.

4. Capacity Planning

Capacity planning involves evaluating, predicting, and managing the resources required to handle varying workloads in data centers. It aims to ensure there is enough infrastructure capacity to meet both present and future needs. To achieve this, capacity planning relies on the measurement and telemetry of historical and real-time data concerning resource usage and performance.

Data used in capacity planning is sourced from IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, network devices, and software. Analysis of this information enables data center operations managers to comprehend the current state of resources, predict future requirements, and accordingly plan expansions in the data center’s facilities and IT environment. This includes scaling up space, power, and cooling infrastructure, as well as increasing compute, storage, and network capacities.

5. Change Management

Change management is the process of managing alterations in a data center’s infrastructure and operating environment. This includes updating software, replacing hardware, and adjusting configurations. These changes can range from routine maintenance and repairs to significant upgrades.

The objective of change management is to ensure the use of standardized methods and procedures for assessing, approving, executing, and communicating all changes. The process aims to minimize the impact of change-related incidents on users and customers by ensuring that all changes are thoroughly evaluated for potential risks, properly documented, and effectively communicated.

Changes in a data center can be classified into the following categories:

  • Scheduled: These are routine, low-risk changes, like cleaning air filters, checking battery levels in UPS systems, or replacing components with predictable lifespans, such as fans
  • Planned: Scheduled in advance, these changes involve tasks like installing new servers, major system upgrades, or rearranging rack layouts, bearing higher complexity and risk
  • Unplanned: Arising unexpectedly, often from emergencies, these changes include addressing sudden hardware failures like a malfunctioning server or power supply unit, or responding to natural disasters like fires, floods, or earthquakes

Standard Operating Procedures in Data Centers

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in data centers are detailed, written instructions created for all staff working within these facilities, as well as external providers tasked with delivering data center services.

IT Administrator Presses Screen with Data Center Operations Management Checklist

Common Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in data centers include:

Occupational Safety

The occupational safety operations in data centers should adhere to local, national, and international regulations, fostering a safety-first culture with the goal of no workplace injuries. Key elements of safety planning include proactive risk assessment, the utilization of safety bulletin boards and briefings for effective communication, and a detailed safety process manual. These measures collectively enhance the safety and well-being of personnel in the data center environment. Common safety protocols in data centers are:

  • Electrical: This involves mitigating electrical hazards through grounding, arc flash protection, and circuit protection. Implementing lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures is important to ensure that equipment, especially electrical distribution systems, is safely de-energized before maintenance
  • Cooling and Airflow: Personnel should exercise caution around equipment with moving parts, like air conditioners or chillers, to avoid contact with components such as fans and belts. Any defective or damaged equipment must be clearly marked as “out of service” and securely stored until it is either repaired or disposed of
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): The use of PPE is vital for minimizing workplace hazards in data centers. This includes headgear, eye and face shields, ear protection, gloves and arm guards, safety-toe footwear, and high-visibility clothing
  • Accident Response: All accidents in the data center must be promptly reported to management, safety teams, and supervisors for immediate assistance. Also, documentation for medical claims and analysis is important. Investigations should be conducted to identify causes, ensure compliance with procedures, develop preventive measures, and adhere to regulatory standards
  • Training: Data center employees exposed to noise levels of 85 dBA or higher require initial and annual training in hearing protection and its proper usage. Additionally, training in fire suppression systems, PPE, and LOTO procedures is crucial to manage hazardous situations effectively

Work Order Management

Work orders are documents used for overseeing the procurement, installation, setup, and maintenance of services and equipment in data centers. This includes specific procedures for managing space allocation, power, cooling, and network systems. Key actions in this SOP include evaluating the facility’s infrastructure, updating systems, adhering to installation standards, verifying equipment specifications, and conducting thorough final inspections for compliance.

Infrastructure and System Upgrades

For infrastructure and system upgrades in data centers, it is essential to have established, repeatable processes to ensure efficient and successful deployment. These include comprehensive project management, detailed installation procedures, and rigorous testing. To minimize operational disruptions, these upgrades should ideally be scheduled during off-peak hours.

Infrastructure and System Upgrades with Gears Interface and Other Icons in Circle

Each upgrade should clearly outline all required activities, such as hardware installation, data migration, system testing, and communication with end users. It should also identify the personnel responsible for each task and include contingency plans for any unexpected issues that might arise.

Equipment Delivery and Shipments

Effective management of the procurement, shipping, and receiving of materials and equipment is important in data centers. Responsibilities include ensuring order accuracy, monitoring shipping schedules, and confirming the arrival and condition of items, noting any missing or damaged goods. Particular care is required when handling hazardous materials, such as lithium-ion batteries for uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, which require specific protocols for storage and handling.

Storage and Staging

Secure storage of data center equipment is essential, requiring designated areas with stringent access control and surveillance. Staging areas, typically within these storage rooms, are used for preparing and configuring equipment before its deployment or removal from the data center facility. Separate zones for packing and unpacking are also crucial to prevent contamination from cardboard and other materials, thus maintaining the cleanliness of the data center environment.

Emergency Response and Incident Management

Emergency Operating Procedures (EOPs) for data centers address various emergency scenarios, both internal and external to the facility, that affect operations and critical services.

Emergency Response and Incident Management with Map of the World Control Panel and Charts

On-Site Data Center Emergencies

  • Equipment Failures: EOPs provide detailed steps and designate responsible personnel for resolving equipment issues or alarms. These steps include silencing alarms, identifying the type and location of the malfunctioning equipment, ensuring access for authorized staff, assessing the impact on operations, deciding if external vendor support is needed, and replacing spare parts as required
  • Essential Services Failures: EOPs specify actions and responsible individuals for handling failures in critical data center services, such as power, water, gas, and network services. These procedures involve identifying responsible external vendors, evaluating the event’s impact, initiating a response, and performing necessary service tests with trained personnel
  • Operational Challenges: EOPs include responding to issues like branch circuit breaker trips, electrical ground leakage, and environmental deviations in computer rooms. Specific actions vary for each issue, such as determining the cause of a circuit breaker trip, managing ground leakage according to established standards, and addressing environmental deviations by examining factors like sensor placement and air path conditions
  • Peripheral Areas: EOPs detail the steps and designate responsible personnel for incidents occurring at the data center’s perimeter or exterior that may threaten its operations. Examples include vehicle accidents, physical security breaches, damage to the building’s exterior, and sabotage to network maintenance holes

Off-Site Data Center Emergencies

  • Neighboring Properties: EOPs describe the actions and responsible parties for handling events at nearby properties that could pose risks to the data center or obstruct access for employees, customers, or vendors. These events may include fires at adjacent properties or infrastructure failures like bridge collapses or road destruction
  • Natural Disasters: EOPs outline the steps and responsible individuals for managing natural disasters that pose risks to the data center. Disasters covered include earthquakes, extreme winds, floods, wildfires, unstable ground conditions, lightning strikes, and volcanic activity
  • Injury Response: EOPs detail specific actions to be taken in the event of injury to personnel. These actions include immediately notifying emergency responders and building security, securing the incident area, and providing unobstructed access for emergency responders

Management Tools in Data Center Operations

Management tools in data center operations are essential for monitoring, running, and controlling both the infrastructure and the services provided to customers. These tools can be either separate or integrated into a single system. Their primary function is to assist data center operators in maintaining service levels and ensuring seamless integration with different systems, providing a holistic view of the data center’s status.

Network Facility Manager Working In Room Designed for Security in a Data Center

The following are commonly used operations management tools in data centers:

Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM)

Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) systems are a suite of tools specifically designed for monitoring, managing, and optimizing both the IT equipment and facility infrastructure within data centers. They do this by sourcing data from IT equipment, such as servers, storage devices, and network switches, as well as facility infrastructure components, such as Power Distribution Units (PDUs) and Computer Room Air Conditioning (CRAC) units.

DCIM systems offer granular management capabilities that help organizations in efficiently operating their data centers. This efficiency extends to aspects like managing energy consumption and maintaining the physical infrastructure required for IT assets.

DCIM applications, available in both localized and cloud-based formats, collect and report data which is crucial for making informed decisions about infrastructure modifications. For instance, DCIM tools can calculate and monitor the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) metric, a key indicator of a data center’s energy efficiency.

READ MORE: Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) – An Overview

Building Management Systems (BMS)

Building Management Systems (BMS) are essential in the management of data center operations. They are integrated systems designed to monitor and control various facility functions. These functions include managing power and energy usage, regulating airflow, maintaining optimal temperatures, and overseeing water flow. BMS can also interact with and manage individual Building Automation Systems (BAS), providing the capability for manual adjustments through a user interface.

A key function of BMS is to coordinate the operation of various subsystems within a data center. This coordination involves integrating with systems such as Energy Management Systems (EMS), Electrical Power Management Systems (EPMS), and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) systems. The goal is to maintain efficiency and operational effectiveness by utilizing real-time data from a variety of sources.

Infrastructure Asset Management

Infrastructure asset management in data center operations involves maintaining a centralized database that meticulously tracks all objects requiring monitoring, control, or management. This comprehensive database incorporates a wide array of infrastructure assets, such as electrical systems, cooling units, connectivity equipment, and spatial assets. Each of these assets is detailed with specific attributes and relationships, enabling effective data center management. The integration of RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) technology allows for the real-time tracking and precise identification of these assets, enhancing the management process.

Moreover, automated versions of these asset management systems have the capability to automatically detect any changes in cabling connections and meticulously document the cabling infrastructure. These systems help simplify infrastructure management by collecting, storing, and managing connection information. Additionally, they are designed to integrate seamlessly with other systems through APIs or standard data exchange formats such as RESTful.

The primary goal of infrastructure asset management in data centers is to deliver accurate and up-to-date information and documentation related to the facility’s assets. This is vital for the efficient operation of the facility and helps in preventing issues such as service interruptions or the risk of overloading equipment due to excessive electrical or computational demands.

Configuration Management Database (CMDB)

A Configuration Management Database (CMDB) plays an important role in managing the complexity of IT systems within data center operations. Its value lies in its ability to be regularly updated. These updates include data on patches, dependencies, and alterations occurring in the data center environment. An effective CMDB should also be able to define relationships between items, integrate and synchronize with current data, and support large databases. These features are essential to accommodate future growth and changes in the IT environment.

What is a Data Center Operator?

A data center operator is a professional responsible for managing and maintaining the operations of a data center, which is a facility used to house servers, storage devices, and networking equipment. Their job involves ensuring the reliable and efficient functioning of this IT equipment, as well as the power, cooling, and humidity systems within the facility supporting this hardware.

Data Center Operator Analyzing Server Racks and Cabinets that House Computing Technology

Data center operators are tasked with monitoring system performance, implementing security measures, troubleshooting hardware and software issues, handling data backup and recovery processes, coordinating with IT teams for updates and maintenance, and escalating issues to data center managers.

Mary Zhang covers Data Centers for Dgtl Infra, including Equinix (NASDAQ: EQIX), Digital Realty (NYSE: DLR), CyrusOne, CoreSite Realty, QTS Realty, Switch Inc, Iron Mountain (NYSE: IRM), Cyxtera (NASDAQ: CYXT), and many more. Within Data Centers, Mary focuses on the sub-sectors of hyperscale, enterprise / colocation, cloud service providers, and edge computing. Mary has over 5 years of experience in research and writing for Data Centers.

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