Automation, and in particular, computer automation, has changed everything from the jobs we do from the cars we drive. Naturally, it has reached the data center as well, the nexus that stores and controls many of the systems driving automation in other spheres. But, even in a world where hardware and software can function more intelligently than ever, it still takes people to make everything go.
Most of us have been in the spot where we just want something to work. When you fire up your laptop, you want the internet to come on, or when you look for your electronic files, you want them to be accessible in the last place you left them.
In the endless quest for uptime and systems that just work, software and hardware pieces of data centers have both seen increased automation — but the robots aren’t replacing human service technicians just yet.
Chanel used a robo-data center theme for a fashion show last year, but robots haven't quite infiltrated the data center just yet.
Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) systems can automatically control climate (temperature, humidity, and airflow), power cycling, failover to backup systems, and more.
Network switches can automatically load balance, routing network traffic to avoid bandwidth problems, with minimal out of the box configuration. Software defined data center technology combines with network and storage equipment to change performance parameters, network paths, and security rules all based on predefined, automated schedules.
Even hardware provisioning can be handled by robots, at least at organizations who have the time and resources to purchase and set up robo-operations technicians. One startup aims to use a robot on a rail to replace hardware “nodes” on demand. IBM and EMC are using iRobot Create, a small mobile robot, to monitor data center floors.
As we can all attest to after an exasperating experience with a device or service that just won’t work, machines aren’t always up to their assigned task. That’s why on the other side of end-users, there are people in data centers making sure everything is running smoothly.
Even new automation technologies must be configured and regularly maintained. When we implement a firewall for a client, for example, we can’t simply just turn it on and forget about it. Firewalls have both software and hardware components, and both go out of date or need to be refined on an ongoing basis for both security and usability—if the client can’t get through to their systems, even if the firewall is keeping out threats, it’s still not useful. Conversely, if the client can access everything but keeps getting unauthorized use on the network, it’s also not useful.
Humans must make the decisions about configuration that code or appliances can’t make on their own.
And, unlike humans, who evolve very slowly, IT infrastructure evolves quickly. Even though when you access your files and information, what you see doesn’t change, over time chances are the underlying drives or servers have been swapped out.
Yes, there are now robots that can swap out servers and other data center hardware. But those robots don’t always come with a strong ROI compared to an employee. They must be set up, configured, and serviced. Hardware still must be restocked and/or disposed of properly. And of course, robots are still very expensive to procure, especially for a specialized purpose.
Additionally, troubleshooting simply requires a human mind sometimes. Computers generally struggle with problem solving when the issue doesn’t fit into a preset order of operations or possibilities. When you have a complex web of different equipment, vendors, and software, all mingling together with differing compatibilities and extenuating circumstances, it’s often best for a real person to be calling the shots.
Perhaps one day, data centers will be fully automated, but until then, we’ll be behind the scenes, keeping the lights on.
Posted by: Cloud Services Administrator Aaron Bell