Like Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “The only constant in life is change,” and the same goes true for the data center industry. But, one thing’s for certain — this past year has brought about more change than any other. Considering
that (aside from it being a staple of the magazine), Mission Critical got together with some of the industry’s key players to find out where we’re at and where we’re headed.

Rhonda Ascierto, vice president of research at Uptime Institute; Chris Brown, chief technical officer at Uptime Institute; Dennis Cronin, CEO for the Americas at the Data Center Incident Reporting Network (DCIRN); Carrie Goetz, principal and CTO at StrategITcom; Andy Lawrence, executive director of research at Uptime Institute; Bhavesh Patel, vice president of global marketing at ASCO Power; and Herb Villa, senior applications engineer at Rittal Corp. shared their insight on topics ranging from COVID and workforce development to sustainability and the latest technological advances. Check out what they had to say.


State of the Industry


Mission Critical: What were your predictions for the mission critical industry going into 2021, and has the year shaped up as you expected?

Cronin: Labor shortages, electronics shortages, increased lead-times for everything and exponential data center industry growth — yup, hard to miss and pretty much on target.

Goetz: My first predication was that the division between IT and facilities would dissipate, and we would be smarter as we build our facilities. This, unfortunately, is a slow-moving initiative. There is too much focus based on resiliency and not enough based on the utilization of stranded power. Software defined power is an amazing answer to some of this, but, in short, the industry as a whole needs to start looking at the application and what it needs and base the resiliency on those needs. Edge compute is going to change this, but we also need to look into alternative power like carbon sequestration and natural gas.

Secondly, I predicted we would be farther along with gender parity and that skills-based hiring would have ramped up. We aren’t even close, and, thanks to COVID, we are backwards, as five times more women than men lost their jobs. #hirethepersonnotthepaper is a hash tag — the gist is to stop using ATS keywords to hire the 35% of the population that actually has a four-year degree. There is a massive talent shortage, and we have to start mentoring and growing talent.

Lawrence: First, Uptime Institute Intelligence expected with the pandemic raging that there would be continued and strong investment in remote management, monitoring and automation. Although suppliers are still cautious, Uptime Institute’s own research suggests that great investments in software and automation are occurring.

Second, we expected sustainability would become much challenging, with many previously voluntary steps becoming mandatory, either legally or through investor, customer, or partner pressure. This is beginning to happen.

Patel: We had expected the mission critical industry to grow in order to accommodate the shift to online/digital for all businesses, even smaller ones. It has really played out that way, but we feel there is lot more in the pipeline, especially with the expected adoption of 5G and related infrastructure.

Villa: My prediction was we would see a normalization of the impact of the pandemic in every aspect of our day — from work to school to family and home. Certainly, more opportunity for remote work and learning. More people becoming more comfortable and confident with technology. From the customer-facing perspective, I anticipated a very slow return to the traditional face-to-face meetings. And, it turns out, for those of us who can work remote, we will continue to do so.

I also predicted a sort of digital divide for those who do not have the opportunity for remote or even hybrid work. This is something we will need to address moving forward.


State of the Industry


Mission Critical: In what ways has COVID-19 changed the data center landscape for the long term? What aspect of the industry would you say has been impacted the most?

Cronin: COVID-19 has increased the reliance on “helping hands” and similar services. As these become more accepted, customers will increasingly rely on/seek out these services from their data center suppliers. The resulting impact will be the migration of this talent away from end users to the service suppliers.

Goetz: COVID is a great driver to edge computing. Many companies simply couldn’t get to their data/IT equipment, as it was located in other cities. Further, I think it highlighted the digital divide and the oversubscription models that exist with many last-mile providers. This, coupled with the fact that transmission download speeds are not remotely close to upload speeds, means there will be a significant emphasis moving forward on bandwidth management and competition. I also believe that remote work will be an employee perk as part of ongoing company benefits.

Lawrence: We have found that most of the changes would have happened over time but have happened faster. One of the big changes here is the adoption of remote working as well as remote monitoring and management.

Some changes have run against existing trends. For example, many operators have told us they are changing their supply chains and the way they services companies to provide a higher level of service, more diversity of suppliers, and less reliance on goods and people from across borders. Another change – which may seem obvious but nevertheless is important — is that many operators have significantly upgraded their overall level of awareness and responsiveness to outside disruption — whether it is a future pandemic, a security attack, extreme weather, or even some kind of black swan event. The pandemic has boosted the industry’s sense of being mission critical.

Patel: The landscape has changed to grow both at the edge as well as within hubs for the foreseeable future, and this needs to happen globally. 5G will drive investments into data centers, since it does not use the typical telecom infrastructure.

Villa: The landscape has not changed. We will still build and operate data centers as we always have. The key will be to develop enough new capacity to support our global "new normal" and to do so using more alternative energy sources. There will also be the continuing move to the edge — both in the IT space as well as all those nontraditional spaces that now support edge deployments.

Mission Critical: How are you promoting industry awareness to reduce the severity of the labor shortage?

Ascierto: Uptime Institute is helping to build a broad and sustainable talent pipeline in a few ways. Earlier this year, we published the very first forecast of the data center industry's staffing requirements to quantify the number of specialist data center infrastructure staff required globally through 2025.

One of the most exciting things we are doing is preparing to launch an interactive “Career Pathfinder” website. It provides a taxonomy of the hundreds of different jobs in data centers and the skills and education requirements for each.

Cronin: No.1, working with 7x24 Exchange, iMasons, and MCGA to create more pathways for the next generation to enter the data center industry. And, No. 2, DCIRN is creating a global knowledge database of lessons learned such that the next generation can learn from the experience of those who have gone before them.

Goetz: We have a podcast called “Careers for Women, Trades and Vets in Tech” and continue to interview amazing people in all areas of tech. There are so many careers, young people and those considering a career change can benefit from the exposure. We work with many organizations to share scholarship and career opportunities.

Villa: We are constantly introducing new ideas and applications to support the next generation of IT installations with a focus on efficiency, flexibility, and physical security.

Mission Critical: What new technologies would you consider to be game changing?

Ascierto: The year 2021 may be one of those standouts in which a number of these emerging technologies begin to gain traction. They include storage-class memory, silicon photonics, ARM servers, and software-defined power.

Cronin: Immediate game changers (one to five years from now) are edge computing and fluid cooling (processors and/or total immersion). But looking beyond that, in the next six to 10 years, it's quantum computing.

Goetz: Software-defined power. The ability to use stranded power, optimize power, and marry the power and IT holds such amazing promise from a sustainability standpoint.

Patel: 5G combined with AI will give rise to newer industries. This will truly transform every organization into some level of software business.

Villa: 5G, AI, machine learning, and the improved machine and application autonomous systems — fly a helicopter on Mars, anyone?

Mission Critical: What are the most recent trends you’ve observed, and how will those play into the future?

Goetz: One word: acceleration! We have jumped years ahead in months, and I don’t see that trend decreasing any time soon. In some cases, vulnerabilities were also exposed at lighting speeds, but the industry was quick to react. Secure edge became a thing. Companies had to realize that their border expanded and adjust their tools to secure them. That said, I do think that companies learned that multilayer security may be the norm moving forward so that no single opening can lead to a breach.

On the bandwidth frontier, I firmly believe that carriers will have to start delivering closer speeds to those that they are selling and work to have uploads and downloads both considered. The digital divide needs to be mended and I believe that tech will, as tech always does, rally around the cause and make that happen. We have also seen a renewed circular economy with many companies and people in tech paying their old devices forward to help those that need them.

Patel: We have seen elevation of customer experience playing an important role in companies choice of suppliers or partners — the need for better engagement practices became the norm as people adjusted during lockdown.

Villa: The trend: everything moving to the edge. The issue: Where and what the edge is must be clearly defined. Everything and everyone cannot be at the edge. Also, there cannot be multiple edges — only one. What is a "cloud edge," a "heavy edge," a "micro edge," etc. Just saying you are “at the edge” does not really mean you are.

And over and above any individual industry trend is something I have started to call a "hypertrend" — something, like, oh I don’t know, a global pandemic. While we did a fairly good job of dealing with the effects of COVID-19, there is still much to learn to, hopefully, prepare for the next one.

Mission Critical: What are you most excited about?

Cronin: The opportunities at every level that all this growth has created. While all the focus is on building new, there are a wealth of opportunities in decommissioning the old. If you really want to talk about sustainability, decom today is where the components get repurposed and no longer discarded.

Goetz: My favorite part about being in tech is how we continuously strive to amaze. From 3D printed prosthetics to innovations for spinal injuries and just being part of an industry that works to enable and help. I most excited to see “What will they think of next?”

Patel: We are really excited to see adoption of digital processes become the norm for all infrastructure buildouts. This will make the electrical infrastructure we provide to facilities even more robust from a remote management perspective.

Villa: Whatever the "new normal" will be. And being able to support the future.

Mission Critical: What were the highlights/low points of this past year?

Cronin: The highlight of this year was the swift management response and restoration of services after the loss of two data centers due to a fire. The low point was the total loss of the French-based colocation data centers due to a fire and the number of clients who assumed because they were in the “cloud” that they were automatically backed up. This reminded me of how many people still think diesel generators are the equivalent of a UPS back-up.

Goetz: The highlight to me was watching innovation in real time and the barriers that would normally hinder progress seemingly disappear. Low points were not being able to see people in person. While video calls are helpful, the simply are not the same as a handshake, hug, or a face-to-face conversation.

Patel: Maintaining customer interaction even during the height of lockdown, by adopting new tools that allow effective digital engagements was clearly the highlight. The low points were the restrictions that caused service delays for customers, like hospitals.

Villa: I don't think there has been a single high point or highlight of these past 15 months (which have felt like 15 years). Just lots of little victories. We have seen steady requests for products to support the continued growth in the IT space. Being able to continuously adapt to the constant changes in how we did business was also satisfying. And of course, just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

All the low points were directly related to the pandemic — the loss of life, the isolation, the inconsistent response, etc.

Mission Critical: What industry events/organizations are the most useful in your opinion and why?

Cronin: 7x24 Exchange and iMasons for their networking opportunities and MCGA for having the only independent skills certification program available.

Goetz: iMasons, AFCOM, and InformationWeek bring actionable advice to the industry on a regular basis. And, while I suppose the organizations deserve a large share of the credit, I think a proportional amount of credit goes to those in the industry willing to mentor, share their knowledge, and be contributors to “tech for good.”

Villa: ASHRAE is always my go-to organization — they have such a deep pool of talented members. They are always at the forefront of technology. And they were incredibly flexible and vitally helpful in dealing with the pandemic.

Mission Critical: What major challenges do you expect to see in the next year?

Brown: The biggest challenge I see in the next six months revolves around staffing. Historically, after a negative financial situation, workers start to look for other options and entertain other employment opportunities. The pandemic has put some stresses on workers and those stresses usually translate into people switching jobs. And as companies start to expand again and get back to growth, more opportunities will exist. Along the same lines, the pandemic had a lot of workers working from home. And it is starting to look like companies will want the majority of their work force to return to the office, but it does not seem most workers are wanting to return to the daily commute.

Goetz: There has been a large shift in the locations of our workforce. Companies are going to start bringing people back to work and begin to occupy buildings. As there has been a lot of politicization and division of late, I think we all have to work together to ensure people can come back to work and feel included regardless of their personal beliefs. The last thing we need is something else to divide us.

Patel: Motivating the existing workforce to pivot into a mostly digital mindset, especially those who have been in the industry for a while, is the near-term challenge. Besides this, there will be huge challenge to meet growing demands — whether from a supply or labor standpoint.

Villa: The biggest challenge will be getting back to the office. Is the old way of doing business even necessary any more post-pandemic? And if we end up in some kind of hybrid model, how can we continue to support the demands for information and access to all that data?

Mission Critical: How are you working toward sustainability goals?

Cronin: Pursuing advanced technologies that clients can implement today.

Lawrence: Sustainability is an issue where it can be hard to think clearly. There is so much noise — so much politics, marketing, and information. There are many pressure groups, advisory and regulatory bodies, and various targets and rules.

The contribution of the Uptime Intelligence team and Uptime Institute, generally, is to help the industry and individual operators navigate through this and identify and apply measures that not only meet external requirements but also improve the environmental footprint.  We are investing heavily in the resources and expertise to do this.

Patel: Schneider Electric has a stated goal toward sustainability and our board is measured/compensated based on their performance in this area. We are adopting digitization to drive efficiency, producing technologies that deploy decarbonization, and implementing a decentralized structure, especially within our supply chain.

Villa: Rittal has always been a leader in environmental and sustainability policies on a global basis — from the very simple recycling to the very large manufacturing processes, there has always been a focus on our corporate responsibility. I try to keep that in mind every day.

Mission Critical: Why have you chosen to be a part of this industry and why do you think others should consider it?

Brown: I suspect my story is like most people in the data center industry.  I did not start out to work in the industry, simply because, at the time, I did not know what a data center was.  The industry found me at an early point in my career.  I have stayed with the industry because it is relatively young compared to some others, and, as such, it is always evolving. Additionally, it touches and impacts so much of all of our lives; I want to be a part of that and help ensure the industry is performing those functions properly and reliability.  Finally, the equipment and technology we get to be involved with is just cool.

Cronin: Like most, I fell into it and never want to leave it. The constant change and growth is exciting and challenging. The data center industry has something for everyone: welders, plumbers, electricians, hardware technicians, salesmen, CFOs, CEOs, or any combination of these.

Goetz: Change — there is always something new, something to learn, and great ways to apply the knowledge. There are jobs in this industry that cover everything from construction to the cloud. There are many jobs that don’t (or shouldn’t) require a degree and also many that provide the opportunity to have a company pay a degree if it's necessary or desired.

Patel: The digital economy is becoming mainstream in every walk of life, and it requires a constant supply of dependable electrical energy. Today, humans can survive without food and water for 24 hours, but many cannot survive without their digital tools for that long. So this is why it is a booming industry, and many others should consider it.

Villa: The change, the next big thing, the blistering technological evolutionary pace — these are what motivate me. Being able to contribute to supporting and growing our globally connected space ... it’s just a lot of fun.

For someone thinking about joining this industry, being able to say, “I help connect you to the world,” is incredibly satisfying. And the opportunities for the future are just about limitless in so many different specialties: software, hardware, engineering, product development — there is so much out there.

Mission Critical: What would you like to see change about the industry?

Brown: One thing the industry needs to do better is outreach to younger people to introduce them to the industry. That outreach should include less advantaged areas, which can help to increase the availability of qualified people to fill future needs but also help educate youth to have a better understanding of what opportunities exist to provide a better future.

Cronin: The industry needs to be significantly more transparent at every level. If this does not happen soon, the regulators will take over — it will be driven under the guise of cybersecurity, privacy, sustainability, and monopoly busting regulations.

Goetz: We have to start placing more value in skills and experience even if it is parallel from another industry, enable HR to be better equipped to evaluate people and skills, and stop filling the 85% through networking as it doesn’t broaden horizons or lead to diversity.

I would also like to see awareness of the industry start at a much younger age, inlcuding not only the depth and breadth of careers but also how it relates to sustainability, environmental stewardship, and cybersecurity.

I would also like to see tech lead the charge in kindness. Social media has made it so easy to be mean and hateful while silencing opinions without repercussion. That in and of itself is dangerous.

Patel: It would be nice if there was a revived focus on educating the younger generation about electrical technology.

Villa: I would like to see more focus on collaboration and less focus on competition. I don’t care how "green" you are, that you got your PUE down to 1.05, or that you have the best edge infrastructure. I am not saying these things are not important, just not as critical as we move out of the pandemic.