Jul 18, 2012

Learning about data centers

A lot of my time was spent visiting data centers lately, with more visits on the horizon. Supersonic growth, you see :)

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I find data centers totally fascinating. Aiming for perfect, 100% availability. Designed to survive pretty much any natural or man-made disaster.  Plain and simple at first sight, yet so complex and intricate when you scratch the surface. Secret, cold and lonely places, but throbbing with invisible energy. Are server racks a modern-day Stonehenge, erected to worship faceless gods? Mystical considerations aside, data centers are the alpha and the omega of modern civilization: our everyday life - and sometimes, the difference between life and death - depends on their availability. Face it: in the 21st century, Norns are weaving the web of fate with fiber optic cables.

For any self-respecting engineer, the hunger to understand how data centers work should be irresistible. There's so much to learn: construction, power, cooling, cabling, network, servers, etc. Where do you start? Actually, the question really is: where CAN you start? The data center industry is quite opaque. The veil is rarely lifted and some questions are hardly ever answered.

Of course, you should visit as many data centers as you can. I never refuse any opportunity, even when I'm not actively looking for hosting space. The more you see, the more you learn... and the more you realize how much there is still to learn. Keep your eyes open, use your common sense (water pipes above the racks? Hmm), ask a million questions. Try to get in touch with the guys actually running the site. They may not look like much, but with a bit of social engineering, they will give you the real lowdown on the site. Chances are you'll meet VERY colorful characters too, so don't miss out.

In addition to visits, there are a few, precious engineering resources that you may find useful.

Books: most of them are a complete waste of time and money (especially if they say "Green IT" in the title). However, I can vouch for the quality of these two:
  • "Administering Data Centers: Servers, Storage, And Voice over Ip" by K. Jayaswal, (John Wiley & Sons, 2005, ISBN-13: 978-0471771838): a very good place to start. All introductory concepts are present and newcomers will learn a lot on data center infrastructure and on IT inftastructure in general (servers, network, redundancy, etc). 
  •  "Maintaining Mission Critical Systems in a 24/7 Environment", by. P. Curtis (Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd edition, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0470650424): fantastic book, but definitely not recommended as an introduction. This book focuses on daily maintenance of data center infrastructure (not IT infrastructure) and it goes into A LOT of detail on how things work and what to do to keep them going. Quick example: 9 pages on how to check the quality of fuel deliveries for your generators... you get the idea :) A mine of technical information, definitely the bedtime book for data center staff.
Online resources: sadly, most of the material out there is either watered-down to braindead level, or just infected with marketing/PR/sales bullshit (maybe that's the same thing, hey?). If you want technical information, you'll find it here. I'm not affiliated with any vendor, in case you were wondering :)
  • Energy University @ Schneider Electric: lots of free courses on data center technology (power, cooling, etc). Tested and approved.
  • Online courses @ Siemens: power only (breakers, transformers, etc). Very good stuff too.
So there you go. Learn, learn, learn. Till next time, get rackin', boy!

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