Curse of the data centre drones

You can’t really blame people for not wanting to work in a data centre. They’re often cold, full of malfunctioning equipment and thisclose to being outsourced anyway. No wonder staffing costs are such a bitch.

I was talking earlier today with Venkat S. Devraj, CTO of run-book automation firm Stratavia in Denver, Col., which recently released the results of a survey conducted on its behalf by Enterprise Management Associates about problems in the data centre. Staffing was the biggest issue, followed by low skill sets, the burden of manual tasks and lots of errors.

According to Devraj, good data centre help is hard to find because running such facilities well often depends on so-called “tribal knowledge” that wouldn’t be available to someone new coming in.

“If you have 10 admins in a group and say, ‘How to do you do task ABC,’ you get 10 different answers,” he says. “What we do is help standardize that. Maybe there should only be three ways of doing these things.”

It’s not that the admins have personal preferences around IT infrastructure configuration (though some do, of course). It’s that patching a HP-UX machine can be a lot different than patching a Windows of Solaris box. Stratavia’s product includes a metadata layer which abstracts all the hardware platforms from the physical servers and is designed to make it easier to patch across the entire data centre without a lot of fiddling around. There’s a certain amount of integration involved – Devraj points out that the software won’t know which systems are production servers or test servers, for example – but there are a number of auto-discovery capabilities.

Like Toronto’s Opalis, Stratavia is trying to take advantage of the surging market for data centre automation even as firms like BladeLogic and Opsware get scooped up by larger players (BMC and HP, respectively). Devraj says run-book automation firms traditionally focused on what he calls simple process orchestration – checking what’s going on, issuing a service ticket to the right team, etc. – and providing a glue to enable technologies from Opsware or BladeLogic.

“The way we differ is by offering intelligent process automation, or decision automation,” he says. “We’re offering an expert engine that leverages that metadata layer to automate more complex tasks. These are not just help desk tasks. These are tier 2, tier 3 problems like systems administration, database administration. Those are the areas that are a huge greenfield.”

This is no doubt true, but whether an expert engine is enough to keep Stratavia from being swept up in the industry consolidation is another story. For now, its products and those of similar firms might make enterprise data centres a bit less stressful work environment. Now if someone could just take the next step to make them into a fun environment. After all the data centre automation is over, we could use a little data centre inspiration, too.

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