Data Center Staff Are Essential Workers Too – For many organizations, the last month has been spent figuring out the best way to get teams comfortable working from home. But not everyone involved with tech can carry on doing their jobs remotely, and that includes the workers who are keeping the digital world turning by keeping data centers up and running.
We are all even more reliant on online services to work and socialize while the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns continue. And while it’s easy to talk about all these services living in the cloud, they also have a more prosaic physical existence.
Data centers typically come across as large, industrial, warehouse-like boxes; but few are aware of the fact that they are also the buildings that are keeping us connected, working and entertained.
And to keep operating, data centers need on-site staff to maintain the infrastructure. “People see data centers as large rooms of servers, but they don’t realize it actually takes a certain amount of folks to maintain them,” Chris Yetman, chief operating officer at Vantage Data Centers, told ZDNet. “Sure, you may need fewer people overall, but you can’t have no one.”
Yetman’s data centers serve customers in the US, Canada and Europe, and his largest campus is in California. Early on, he explained, he started asking his staff to stay at home for a couple of weeks if they thought they’d been exposed to the virus. As the crisis escalated, Yetman switched all of his non-essential team to remote working.
“But we determined pretty quickly that we could not send home engineers who work on the facilities,” said Yetman. “And so we focused on making it as comfortable for them as possible.”
Yetman ordered personal protective equipment (PPE) and set up sanitizing stations everywhere he could, both to minimize the risk of infection and to reassure his employees. “We’ve gone through and sanitized everything,” he said. “You have to make people who have to work comfortable that they’re going to be okay.”
Fingerprint readers started coming with disinfectant or sanitizing wipes, and hand-washing stations were built near the entrances of the building; and the offices have already received two deep cleans so far.
In parallel, Yetman and his team re-arranged the way shifts are worked to reduce the amount of time that employees have to work side by side, and to keep the same staff in the same buildings to lower the chance of cross-contamination.
Again, risk zero proved impossible: some maintenance works require more than one person, not the least for safety. “So we still have to manage that, but we’re trying to make sure we’re good about how we manage it,” said Yetman.
It’s not an easy job trying to keep a key piece of infrastructure operational during a global pandemic. But with society at large depending on the internet, more so now than ever before, there aren’t that many options, either. “You can’t just stop,” said Yetman. “You can’t just say you’re going to turn it off.”
A data center is involved every time we read a post on social media or order our shopping from a supermarket; but also every time a bank processes a payment, a government delivers an online service or a teacher runs a Zoom class for students stuck at home.
“A lot of people think they are big sheds doing nothing,” Emma Fryer told ZDNet. She is the associate director of the tech industry group techUK, and her focus is on data centers. “I think they get forgotten,” she said.
They get so forgotten, in fact, that until last month, data centers still hadn’t made it on to the UK government’s list of sectors defining key workers – and very few of the buildings in the country were formally designated as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI).
As a result, operators grew increasingly worried that they wouldn’t be able to access their place of work, especially as lock-down became an increasingly likely prospect.
Fryer explained that the government’s failure to keep up-to-date is probably simply down to the low-profile nature of data centers, and the fact that they are not really understood; and so, from early March, she started drawing attention to the issue.
“We lobbied the department for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) furiously,” said Fryer. “We were very stern. And amazingly, the government’s response was swift and decisive. They advocated internally, since this decision is made within the Cabinet Office, and within 24 hours they had got us onto the list of key workers.”
In addition, DCMS set up a dedicated task force within the department to liaise with data center staff, and has partnered with Fryer’s team within techUK to hold weekly calls with operators, during which they discuss policies and procedures, and share useful tips and tricks