Making headway in running a data center is hard. Even if you've worked on it a lot. The guy I'm talking to in today's Cassatt Data Center Dialog interview is someone who -- despite the curveballs that IT and the business it supports can throw at you -- has been consistently making big strides in how data centers are run: Mark Thiele.
Mark is director of R&D business operations for virtualization giant VMware and as part of that job runs data centers in Palo Alto, Massachusetts, Washington, and Bangalore, totaling approximately 85,000 square feet. I've also seen Mark in action at his previous job, where his ideas and initiative helped shape parts of our Active Power Management technology and what became Cassatt Active Response, Standard Edition.
I last saw Mark speak at the Gartner Data Center Conference in December where he and Mark Bramfitt of PG&E talked about the state of green IT. I used that as a starting point for our interview:
Jay Fry, Data Center Dialog: In your panel at the Gartner Data Center Conference, you talked about how it's important to bring facilities and IT folks together for improved IT operations. You also touched on bringing operations and process management into the R&D organization and "stretching" people (including yourself) beyond their normal areas of expertise. Do you have some specific suggestions on how to do this or some examples of what's worked for you?
Mark Thiele, VMware: There's no simple answer here. I've been working in IT for a long time and as a result I'm biased in my belief that IT, when used appropriately can solve almost any problem. All joking aside, the reality is that many of the folks that work in IT look at how things get done a little differently than everyone else. An IT person's first reaction to a job that needs to get done is "how can I write a script to automate that?" I've utilized this to my advantage by looking at what are seemingly intractable "non-IT" problems from the IT perspective and shining a new light on them. This IT-centric focus helps to stretch non-IT folks and IT folks alike. As they work together to solve shared problems they come to realize the benefit of the shared experience and uncommon backgrounds. Once this happens, improving operations between groups becomes less of a headache.
DCD: You discussed having a "bridging the gap" person who can look at a data center as a holistic system. How do you find someone to fill that role? What skills should folks look for?
Mark Thiele: This can be a very difficult role to fill. The ideal person is someone who has a strong understanding of IT infrastructure, but an understanding of the importance of dealing with the entire data center as a system. In my case I was able to identify a strong candidate and convince them to take on the new role by explaining the potential opportunity for improvement and bottom-line impact for the company. The data center has become one of the most commonly referenced areas of opportunity in business today. There has never been more focus and change in data centers than there is right now. This kind of change and business importance can be very enticing to forward-thinking and career-driven IT staff.
DCD: One of the things you mentioned in Vegas was that there is a 3-5 year gap between when something is proven to be a good idea for improving IT operations and when people are actually using it. You said you’d like to find a way to shrink that time period. Any specific examples of things that seem "proven" but aren't being used yet? Any ideas how to shrink that time gap?
Mark Thiele: The dynamics of why it often takes years to implement new technology in the data center are many. These dynamics include risk avoidance, cost of entry, myth, intractable staff, and/or inflexible data center facilities. However, the aforementioned factors still don't explain why it often times takes 5 years or even more for proven technologies to be implemented.
The delays are associated with the inability to truly measure and understand the risk/reward of making change in the data center. As an industry we need to carry more responsibility for looking at the long term benefits of new technology vs. the short term potential for disruption in the environment.
Take virtualization as an example. You can pick any of 1,000 white papers that will explain why implementing a major virtualization strategy in your data centers is the best way to improve operations and drive down cost of doing business. Yet almost every day I talk to folks who say "VMware works great, [but] I just can't risk it in production" or "my software provider told me they won't support it on a VM." Thousands of world-class organizations have large "production" VMware solutions installed; how many more do we need before everyone agrees it works?
Part of this problem is aversion to any type of risk perceived or real. If the potential benefit is better Disaster Preparedness, faster provisioning, higher availability, and lower cost of doing business, it should be OK to accept a certain amount of calculated risk. As leaders in business and the IT space we should be obligated to ensure that our teams understand that intelligent risk is OK, in fact it's expected.
DCD: You suggested that people get started on energy-efficiency projects in bite-sized pieces, to show some quick wins. Any specific suggestions about how someone should approach creating that list or any particular projects you would suggest they start with?
Mark Thiele: There is a mountain of information available that can help with identifying power/efficiency opportunities in the data center. There's the Green Grid, APC Data Center University, Emerson's Efficient Data Center portal, LinkedIn groups like Data Center Pulse and many more. Once you've gone through some of the information on what can be done, you need to audit your current data centers to identify and prioritize the gap resolution activities. This prioritized list of gaps or opportunities should then be built into a program. I would highly recommend that anyone initiating a large effort like this should ensure they capture current state relative to space, power, and cooling so that you can measure and report the improvements to your management.
DCD: Who else within someone's company or organization should the IT operations people ally themselves with (besides facilities) to make progress on the data center energy efficiency front?
Mark Thiele: Finance is your friend. If you can demonstrate the potential savings and long term cost of doing business improvements, they will likely become ardent supporters of the effort.
DCD: What has surprised you most about what’s going on in this space today?
Mark Thiele: That it's taken so long for data centers to get this much attention. It's about time for the IT Infrastructure folks to be getting the attention they deserve.
DCD: You mentioned Data Center Pulse, the group of data center operations people that you helped found via LinkedIn. Given the wide range of existing organizations focused different aspects of the data center, why did you feel a need to create a new one?
Mark Thiele: Our primary driver for creating Data Center Pulse was to give data center owner/operators a chance to have a direct and immediate influence on the industry that supports them. We are effectively a working group that will deliver information and opportunity-for-improvement information to any and all vendors who support the data center space. I guess our primary difference from most other orgs is that we are not sponsored and we only allow owner/operators to join the group. We don't have any sales, marketing, business development, recruiting, or press folks in the group.
DCD: What are some of the immediate things you hope Data Center Pulse accomplishes?
Mark Thiele: In the near term, our first major accomplishments have revolved around making the group a functioning entity. We've established a board of directors, and we've grown the group to over 600 members. The members represent over 20 countries and virtually every industry. Our next big adventure is the upcoming Data Center Pulse Summit that will be held in February [next week, actually: Feb. 17-19, 2009 in Santa Clara, CA --Jay]. We will be presenting findings generated by the group at the following AFCOM chapter meeting and [Teladata's] Technology Convergence Conference.
Thanks, Mark for the interview. In addition to the data center energy-efficiency resources that Mark mentioned, we have a few up on the Cassatt site as well, with some focused on more general green data center information and some focused on recommendations around server power management issues.
Rich Miller at Data Center Knowledge has also posted a more detailed overview of the Data Center Pulse Summit, if you want more information about the event.