Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, a study carried out by data centre equipment supplier Vertiv found that less than a third of data centre operators (29%) felt they were able to meet current demands.
Just 11% felt they were in a position to respond to changing and increasing demands going forward, falling to a tiny 1% of data centre engineers.
Their concerns were familiar topics in the infrastructure sector. Hyperconnectivity, edge computing, IoT and the growth of data-hungry technologies like AI, AR and VR and have been driving a new wave of digital transformation for the past half a decade or more.
As billions of more devices are connected around the globe, as enterprise networks continue to grow, data infrastructure will be critical for supporting yet another bout of rapid technological evolution.
In the midst of this flux, data centre operators also told Vertiv that they feared they could lose 16% of their infrastructure workforce over five years. Labour shortages at a time when the skills requirements of the industry were already changing rapidly – a perfect storm of conditions to leave operators feeling behind the curve.
And then, of course, the pandemic struck. For tens of thousands of businesses and millions of workers around the globe, cloud computing was a godsend in the most difficult of circumstances.
With offices and other places of work shut down to contain the spread of the virus, the cloud allowed people to keep working remotely at home. Businesses that would otherwise have had to stop trading completely were able to spin out or adapt customer-facing websites and apps to serve their markets at an appropriate social distance.
All of this added up to a huge spike in cloud demand. Total cloud expenditure leapt by a third in 2020 – massive for such a large and mature industry.
These are unlikely to be short term changes. 77% of IT and data centre managers told the Uptime Institute that they expect the increase in remote working seen during the pandemic to still be a factor in two to three years time. Data centre operators are now functioning in a very different environment compared to just a few short years ago. And that puts skills under the spotlight.
Emerging skills requirements
Out of all the factors influencing the shift in data centre skill requirements, three key threads can be identified. The first, and the one that is really driving all the changes, is the sheer size of the increase in data volumes we are seeing as new devices and users are added to networks at scale. This creates challenges which traditional infrastructure is not designed to meet, ranging from new security threats to massive pressure on available bandwidth.
Put simply, infrastructure management has got a whole lot more complicated.
In response to these fundamental shifts in operating conditions, the second thread we can see is the increasing influence of automation and software-defined networking. Practically, the intervention of AI-powered infrastructure management solutions is the only feasible way to meet the massive growth in demand data centres are facing.
This means the skills required to run infrastructure are moving ‘up the stack’ from hardware to software. The transition to software-defined and cloud-based network infrastructure has made APIs a critical tool. Engineers are as likely to be executing strings of cloud-based programmes as they are to be found installing routers and servers these days.
This makes everything much more scalable, agile and efficient in the face of rapidly changing demands. It also brings new types of expertise to the fore. Technical architects, for example, play a critical role in designing infrastructure so that multiple components – servers, hypervisors, containers, network elements, cloud services – all integrate seamlessly and provide optimum performance and resource availability to all users.
The third thread we can identify is decentralisation. This is occurring on several levels, including the way that edge computing is pushing data processing back out from data centres and the way that changing working patterns are dispersing users geographically via the cloud.
There is also an element of fragmentation clear in the way that enterprise infrastructure is increasingly heading down the hybrid deployment route, mixing public and private cloud with on-premise, colocation and edge solutions. As a result, enterprises end up working with multiple vendors to develop bespoke solutions for every use case.
Again, these trends are shifting the skills demands in infrastructure management in a number of ways. With partnerships with cloud providers of increasing strategic importance to infrastructure specialists, there is demand for roles at a senior level covering procurement, partnership and technical management, to ensure data centres choose the right partners to work with and get the best value from them.
Growth in the number of connections, dispersed workforces and open-source data environments are also changing cybersecurity considerations, with trends such as zero-trust traffic isolation and AI-powered monitoring and analysis critical to maintaining the integrity of complex, multi-faceted data architectures.
Finally, new models of data infrastructure require new physical as well as software-based solutions. Data centre architects are having to tackle new challenges ranging from ensuring resilience and energy efficiency as traffic volumes continue to accelerate, to the design and construction of micro data centres located out on the network edge.