Data center double duty

Studies show that IT workloads are rising as technology is added but staffing levels plateau.

Data centers continue to be filled with more and more IT systems, but enterprises aren't necessarily hiring more people to manage that new equipment, two surveys have found.

In a survey conducted in March by AFCOM, a data center managers group, 37% of the respondents said they had reduced their data center staffs over the past three years, and 29% said they kept their staffing levels the same. The balance, nearly 35%, increased staffing.

But over that same period, nearly 74% of the data centers increased their physical server count, according to the AFCOM poll of 360 IT managers and other senior IT executives.

The upshot is that 66% the data centers covered in the AFCOM survey are managing more systems with the same number of people or fewer.

A separate study by Metrics Based Assessments, also released in March, explains what's happening.

MBA, a data center research firm that benchmarks about 100 data centers annually, reported that in 2006, the number of Linux operating system images supported by the equivalent of a single full-time systems administrator was 9.2, but by 2010 it was 17.1, an 86% increase. Over that same period, the number of Windows images supported by a single full-time staffer increased 61%, and the number of Unix images per staffer rose 38%, according to MBA.

"What we're really seeing is that people are adding capacity, but they are not increasing staff size, and somehow the staff is figuring out how to deal with it," says Mark Levin, a partner at MBA. "And a lot of it has to do with improved levels of automation or things of that nature."

But even with technical improvements, Levin says, productivity gains are being achieved because data center workers are simply taking on more work.

"Server virtualization, server management software and data center automation are making the data center more efficient," says John Longwell, vice president of research at Computer Economics, an IT research firm in Irvine, Calif. "At the same time, server counts are still rising, despite all the yakking about server consolidation and data center consolidation."

But this is also a consistent long-term trend. Computer operators (now called systems administrators) used to account for about 10% of the IT staff back in 1997, says Longwell. Today, they account for 3.3% of the IT staff.

Another major trend that's shaping data centers is the growth of cloud computing. In October 2009, only 14% of data centers had implemented any form of cloud computing, according to the AFCOM survey. That figure now stands at 36%.

"Our prediction is that 80% to 90% of all data centers will be adopting some form of cloud computing in the next five years," says Jill Eckhaus, CEO of AFCOM, which has made cloud computing a priority in its training programs.

Eckhaus says data center managers are more interested in private clouds for control and security reasons, but she notes that AFCOM's adoption estimate also includes use of public cloud services.

In terms of budgets, nearly 38% of the respondents to the AFCOM survey said they expect their companies to increase their data center budgets in 2011, while 41% said they expect funding to remain the same and 20% said it would decline.

Eckhaus says the survey also found that 15% of the data centers don't have data backup and recovery plans, and about 30% don't have backup sites. "To me, these statistics are shocking," she says.

Levin says he isn't surprised by the lack of spending on or attention to disaster recovery. "We thought after 9/11 there would be a significant increase in disaster recovery spending -- it never happened," he says.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Read more about data center in Computerworld's Data Center Topic Center.

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Patrick Thibodeau

Computerworld (US)
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