A Guide to Data Center Automation

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Data centers can occupy more than a million square feet of space filled with racks of powerful hardware served by massive cooling and power management systems, and yet they’re staffed by a surprisingly small number of people. Data center automation uses software, robotic process automation (RPA), and artificial intelligence to eliminate many manual and repetitive tasks and operate data centers more efficiently by provisioning equipment, monitoring hardware and software, compiling reports, and performing basic maintenance.

This article takes a closer look at data center automation, how it works, and the value it brings to enterprises.

What is the Importance of Data Center Automation?

The original data centers resembled a basement room containing some servers, storage arrays, and networking gear. But modern data centers look more like massive warehouses—and without automation, data centers that size would be impossible to run.

It can even be difficult to operate small and mid-sized data centers manually because there’s so much complexity and so many things to manage. And manual work is not only time-consuming; it can also be error-prone. Human error is a leading cause of downtime, cybersecurity breaches, and system failures. All it takes is one administrator to misconfigure a system, forget to run a backup or fail to spot an alert and suddenly applications fail and security breaches occur.

Data center automation keeps things manageable. It eliminates many errors and helps improve uptime and availability. When you consider that many data centers host mission critical equipment and applications, the consequences of downtime—lost revenue and unhappy customers—are dire.

Information Technology vs. Operational Technology

Automation is vital in IT, but in the data center it’s also essential as a way to coordinate IT systems with operational technology (OT). IT refers to computer systems, while OT refers to the systems that run facilities equipment like power distribution and management, cooling and air conditioning, humidification, and other systems that generally include a mechanical element.

Historically, IT and OT systems ran separately, with responsible teams often at odds about priorities. But in the modern data center, they need to work seamlessly in unison to realize operational efficiencies, reduce costs, and automate processes. While not all OT work is likely to be absorbed into the IT function, integrated systems will continue to enable IT to take care of more of these functions. 

Read What is a Hyperscale Data Center? to learn more about the challenges of running massive data facilities.

How Does Data Center Automation Work?

Automation is achieved at the software level. It relies on sensors placed throughout the hardware infrastructure as well as software agents and monitoring tools that continually receive inputs from systems throughout the data center.

The most prevalent form of automation comes from data center infrastructure management (DCIM), which includes pre-packaged connectors to help integrate systems, populate data, and organize workflows among IT systems and between IT and OT systems.

Data Center Infrastructure Management

DCIM software gathers data from sensors and AI-powered applications to monitor infrastructure. By aggregating data into one portal, the system can sort through alerts from any number of endpoints and provide insight across the data center.

Some facilities might generate as many as 90,000 alerts a month from different systems. AI and analytics can determine which alerts to ignore and which to act upon automatically, leaving far fewer–less than 100 in some cases—that need manual human intervention.

DCIM and other forms of advanced data center automation are benefiting from the ongoing push toward digitalization. Many OT tools remain in the analog world—as these are upgraded, it becomes possible to align their workflows with those of IT, giving data center managers more ability to coordinate activities.

Digital Twins

Another type of automation used in data centers, digital twins provide 3D virtual replicas that simulate power, cooling, and IT system and component operations across the data center. They can be used to test major planned changes to the data center to predict results, how it will impact costs, and to uncover unforeseen challenges.

Such simulations are invaluable. Digital twins are also beginning to be used to monitor data centers in real time, as they show an entire system in operation, keep track of its overall health, and highlight any issues to be addressed.

Benefits of Data Center Automation

The benefits of data center automation depend upon the use case. Data center operators also benefit from automation as it makes it possible for them to do more with less. Vendors who automate their data centers also pass on benefits to their customers in the form of more efficient storage, faster access and processing, and better reliability.

Here are some of the most common benefits of data center automation:

  • Holistic views—Instead of data being locked up in information silos, it unified to provide one holistic overview of the entire data center.
  • Improved productivity—Optimizing workflows and automating tedious duties improves employee productivity and collaboration.
  • Faster provisioning—Automation makes it possible to provision servers and other equipment faster and with a higher degree of certainty.
  • Reduced downtime—Unexpected downtimes become less frequent with automation, as data center staff are warned about potential issues before failures occur.
  • Centralization—Automation makes it easier to create a configuration management database (CMDB) as a central repository for data on all data center assets and their interrelationships. 

Bottom Line: Automating Data Centers

Data center automation can require a lot of groundwork and preparation. Retrofitting an existing data center with automation might mean inventorying hundreds of cabinets and thousands of devices—including make, model, and all power, cabling, and location details—for upload into the DCIM, which can be a time and labor intensive project.

DCIM and digital twin technology can also be expensive, though the return on investment is high. Data center automation is not for the faint of heart. It entails preparation to realize significant rewards, and those embarking upon it should plan carefully and allocate sufficient resources.

Read Hyperscale Data Centers vs. Colocation Data Centers to learn more about options for large scale enterprise data storage.

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb is a contributing writer for Datamation, Enterprise Storage Forum, eSecurity Planet, Channel Insider, and eWeek. He has been reporting on all areas of IT for more than 25 years. He has a degree from the University of Strathclyde UK (USUK), and lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

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