With human error being one of the biggest culprits for data centre downtime, new approaches are needed, engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon says focus should be shifted from removing humans via automation, to welcoming humans back into the data centre by designing an environment that supports them.

Human error is one of the biggest challenges in keeping data centres functioning and ensuring the provision of fast, reliable, safe services that consumers rely on, and which are critical for the competitiveness of companies using these facilities.

From adjusting the temperature, to pulling power cords, the results can be catastrophic, often making headlines around the world. When people have access to a data centre, it increases the chances of cables being knocked loose, power cords being damaged, systems being left in manual modes and other occurrences. These can be a nightmare for IT administrators and cause immense frustration for end users.

Over the past decade, the industry’s response to human error has been to reduce the number of humans working in these facilities, or in some cases, to remove them completely. ‘Dark’ or ‘lights-out’ data centres, which have sophisticated automation processes, are isolated and limit environmental fluctuations and human access.

In removing humans, it was hoped to mitigate, or eliminate, the possibility of human error, plus achieve additional benefits around energy savings and improved cooling efficiency and safety.

Hitting the limits of ‘lights out’ data centres

However, a 2016 report by the Ponemon Institute revealed that the proportion of failures attributed to human error remained unchanged since 2013, sitting stable at around 22% of all incidents. While it’s difficult to draw concrete conclusions, it does suggest little progress has been made to improve what should be an avoidable cause of disruption.

With automation becoming more prevalent across data centres, why are we not seeing a reduction in outages where humans are the root cause?

Improving environments

With ‘lights out’ data centres not having the impact the industry had hoped for, we must look in a different place for improvement. Rather than trying to engineer people out of the data centre, we should be trying to design an environment that supports them and makes them more productive and efficient.

While people are one cause of outages in these centres, they are also critical to the successful and safe operation of them. These people perform maintenance, they fulfil requests and respond to incidents – often against tight deadlines and under immense pressure. We need to help these people have a better, less problematic experience. We need to make the space less hostile and one in which people want to work.

Human-centred design

Human-centred design is not a natural bedfellow for data centres, however applying the approach in a non-traditional way could change the data centre landscape for the better. Learning from the commercial building market, there is substantial research and evidence that a well-designed space, built for people, can significantly increase the cognitive capability (by 26.4 per cent) of end users.

Studies also indicate that in human-centred spaces, people’s ability to deal with crisis response situations is increased significantly, which for a mission critical environment such as a data centre, is vital.

Optimising data centres for people’s performance

Traditionally, data centres have been technically heavy, focused on reliability, maintaining efficiency and driving down power consumption. This typical engineering-led design approach is still important, however when considering the people within data centres, a human-centric design methodology is more appropriate and, when combined with robust technical design, will yield broader, more effective results for people and for the overall operation of the data centre.

When optimising the facility for people’s performance, the quality of the indoor environment is critical. When there is daylight, views, thermal comfort, good lighting, increased outdoor air rates, good acoustics, direct exhaust of emissions produced by equipment, as well as plants and natural materials, such as timber, which minimise pollutant build up, we create a better indoor environment.

But human-centred design starts long before people actually enter the data centre. Thinking about the experience of the humans travelling to and working in these centres, there are many more fundamental aspects to consider:

  • What are the different roles within the data centre?
  • What are people’s pain points?
  • How do they arrive?
  • Where do they park?
  • How far do they have to walk?
  • How smooth is the security process?
  • Based on their experience leading up to their arrival into the building, do they have time to review their procedures?
  • How are they feeling when they work through their procedures – are they fresh or tired, stressed and hurried?
  • While doing their work do they feel they have time or do they feel pressured and anxious?

The answers to these questions ultimately impact on how people perform. They also identify what can be fixed and inform a design which could improve their experience through elements such as better parking facilities, improved entry to the data centre, seamless security process and better workspaces.

To improve the human experience, it is not necessary to make changes to the critical MEP systems or the technical functioning of the facility. Many solutions are not expensive, don’t affect the critical infrastructure and are not going to cause an outage, but they might help to reduce the error rate from human involvement.

While it’s very early days for human-centred design in data centres and focusing on people might not initially seem like a natural fit, against the backdrop of the industry’s desire to automate and engineer humans out, and the fact that human error incidents are not reducing, it’s an approach worth taking.

Improving the suitability of the data centre environment for the technicians, engineers and workers, and taking a human-centred design approach could be the answer the industry has been seeking.

Let’s give people the best chance to perform optimally. Let’s welcome them back into the data centre and make their space somewhere they can be, they can work and somewhere they can do their job well.

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