Data Center Tech Job Description
I worked in a colocation data center for years. These are my observations on working in a data center; what to expect and what the job is like.
A data center is basically a room full of servers. Servers are very powerful computers. These servers can be running all kinds of things, from hosting websites to running payroll databases. Just about anything that is done on a computer can be done on a server in a data center. Most large Internet companies have their own data centers, but there are also colocation centers which are operated by the third party.
The individuals responsible for maintaining and operating the data center are called data center technicians. It is their job to ensure that the data center is running smoothly. This includes making sure the servers are up and running, the Internet connection is up, and that the building is secure. A data center tech is responsible for things like remote hands, which can include simple tasks such as switching a harddrive or moving an Ethernet cable and more complex tasks such as replacing a server's RAM.
Working In A Data Center
Different data centers will have different policies and job descriptions. Some colocation data centers will have customers coming in and accessing their equipment. Other data centers will almost never have outside visitors. It depends on the company and what they do.
There are some aspects of working in a data center that are true of all data centers.
The temperature in a data center is going to be highly controlled. Computer's create a lot of heat. If a computer overheats it becomes less efficient, slower, and can crash. A data center will have the air conditioning contently running. If you get a data center job, expect to have cold air blasting at you at times. Bring warm clothes.
I worked in a colocation center in California. In the summer it would be warm enough to wear shorts every day, yet I always packed a sweater to work. That's because as soon as I got into the data center I got cold. The air conditioning was always on, always blasting cold air at the servers.
Computers are loud. So are air conditioning devices. The inside of a data center is going to have a constant hum that does not seem too loud at first, but is loud and consistent enough that it can damage your hearing. If I were ever working in the data center for long periods of time (an hour or more) I would put ear plugs in for protection.
Because the noise is a consistent hum, it was never distracting. I was just loud and consistent.
Data Center Tech Tasks
Beyond the environment, there are job duties that are true for most data center techs.
A data center is filled with servers. It is the data center tech who is responsible for racking the servers into place. This means installing shelves, rails, etc. It also means connecting the cables that plug into the server. The power cable, the Ethernet cable, etc. You will physically be screwing servers into the cabinets that they live in.
When I worked at a colocation center, most of the servers were customer equipment. It did not belong to the data center. However, there were still enough remote customers that I had to install plenty of servers.
A data center is a highly regulated environment. This means the temperature, the power, and other environmental conditions need to be monitored at all times. A data center tech will keep their eye on these systems and will look for any alarms in the system.
Generally a data center does not need much human interaction. If a server is having trouble, a lot of the issues can be fixed remotely by logging into the server. However, there are times when someone physically needs to go touch a server. This is the job of the data center tech. The tech is on site and able to take email and phone requests from remote colleagues asking them to perform some physical task.
These physical tasks that the data center tech performs for others are called remote hands.
Remote hands often include power cycling a server or moving a cable from one port to another. Sometime the task can be more complex and requires connecting a keyboard and video monitor (crash cart or KVM) tot he server and running some local commands.
I have had plenty of remote hands requests for someone asking me to boot into a different operating system or change the boot order in a server's BIOS. I've also had plenty of chances to setup a new IP address on a server or configure SSH.
These remote hands tasks are similar to what a system administrator does. Working in a data center can be a good stepping stone to getting a full system administrator job.
A data center is connected to a network. For a data center tech, the networking aspect includes physically running cables between different points in the data center. It also means monitoring and trouble shooting network connections. A data center and a Network Operations Center (NOC) are often adjacent to one another and the job duties of a noc technician and data center technician will overlap.
The tech may configure switches, adding new ports when needed and might be responsible for configuring DNS and VLANS.
For many companies, it is the data center tech that does the initial server configurations. They might install the operating system. The data center tech configures iDRAC and other remote access on servers.
Answering Phones and Emails
When someone calls in to the data center with an issue, the data center tech answers, creates a ticket and resolves the ticket. Most customer interaction is through phone and email.
Data centers operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most data centers will physically have someone present at all times. This means that you might have to work Christmas or New Years. It happens. The Internet never sleeps, so data centers cannot just power off or be left unattended.
Luckily a data center tech has an assigned shift and is not likely to be on-call. Unfortunately, the assigned shift can be in the middle of the night.
A data center job is great because it introduces one to many different aspects of IT. It includes sys admin and net admin tasks. It's also reliable work that is usually low in stress and pretty easy to perform once you become familiar with the common tasks.
The ability to advance largely depends on how many responsibilities the data center tech is given at their job. Some data centers have techs who mostly rack servers and do not get a chance to do much else. Other data center jobs provide a wide range of tasks, allowing techs to gain lots of different experience.
A data center job is a step up from desktop support, but it is not as lucrative as a system administrator job.