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The road to the new normal for data center operators

When will we return to work? In the rapidly evolving COVID-19 environment, we are already seeing jurisdictions in Asia and Europe, as well as select areas and industries in North America, take steps toward reopening offices and returning employees to work. For people like IT professionals who operate data centers, they never really left. So, what will the journey to normal (or the new normal) look like for them?

Data centers were better prepared for emergency procedures than other operations

Modern data centers, whether they are used by enterprise or by Cloud providers, have been designed to operate with as few people as possible. Scaling back personnel in the height of the pandemic saw few staff reductions but it did mean significant changes in operating protocols. Social distancing, replacing face to face meetings with audio or video calls, restrictions on client personnel and increased reliance on remote hands are just a few of the operational changes we saw.

Many have also increased shift durations to reduce the number of turnovers per day and moved to a ‘touchless’ or ‘low touch' model to mitigate disease transmission. In some cases, one shift will clean and sterilize the control room and leave before the other shift comes in. The turnovers are then handled through audio or video calls with the key objective of minimizing exposure to key technical staff that have the specialized knowledge to anticipate problems and to resolve them if they occur.

Some IT teams have deployed junior personnel equipped with head-mounted video cameras connected to senior IT Professionals who can remotely guide junior staff on maintenance and repairs.

There is also increased focus on how people move within their workspaces to minimize bottlenecks and the congestion of people. In higher-traffic locations, companies have deployed floor stanchions, barriers and guidance tape on floors. Furthermore, furniture configurations designed to facilitate congregation are now being reconfigured to discourage it. Restrooms are fitted with hand sanitizers at the entrance and exit and signs are posted to remind staff to wash hands and not touch their face.

Some data center operators are making or accelerating capital investments in remote monitoring tools in an effort to minimize the need for and the frequency of walk around.

Towards the new normal

Notwithstanding the set of extraordinary conditions dealt with the world from the pandemic, the quality of service from enterprise and service provider data centers has been remarkably good. No major or persistent outages have been reported so far and some may argue that the reduction in staff and increase in automation in DC is a good thing, as human error is often cited as a major cause of outages.

However, there is very little evidence to support the position that automation in data centers has led to meaningful staff reductions. On the other hand, remote monitoring and automation leading to reduced staff interaction would likely be welcomed in a post-COVID-19 world.

So, will these modified operating procedures prevail in the long run or will we return to our old processes? It is one thing to survive for a relatively short period of time but it is quite another to maintain these minimalist procedures over a protracted period.

The Data Center Supply Chain may be a speed bump on the road to the new normal.

COVID-19 has already adversely affected supply chains, with the disruption of manufacturing in Asia and the assembly and distribution in other parts of the world. Data centers have already made adjustments to their supply chain procurement policies and many have stockpiled items typically needed for common repairs and others have deferred non-essential maintenance. But as we return to more normal operations, many IT professionals will have overdue maintenance projects and will need to play catch up. If the necessary equipment and spare parts are in short supply, it might peak demand and put upward pressure on prices and/or frustrate necessary repairs.

What changes will we permanently embrace?

So, on the road to the new normal for data centers, there are many aspects of these new operating protocols to be reviewed and considered for permanent adoption. Will a more conservative consumption pattern emerge, with IT component and equipment lifecycles extended, and IT professionals learning to do more with less? History has been less kind in similar situations. Many times, after major events, only minor changes take place and eventually the pain of the event fades and things revert back to the way they were before.

Hopefully, this time it will be different.

Global insight on the return to work

Cushman & Wakefield is a global organization with offices around the world. We have been working very closely with our operations in Asia who are ahead of other parts of the world with respect to COVID-19. To date, we have helped our clients to return over 1 million people back to work. Based on that experience and the considerable expertise of our in-house subject matter experts, we have put together a document titled Recovery Readiness – a how-to guide for reopening your workplace. This 30-page document was developed for both owners and occupiers and is available on our website.

We have also set up a dedicated Covid-19 site where we share a growing body of content for our clients, including the latest research updates, blog posts and podcasts. New posts to the site are supported by social media, and clients can subscribe to get regular updates via email.

For more information on Cushman & Wakefield and the Data Center Advisory Group, visit our website today.

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