Data centers grapple with staffing shortages, pressure to reduce energy use

Outages are down, but challenges remain, says Uptime Institute. Data center operators are dealing with stricter energy regulations, persistent staffing problems and ongoing supply chain issues.

IT professionals converse in a network server room / data center.
4 PM Production / Shutterstock

Reducing energy use and keeping qualified staff are top of mind for data center operators, according to Uptime Institute’s latest annual global data center survey.

“Digital infrastructure managers are now most concerned with improving energy performance and dealing with staffing shortfalls, while government regulations aimed at improving data center sustainability and visibility are beginning to require attention, investment, and action,” said Andy Lawrence, executive director, Uptime Intelligence.

Other key management concerns revolve around planning for future growth. Data center managers are having trouble forecasting demand, for example. In addition, lingering supply chain issues are making it difficult to procure the equipment they need to support an expanding array of digital services, Uptime found. 

Meanwhile, enterprises continue to place more workloads in the cloud as they pursue a hybrid approach to IT. The share of enterprise workloads that are run in corporate, on-premises facilities has fallen below 50% for the first time, according to Uptime’s data. And the organization expects the percentage of on-premises workloads to continue to shrink, despite lingering concerns among enterprises about data security for mission-critical workloads in the cloud.

Energy metrics plateau

While energy efficiencies have improved since the organization began tracking power usage effectiveness (PUE) data, in 2023 the results remained nearly flat, pointing to the limitations of existing equipment. Future efforts to achieve greater efficiency will require more substantial capital investments by data center owners and operators, according to Uptime.

PUE measures how much of the total electricity used by a data center goes to the IT equipment, as opposed to being lost on cooling systems or inefficient power supplies. Uptime’s first study found that the industry average annualized PUE improved from 2.5 in 2007 to 1.98 in 2011, and then the average hit 1.65 in 2014. This year’s 1.58 is a slight increase from the PUE of 1.55 in 2022.

Survey respondents have seen a “tapering off of relatively easy gains” in terms of adding efficiencies, Uptime reports. For instance, data center operators could have improved PUE with better air-flow management, optimized environmental controls, and some upgrades to electrical systems in legacy systems. Now data center operators face increasing pressure to retrofit their data centers with new technologies to overcome the plateau, which if possible would require significant investment.

“Data center owners and operators are having to make that cost/value judgment. What is it going to cost me from a capital investment and what is it going to cost me from an overall continuing operating cost, and what is it going to cost me from increased risk?” said Chris Brown, chief technical officer at Uptime Institute, during a presentation of the study findings.

Further efficiency gains in many existing facilities would require major refurbishments that are expensive and disruptive to live operations – and may not even be feasible, according to Uptime.

Staffing struggles remain

Staffing came in a close second to efficiency efforts when Uptime asked survey respondents about their biggest concerns. A consistent issue for the past decade, attracting and retaining new talent will continue to challenge data center leaders, according to Uptime. About two-thirds of survey respondents said they have “problems recruiting or retaining staff,” but the trend appears to be stabilizing as it hasn’t increased over last year’s data.

According to the report: More than one third (35%) of respondents say their staff is being hired away, which is more than double the 2018 figure of 17%. And many believe operators are poaching from within the sector, with 22% of respondents reporting that they lost staff to their competitors. Staffing challenges are highest among operations management staff and those specializing in mechanical and electrical trades, as well as with junior level staff.

“It's been challenging the data center industry for about a decade. It has been escalating in recent years. Our survey data this year suggests that it may, at least this year, not be getting worse, maybe stabilizing. And poaching is a problem of people who do get qualified applicants into jobs – they do find them hired away,” said Jacqueline Davis, research analyst at Uptime Institute. “The data center industry is going to need to take a similar approach. We should always be focusing efforts on career changes, especially with those who bring skill sets that could be applicable to data center operations.”

Outage numbers improve but incidents remain costly

Uptime has tracked a steady improvement in the number of data center outages, and this year proved to be the lowest recorded by the firm. Among respondents, 55% of operators said they have had an outage at their site in the past three years.

Still, the costs of outages are expensive for any organization. More than half (54%) of respondents said their more recent “significant, serious or severe” outage costs them more than $100,000, and 16% said that the most recent “material outage” cost them more than $1 million.

While costs remain high, the root cause of outages is consistent. According to Uptime, disruptions to on-site power distribution continue to be the leading cause of outages in the 2023 data. In fact, power accounts for more than half of the most recent outages.  Many organizations have updated their data centers, added redundancies, and identified risks to avoid the more serious outages.

“Data centers have newer equipment and thus the outages the data center is going to face due to day-to-day operations is probably less for a few years. And people have been putting in a lot of effort into avoiding those severe and significant outages because of the cost associated with them,” Uptime’s Brown said. “Because when there is an outage, it not only hits your pocketbook with direct costs, but most of the companies get hit pretty hard with those indirect costs, such as stock price and things of that nature as well.”

Uptime conducted this year’s annual data center survey online from February - April 2023 and collected responses from more than 850 data center owners and operators and nearly 700 vendors and consultants.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022