Budget cuts a bigger threat to IT reliability than Y2k was

Budget cuts a bigger threat to IT reliability than Y2k was

The economic downturn may accomplish what Y2k never did, and that's to disrupt data center operations.

In the late 1990s, businesses spent tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions of dollars, remediating lines of code to ensure that their systems didn't succumb to the year 2000 date glitch.

But this time, it is the lack of spending and a relentless drive for cutbacks that may be the biggest threat facing some data centers today, according to the Association for Computer Operations Management (AFCOM), an association of data center managers.

Based on membership surveys, AFCOM predicted that in a five-year period, one out of every four data centers would experience a serious business disruption, which could involve anything from an entire data center to a few pieces of equipment. But Leonard Eckhaus, founder of the Orange, Calif.-based AFCOM and its past president, said this threat of disruption is increasing as the economy declines. "We believe it will worsen," he said.

Eckhaus is basing this latest warning on surveys and other feedback from members. AFCOM conducted two surveys of members, one last May with 300 responses from data center managers and a follow-up survey in late fall, as economic conditions declined, to which 133 responded. Nearly half of the data center managers said cutbacks were planned, but the survey also cited some specific reasons why there might be a disruption in services, and two had to do with security: 6.1% are cutting physical security and 4.5% are scaling back data security. Nearly 12% said budget cuts generally would lead to disruptions.

But these surveys don't weigh in the impact of the federal stimulus spending, and data centers may fare better than many other areas in this economy.

Tom Roberts, director of data center facility management at Trinity Information Services, the IT arm of a Novi, Mich.-based health care provider with 17 hospitals, said the nearly US$900 billion in stimulus money may accelerate his planned spending on electronic records.

"My environment is about to double, triple in size," said Roberts in a forum at AFCOM's conference here to discuss the survey results. Spending on IT and the power and cooling to support it could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. "How can I keep up with that pace in a two-year period?" he said.

Most businesses would probably consider Trinity's problem a good one to have, but Roberts is also struggling with hiring data center talent. He's been focusing on retraining and redeploying IT staff to handle data center needs.

AFCOM officials believe the economic downturn is exacerbating the data center skills issue. Most people who move into data center management have worked in other areas and usually get a lot of their training on the job. There isn't much in the way of specific job training for data center workers. Consequently, the workforce tends to be older, something that's evident at AFCOM's conference. As part of budget cutting, many of these workers are being offered buyouts, which is increasing the pressure to find people with the right skills to replace them. AFCOM said the economy has actually "sped up" the skills problems.

Rick Sawyer, a managing principal at EYP Mission Critical Facilities, a unit of Hewlett-Packard Co., said he sees clients who can't fill positions for extended periods of time. The workforce has become less mobile because of the housing market, and companies are not willing to spend the money to pay for a relocation that might involve helping an employee sell his home. But companies are more willing to house employees in apartments, allow them to work out of their homes and fly them in an out on a periodic basis, he said.

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