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This is where the buck stops

  • 20 July 2012
  • Written by 
  • Published in Profiler

Joseph Smith sleeps well, albeit with his mobile next to his bed.

Smith is the facilities manager for HP’s Australian data centres, including the new giant Aurora facility in Sydney’s west. He is where the buck stops.

The building management systems are monitored continuously, and any problems immediately trigger an alarm which is relayed to Smith’s mobile. Fortunately he says it doesn’t ring often.

Over the last decade Smith says market expectations regarding computer uptime have shifted enormously – from a situation where people shrugged off a banking glitch, to the case now where a computer crash can make front page news. “Everyone has gone 24x7 and the internet changed the way we consume things. Because data centres are the DNA building blocks that sit under that, the expectation of a data centre is 100 per cent (uptime).”

Smith’s role is to ensure that HP’s data centres get as close as they can to the magic number.

Born in New Zealand in 1977, the fourth of five children, Smith’s original intent was to leave high school and take on a trade apprenticeship. His family had moved back to Australia when Smith was a young child, and finally settled in the southern part of Newcastle – then a major BHP hub.

By the time Smith was ready to make the leap from school BHP had shut shop, the opportunity to get a trade in Newcastle were plummeting, and youth unemployment was soaring. Instead at the age of 18 he left home and moved to Sydney as a junior computer trainee for Tyco.

Smith had done five years of computing at high school. But; “The computing was based on Apple and a lot of it was programming … that doesn’t suit my personality –a lot of time staring at a screen, I like interaction.”

At Tyco Smith took on a role as a computer operator, handling “back up jobs, batch jobs, doing payroll transfers – a lot of the stuff that is now automated.”

From Tyco he moved onto Avco Finance. “That was what lit the fire for me. They had bought a few companies and probably had one of every technology in the marketplace and they had to integrate it, consolidate it and make it all work. It gave me a really big base of infrastructure exposure – IBM mainframes, SNA gateways, Sun unix, HP unix, VMS, OS/2, Novell.”

Smith thrived in the alphabet soup, moving into the infrastructure group when Avco was sold into the GE Group. Again he found himself on the technology front line; “I got into thin client consulting – rolled about 1200 (Citrix) thin clients out to replace dumb terminals – it was part of the Y2K deal.”

Along the way Smith attained a series of product specific qualifications collecting Unix administration know-how, Microsoft certifications, Cisco certifications, Citrix and “a few other product specific ones.”

After a short stint in the systems integration business Smith moved to data centre service provider Harbour MSP.  A stint in systems integration had been useful as it exposed Smith to a lot of different work environments, and a better understanding of what different organisations needed from their IT.

But as he noted; “Systems integrators are in tough markets because they are boom bust, you can go from record quarter to out of business.”

At the same time Smith says; “I wanted to recede from being on the tools and being technical - time to move to something else. I’d been through the first set of re-certifications and looked at the time it took – you’ve got to invest a good year of your life.”

Instead Smith decided project management was the next frontier. “I went off and got a manager’s certification in ITIL.” When he started as service delivery manager for Harbour MSP it was essentially a start-up, but grew into a sizeable business which was ultimately bought by NTT.

The role was far more intellectually stimulating for Smith. “I thrive off people and interactions – and that drove more people interactions into my life.”

His role increasingly became about managing the people with the skills he initially developed. So is it useful knowing intimately what’s under the hood? “Some days it’s very good and some days it can work against you,” says Smith.

“Sometimes you’ve got to accept people aren’t going to do it the way you would. The end result’s not about one thing being technically perfect.” He acknowledges that there has been the temptation to leap on a keyboard and show someone how it’s done – but that his role now is to trust others with that task and get on with the business of managing. “You’ve got to let go of the fine detail.”

After four and a half years at Harbour MSP it was clear that the business was close to being sold. “I’d been at the organisation from here to there and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there if someone was going to come in and take the wings off the fly.”

It was when Smith was on an ITIL refresher course that he met one of HP’s delivery managers, and the opportunity to move to HP arose.

“What attracted me is that HP is a super-organism. In the last place I reported to the CEO. Unless I was going to be the CEO there was nowhere else to go, whereas here there is always something interesting going on somewhere...I think that’s an awesome opportunity.”

Smith joined HP in service delivery in 2010. After about nine months the national facilities manager role came up, and Smith assumed the position on 1 April 2011.

Although he is responsible for the entire facilities management role, and managing HP staff, security personnel and vendors which need to access the site (to handle the electrics, mechanical engineering and so forth), he sees his ultimate responsibility as risk management.

“No one has any appetite for outages of any sort in a data centre, the modern expectation is for 100 per cent uptime, so my job to make sure that no matter what, we don’t have an unplanned outage. You do that through operational management, good processes and procedures. You need something engineered never to go down and enough redundancy so that you can do maintenance on it continuously.”

Smith is currently responsible for the facilities management of nine HP data centres, but as the $200 million Tier 3 Aurora data centre is built out that will consolidate down to two. Aurora has the capacity to eventually house five separate data centre halls with a 41 MW footprint (HP is currently planning its own on-site substation to feed the massive data centre). At present only one data hall is in operation.

His role is specifically facilities management, operations is separate, but as Aurora has been designed to be a lights-out facility, the amount of manual operations intervention will quickly wind back. Traditional operations flight decks – where human operators are responsible for monitoring for faults are being replaced by automated service management systems that automatically monitor alarms, raise service tickets and route them to the correct technician.

In terms of environmental efficiency Aurora is rated with a power usage efficiency (PUE) rating of 1.3, which means that for every $100 of electricity spent powering the computers $30 is spent on air conditioning, lighting or power leakage. A PUE rating of 1.3 signals a data centre at or near best practice.

HP declines to say whether its data centre footprint will render it liable to pay a price on carbon, but Smith says he does have to deliver comprehensive energy reporting.

“We’ve bought the latest greatest toys to look at and go OK we can tune this. We’ve got flexibility to get every bit of efficiency we can – when compared to office block where got to bring in two times the (electricity) amount for everything else.”

Smith also keeps a close watch eye on international best practice regarding optimal temperatures for data centres. He is hopeful that new European regulations demanding computer vendors supply equipment which can be operated at higher temperatures will trickle through the industry, reducing further Aurora’s need to use any form of powered cooling.

“Every degree I can push it up the more cost effective we will be.” He says that as a rule 1 Mw per kilowatt hour equals one tonne of carbon. If he can reduce his reliance on powered cooling, he could save 1 Mw per hour of power directed at cooling. “That’s one tonne of carbon – 730 hours a month, that’s 730 tonnes of carbon.”

The next big issues which need to be tackled he says are the ways in which data centre back-ups are handled, and also the gradual integration of facilities and systems management. At present facilities are mainly run by trades and while facilities management systems and service management systems butt up against each other they aren’t yet integrated.

The weight of keeping HP’s data centres seems to sit lightly on Smith’s shoulders. He leaves the office to return to his wife, two young daughters and surfboard on the Central Coast each night.

“Not much keeps me awake at night.”


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