Vinod Khosla, former Sun Microsystems CEO and now partner of Khosla Ventures, is known as a controversial figure, and he kept that reputation alive at this year’s Gigaom Structure conference in San Francisco. While talking to Gigaom executive editor Tom Krazit, Khosla said, “It’s ridiculous to have humans manage the level of complexity that we have humans manage inside the data center.” Khosla added that humans are a big cost in IT, and that they should be removed from the equation.

Before you decide whether Khosla is right or not, let’s look at what he is talking about.

Too complex?

It’s hard to deny that a data center is complex. Every so often, I read about a worker in a data center accidently doing something that completely shuts down the facility. TechRepublic contributing writer Jack Wallen even compiled a list of 10 stupid things people do in their data centers.

A quote by Wallen seems appropriate for this discussion. He said, “We’ve all done it — made that stupid mistake and hoped nobody saw it, prayed that it wouldn’t have an adverse effect on the systems or the network. And it’s usually okay, so long as the mistake didn’t happen in the data center.”

My favorite of Wallen’s 10 mistakes is midnight massacre, where someone working an all-nighter in a data center is sucking down caffeine to stay awake and ends up doing more harm than good. It’s a scenario that I am willing to bet most IT professionals understand.

Replace humans with automation

When talking with Krazit, Khosla gave credit to Google for driving automation in data centers. In his Data Center Knowledge article about Khosla’s interview, author Yevgeniy Sverdlik states that Google is using tools including Omega to automate management of its global data-center infrastructure. Khosla also feels that Mesos, an Apache cluster manager, is approaching the same goal.

To make his point about Google inventing new automated hardware, Khosla said to Krazit, “I don’t think Google talks to Cisco about getting its networking gear. I don’t think they even look at those product lines.”

Facebook, Rackspace, and other companies in the data center business are looking at ways to automate hardware management of their data centers using designs from the Open Compute Project.

Aligning automation with reality

There may be good reasons to believe automation will take over more tasks, but a reality assessment must be made to assure that automation improves the situation. Automating an already complex environment is not trivial.

Paul Venezia in an InfoWorld post speaks highly of efforts to automate the data center. He also urges caution — what if something happens in an automated data center, and there is no one there to fix the problem? Venezia sounds like he’s been in similar situations and prefers not to repeat them.

A different reason to keep humans out

I read another interesting blog post on the Data Center Knowledge site that noted humans might be forced out of the raised-floor portions of data centers sooner rather than later. New studies show that servers, which were once thought to perform best when the temperature is 68 to 72 degrees F, can handle temperatures that are approaching 95 degrees F. In the article, author Rich Miller writes:

Studies by Intel and Microsoft showed that most servers do fine with higher temperatures and outside air, easing fears about higher hardware failure rates. Dell recently said it would warranty its servers to operate in environments as warm as 45 degrees C (115 degrees F).

OSHA states that the Maximum Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (i.e., the measure of heat stress) in a work environment is:

  • Continuous: 86 degrees F / 30 degrees C
  • 25% work / 75% rest: 90 degrees F / 32 degrees C

If that is the case, there will be all sorts of number crunching to see where money can be saved, as energy used for cooling is a significant data-center expense.

Last thoughts

Khosla’s comments may be timely, but for a different reason than he originally thought.

Finally, if you work in a data center, do not feel bad about Khosla stating that data centers are too complex for humans. Khosla says in this TechCrunch post that he wants to replace doctors with automated processes.