Freedom to think of things others don't, accepting different belief structures - Human Factors and the Data Center

Last week I blogged about some big thinking I participated in Portland with a cloud computing director and ten others.  One of the things I do in big meetings is drop into an analyst mode watching the conversations, saying little, listening and watching the dynamics in the meeting.  Normally, I would be discussing big ideas, but with 12 people in the room and plenty of brain power going and an extremely smart guy presenting I could be quiet.   I frequently find I learn more and figure out things being quiet and watching the dynamics between the people.  Isn't it funny how your brain stops listening when you want to talk.

One of the entertaining moments is when a VC came into the meeting late and spent 2 minutes telling the group how important he is and how much influence he has.  I didn't say one word to him, even though he was the man with the money.  I had more important conversations, and for a person like this, it is many times difficult to explain my role, and that this meeting wouldn't be happening if  I hadn't been architecting the solution.

I was sitting next to my friend and we scribbled notes and whispered ideas during the presentation, taking the time to highlight important concepts. One of the concepts that was big is to model different belief structures to interpret data differently which allows you to put data in context of the user. 

A side story, I worked with some data center construction guys and I found their belief and value system was totally different than what I had assumed.  The construction guys thought I was not that smart the more I worked with them.  What I understood is their value and belief system was brittle when exposed to openness and transparency which is requirement for building a knowledge model for the data center.  Luckily I escaped that project.  In the process, I learned a valuable lesson why it is so hard to bridge thinking across data center design, construction and operation.  Most people are fixed in their belief and value system, they can't translate what others do into their beliefs, and vice versa.  Openness and transparency is not compatible with many existing approaches in data centers where keeping things secret is a standard practice.  Also, keeping secrets maximizes control and profits for the suppliers as the customers are mystified by the black magic skills to build a data center.

Note: I have met other data center construction guys who don't exhibit this behavior, so don't think I mean all data center construction is this way.  And, I have met data center designers who believe data center efficiency can be achieved with simpler designs that are easier to operate and maintain when the black magic is not part of the design.

After this lesson, I've spent more time analyzing people and companies for how well they fit in open approaches like we intend to use in the "Open Source Data Center Initiative."

While most people in the meeting were down in the details reviewing ideas presented, I was watching the people and their beliefs, trying to figure out if they accept other people's belief systems.  The more arrogant a person is the less they accept another person's view as being right in their context.

How many different belief systems do you accept as valid in the data center system?

Executive & CIO

Business Unit VP

Facility Operations

IT Operations

Application/Services Operations - Dev and Test

Enterprise Architect



Database & Storage


Public Relations

Environmental Impact & Sustainability




Government, Finance, and Compliance Regulations

One view I haven't heard is Human factors.  I wrote the above yesterday, but knew it was not finished to post, this morning at 6a it clicked.  One view that touches almost all of  the above, but is not discussed is the holistic view from Human Factors.  I studied Human Factors in college and believed it was key to be a better Industrial Engineer. When I interviewed at IBM, one of the questions was "How do you know what to change?"  Being young and naive, I said you have to care about the people.  The IBM engineers probably thought I was a leftist tree-hugging radical thinker  as I was graduating from UC Berkeley.

What is Human Factors?

Human factors involves the study of all aspects of the way humans relate to the world around them, with the aim of improving operational performance, safety, through life costs and/or adoption through improvement in the experience of the end user.

An area where Human Factors shows up in most data centers is in facilities due to the maturity of the equipment used, regulations like OSHA, and safety requirements around large mechanical and power systems.  But, the application of Human Factors in data centers is relatively new.  In talking to Mike Manos, he described how Microsoft designed its data centers to make it easier to receive fully assembled racks and deploy the heavy racks to their location.

In software and hardware, User Interface design is a more popular term.

In the industrial design field of human-machine interaction, the user interface is (a place) where interaction between humans and machines occurs. The goal of interaction between a human and a machine at the user interface is effective operation and control of the machine, and feedback from the machine which aids the operator in making operational decisions. Examples of this broad concept of user interfaces include the interactive aspects of computer operating systems, hand tools, heavy machinery operator controls. and process controls. The design considerations applicable when creating user interfaces are related to or involve such disciplines as ergonomics and psychology.

Human Factor and User Interface is discussed in isolated areas within the data center, but I don't think I have heard any one discussing human factors and data centers in the same breath.

The #1 risk to data center operations are human related.  How much did it cost Microsoft and Hitachi Data Systems for the T-Mobile data loss disaster that was a human error.

While users will be relieved that their information looks likely to be recovered, the episode poses several questions over the competence of Danger’s staff; the technical ability of contractor Hitachi Data Systems; and the inherent stupidity of the Cloud concept.

While we are unlikely ever to be told the full story, it looks very much as if Hitachi’s attempts to upgrade Danger’s Storage Area Network failed big time and that the data was put at risk not by hardware failure, but by good old-fashioned human error.

This one event that had a multiple human errors did hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to Hitachi and Microsoft.  Can Hitachi sell a storage system?  Can Microsoft sell its Smartphones?

This problem was caused by people who didn't spend the time to think how the people are interacting with the data center systems.

This is one of my more rambling posts, there are some good ideas here, I need to think about them a bit more though.