Infrastructure Masons: Data Centers Can Be Faster, Sexier

Nov. 18, 2016
Career development and faster networks were key themes discussed this week by Infrastructure Masons, a group that brings together the largest data center builders to chart a course for the cloud economy.

SUNNYVALE, Calif. – If you gathered 100 of the leading data center builders in the same room, what would they talk about? The answer: faster networks, better metrics and how to make data centers sexy.

Wait, what was the last one? The sexiness of data centers emerged as a surprising focus at the fall meeting of the Infrastructure Masons, a group of industry thought leaders. It turns out that articulating the “cool factor” of Internet infrastructure will be essential to attracting the workforce of the future, which was cited as the industry’s biggest challenge.

Career development was one of many themes at Wednesday’s meeting of Infrastructure Masons, a group founded this year by Uber executive Dean Nelson to chart a course for the fast-growing cloud economy. The 103 attendees have built more than $100 billion worth of data centers. Participants include leaders of the infrastructure teams at Facebook, Microsoft, eBay, Switch and Google, which hosted the event.

“We’re the builders of the digital age,” said Nelson, who headed data center teams at eBay and Sun Microsystems prior to joining Uber. “Everything happening in this digital world depends on what we build.”

Unlocking Network Capacity

The rapid growth of cloud computing reinforces the urgency of collaborating on best practices, said Andy Bechtolsheim, chairman of Arista Networks and a pioneer in Silicon Valley.

A handful of hyperscale companies invested $25 billion in their data centers last year, Bechtolsheim noted, a trend that has big implications for the industry.

“There’s a very dramatic shift in where computing is happening,” said Bechtolsheim. “Cloud is growing and on-premises IT is shrinking. Half of all new servers are going to cloud data centers. At least half of all network gear is going to be sold to cloud operators.”

Arista Networks chairman Andy Bechtolsheim (left) and Infrastructure Masons founder Dean Nelson at the group’s meeting Wednesday in Sunnyvale, Calif. (Photo: Rich Miller)

The major cloud platforms build and innovate rapidly – sometimes so rapidly that it’s hard for IT vendors to keep pace.

An example is networking. While the enterprise world is preparing to graduate from 40Gbps to 100Gbps switches, the cloud builders are already focused on 400Gbps networks.

“The first 400G silicon will show up in 2018 and be in production in 2019,” Bechtolsheim predicted. That timetable is well ahead of forecasts by market analysts and most networking vendors, he said, noting that a similar lag slowed the adoption of 100GB networks.

Arista this week joined 48 other tech companies to support OSFP (Octal Small Form-factor Pluggable), a new form factor for optic cable connections with an improved thermal profile, a key step to support the transition to 400Gbps evnironments.

“If we want 400G in two years, we have to get the message out,” said Bechtolsheim.

Job One: Attracting Talented Staff

That’s part of the focus for Infrastructure Masons. The group’s motto is “Connect, Grow and Give Back.” At Wednesday’s meeting, the group brainstormed opportunities in four work areas: education, publications, classifications and metrics.

Finding qualified staff was identified as a priority. Skilled engineers and technologists have a wide choice of career paths, several participants argued, asserting that the data center industry needs to do a better job explaining what it does and why it matters.

One suggestion was that Infrastructure Masons could take the lead on a branding initiative to highlight the key role of data centers in the Internet economy, and work with colleges and high schools to educate young technologists about opportunities in cloud infrastructure.[clickToTweet tweet=”Dean Nelson: We’re the builders of the digital age. Everything in this digital world depends on what we build.” quote=”Dean Nelson: We’re the builders of the digital age. Everything in this digital world depends on what we build.”]

Several participants expressed frustration with the often geeky language that has come to define the industry, citing the need for a “new lexicon” to build interest in data center careers. Perhaps, it was suggested, the phrase “data center” should be retired in favor of “digital infrastructure” or other alternatives.

That might also help with another staffing opportunity: the emergent effort to boost the presence of women in the industry.

Mixed Message on Metrics?

The Infrastructure Masons leadership team will work with this feedback as it identifies priorities for future work.

There was agreement that the group could make a difference in helping set standards in several areas. But there was a mixed response on the subject of data center metrics.

Nelson has championed the opportunity to develop new metrics that incorporate IT effectiveness as well as facilities’ use of energy and water. Other attendees also yearned for better metrics.

But there was pushback from veterans of other industry efforts to create metrics that go beyond PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness, the leading metric for data center energy efficiency). Some argued that cloud builders and enterprise IT users would have trouble finding common ground on advanced metrics, making it a less effective use of the group’s time and resources.

Foundry Provides Tech Testbed

This was the second meeting of the Infrastructure Masons. The group was created in April, and held an initial meeting in May that launched several initiatives:

  • The Foundry – Switch has made one of its T-SCIF containment rows at the SUPERNAP campus in Las Vegas, providing a testbed where Masons can test drove new technologies and hardware –  including Dell Triton liquid cooled rack.
  • Thoughts – A publication showcasing thought leadership and papers from leading Masons members.
  • Member forums, most likely in conjunction with existing industry conferences. “We don’t want to become an events company,” said Nelson. “We want to leverage where you’re going already.”
  • The Fund – Infrastructure Masons is a non-profit, but will focus on raising funds and giving back through charity, training or investing. The May meeting generated $50,000 in donations to help build a school in rural India for the Just Let Me Learn foundation. A membership plan has been launched to organize corporate support for the group’s work (for details, email membership at

To learn more about Infrastructure Masons, visit the group’s web site or LinkedIn Group.  

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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