A technology writer is born

I wish I could say I was new to IBM when this happened, but the fact is I’d been there three years. One of our clients, a big bank, suffered the destruction of its data center in the 9/11 attacks. They had to move all their operations from Barclay Street to the failover site in upstate Sterling Forest.

IBM did what it always does in these circumstances: It throws people at the problem. They don’t have to be the right people. They just have to know PowerPoint.

Up to that point, my IBM career had consisted of some management consulting in the chemical process industries and developing contingency plans for a state-level government — that is, strategies for what to do if all the computers stopped working. I hadn’t done any serious financial analysis in a couple years at that point, and I never had to know anything about IBM’s main product line.

So here I am, in an all-hands-on-deck consulting cattle call and the project executive realizes quickly I got no skills. So he gives me a task to learn on:

“Bill, take this clipboard,” he told me. “Tomorrow morning, don’t come in to the office. Drive up to Sterling Forest. Walk around the backup data center and take a look at the asset tags. If the serial number matches the one on these sheets, check it off. If it doesn’t, add it to the list. If you can’t find a serial number, cross it off.”

It was scut work, but I was glad to have it. Even after three years at IBM, this was my first time actually inside a data center. I got to have the up-close, tactile experience of being there with the products my company created and sold. I found out what a server farm looks like, and a storage array and a mainframe. And I did an honest day’s work taking that physical inventory.

Toward the end of my rounds, I came across a big, green cube in the middle of the machine room. I couldn’t tell front from back from side, but I looked all around it in search of an asset tab. Couldn’t find it — or at least, not one that had an alphanumeric code anything like the ones of all the other metallic boxes there.

I walked around the mysterious cube three times while a couple of data center guys stood along the wall whispering to each other, then laughing out loud. One of them came over, draped an avuncular arm over my shoulder and said, “Son, that’s an air conditioner.”

I hope that story amused you, because my shame and embarrassment would be wasted if it didn’t. Which raises the question, why did I bring it up at all?

Here’s why: Most the people reading this could walk into a data center and not be able to tell a virtual tape library from an air conditioner themselves. But supposing you could, you probably don’t know how much it costs to run either over the course of a year.

[Spoiler alert: This paragraph is incredibly boring. Just read until you get the picture, then skip down.] Can you locate a source to determine BTUs a year does that air conditioner displace? How do you figure out how many kilowatt-hours per year that translates into? How many square feet of floor space does that fill? Oh, and then there’s the computer? How much power and cooling does it require? Rack space? How much did it cost to purchase, does it come with a warranty and, once that warranty expires, how much will it cost per year to repair? How much are you paying the guy who keeps it running, and how many other boxes does he work on? How much does it cost to license the software at the application, database, middleware, infrastructure, operating system and hypervisor levels? Are those software terms on an enterprise license or are they variable by user, server, image, instance, CPU, core or other resource unit? What kind of workload does it run, and does what demands does that make on network and storage assets?

[Come out. It’s safe now.]

I can also ask strategic questions about data center location and occupancy arrangements, selection of technology platforms, alignment of business requirements and IT services, and the composition of the portfolio pipeline.

I’ve actually learned a thing or two about cloud computing at the infrastructure, platform and application software levels. I’ve been a strenuous proponent of the whole movement toward enterprise mobility, as is anyone who ever realized they have better tech at home than they have at the office. (For what it’s worth, my first act as an ex-IBMer was to buy an iPhone and a MacBook Air.)

I’ve written a series of white papers on financial analysis for IT optimization, and will soon post excerpts from those.

In the meantime, though, my message is this: If you want Air Conditioner Boy to write your next technology story, you can find him easy enough. If you want the pro he became after another dozen years on the firing line, give me a call.

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