Is It Lights-Out for Your Data Center?

By Kenneth Hess (Send Email)
Posted Nov 19, 2009

If you need to save money, a lights-out data center just might do the trick. Lights-out means minimal, or no, IT and facilities staff onsite to perform those once-critical functions. Some data centers actually turn out the lights, or dim them, to take the terminology to a more literal level. Lights-out data centers are a new trend in economically thrifty and environmentally friendly collocation services. But beware of the risks and challenges before you sign on the dotted line for lights-out services. Who will take care of your systems, pull your cables and edit your configuration files from now on? Cover Your Assets: A new data center trend might be your light at the end of the tunnel.

For the latest trend in data center personnel, picture a middle-aged, graying guy in a pair of frayed jeans shorts working on his laptop from his home in Hoboken, N.J — or, more realistically, a 30-something in Bangalore, headset engaged, tapping away at her computer making a few necessary changes to your web server's configuration while you're fast asleep in Yakima. Remote management, lights-out management, or whatever you call it, is a game-changer and often a money-saver. The key question to ask though is does it make sense for you?

Data Center Staff

Regardless of location, staffing a data center is expensive. The question is how many IT, facilities and security people does it really take to operate a data center? Should you always go with the bare minimum? Many newer data centers operate with the following premise: Security staff is a primary requirement, and IT staff is dispensable.

Does this surprise you? It shouldn't. The trend is to do everything remotely that you can do remotely. Cabling, racking and provisioning are still hands-on tasks, but the staff members who perform those functions are often contracted on an as-needed basis. The few remaining hands-on activities occur less frequently these days through the magic of virtualization and the ability to perform remote power-off and -on tasks.

The Dark Side of Lights-Out

The major obstacle to overcome with a lights-out data center is what the name itself implies — the obvious lack of onsite staff. Should something go wrong, no one is geographically close enough to provide a quick fix. In some cases, outages might take hours to mitigate. If that's an acceptable risk for you to take, then lights-out works for you. Another downside to saving money with lights-out services is that you aren't likely to find the most experienced personnel as your first line of onsite defense in times of crisis. You wanted to save money, right? Well don't expect to find the 20-year data center veteran on hand right away. Chances are, the heavy hitters won't receive a call until junior and his pals have taken a crack at a solution or two.

But don't fret too much over such things, since you're saving so much money. A penny saved is a penny earned and the risks be damned.

The Bright Side of Lights-out

Now that you realize the lack of stellar onsite support is a known quantity, let's explore the positive aspects of inhabiting a lights-out data center. Money savings was your original goal in using such a data center, and you've succeeded. With remote management in place and huge virtual hosts in the rack, you might need to call out support only once or twice in a year. With a secure location and trained security staff on duty, you'll never have to worry about theft of your expensive infrastructure. Your fees also pay for a portion of the cooling, heating, cleaning and emergency power costs.

Without a large staff wandering through those frigid aisles on a 24 by 7 basis, the cost savings add up to a significant C-level bonus. For those sitting in a C-level seat, that's a very good thing.

A lights-out data center can save you money and, if you're willing to take the risks associated with it, those savings can translate into staff retention, bonuses or solvency for your company. Just don't take the risks too lightly, or you could face an unexpected lights-out for your business. Choose an intelligently run facility and ask the important questions about service and support before committing yourself and your business to too many unknowns.

Write back and tell us about your experiences with lights-out data center services.

Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. He is also the coauthor of Practical Virtualization Solutions, which is scheduled for publication in October 2009. You may reach him through his web site at

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