Uber to take cash sting out of datacentre language mess
Training and Development

Uber to take cash sting out of datacentre language mess

“Every CIO in the world has already moved or is in the process of moving to the cloud,” wrote Dean Nelson, head of Uber compute, in a LinkedIn in post to launch Infrastructure Masons last year. “It is now the default, but many overlook the critical link between the software running in these clouds and the physical infrastructure they are built upon.”

Nelson knows what he is talking about. He previously managed infrastructure at auction giant eBay and now has an even bigger job at Uber (which he joined at about the same time as launching Infrastructure Masons). In this role he oversees the entire background engine of the ride sharing behemoth, a job which only gets tougher as the volume of data increases.   

When I speak to him over the phone, unsurprisingly, he is reluctant to talk about the high profile issues which have been dogging Uber all over the media. The one thing he does say is just how much he wanted to work at Uber and how proud he is of the way the internal team is dealing with problems so openly.

The two themes he does want to pick up on are firstly, there is a big brand problem within the industry as a whole, which hinders its ability to source the best talent and means a bunch of fast-aging men currently run the show. This is the point of Infrastructure Masons, he explains, as there isn’t much “for the individuals” who build the foundation for the cloud. His second big point is the lack insight and accountability into the way datacentre space is sold and explained to companies.

“You can’t get an apples to apples comparison of datacentres,” says Nelson. Most of the information available is “marketing fluff”. Datacentre providers make a lot of unsubstantiated claims to organisations, he adds. “In other industries it would be fraud.”

To tackle this problem, Infrastructure Masons has produced a new methodology – the initial paper [PDF] was produced this April – which seeks to independently measure datacentre performance and give providers a letter grade. This works by quantifying availability, efficiency, and environmental damage though empirical scores for outages, PUE [Power Usage Effectiveness] and carbon emissions.

“It is about holding people accountable,” explains Nelson. “The only way this has teeth is if it hits the pocket book.”

Datacentre providers do have to self-score but Nelson is adamant they won’t lie because Uber is making them sign legally binding representation and warranty letters. “It holds the internal teams and executive teams accountable,” he says. If the information provided proves incorrect then the terms of the letter are broken the supplier contract can be terminated immediately.

When PUE came out in 2005 people said nobody would share their scores, says Nelson, but they did. “If people are doing well they want to put it out there.” He believes the same rules apply here and it will be beneficial to Uber in the long run because although all organisations are loosely asking the same questions, this formalises the process. “If it works well we’ll start sharing the representation and warranty letters.”

This may help solve one major issue faced by the datacentre industry but the second is that, as Nelson puts it, 90% of the world do not know what a datacentre is and that is a “brand problem we need to fix”. It is an industry with good potential, good pay and good career growth but it is an aging, white, male workforce which desperately needs the next generation.

“Less than 3% [of us] chose the industry,” he says. “We learnt through companies.” Nelson himself got a job as a technician at Sun Microsystems after he completed his degree in electronics. There he initially configured, tested and debugged SPARC based CPU boards before rising through the ranks then leaving to join eBay in 2009.

“This is infrastructure to drive the world,” he says, yet there are no specific courses in it. He believes there needs to be more vocational courses for young people and also more degree level courses where students can both understand systems engineering and also get to grips with the infrastructure as a complete system.  

One initiative that he has been impressed by is that the Angela Ruskin University, in the UK, has established the first postgraduate course in data centre leadership and management. This is a “good example of a structured program,” he says, because it takes people with no degree and plenty of experience and helps them get to the next level.

So, is part of the problem that coding steals too much of the limelight? “Developing stuff is cool,” concludes Mason “but building underlying infrastructure is cool too. You need both. When you have both and they merge it’s amazing. They’re at odds most of the time.”


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