A conversation with Jim Shanahan, author of “Automated Excellence”

When data center managers want to monitor and control facility operations, they often attempt to integrate a range of different technologies to do the job, with varying success. In ABB Review, Jim Shanahan, head of ABB Global Data Center Business Control Technologies based in Dublin, Ireland, described a different, unified approach and elaborated in our conversation with him.

We know that data center infrastructure management tools vary considerably. What are the most important points that data center managers should take into consideration when evaluating and selecting DCIM solutions?

Four areas really require close attention in making a DCIM choice.

First, it’s essential that data center managers understand what they need—where automation and monitoring must be applied—and then map those needs against the available solutions.

Second, managers should classify how they will place value on the solutions they examine. Do they need ROI above all else? Is the main criterion improved uptime? Is local support critical? What are the scalability requirements? Determine which primary need—or combination of different needs—should be prioritized and then find the solutions that will achieve that goal.

Third, they should give consideration to how easy or difficult expansion will be. The solution should allow the data center to start small with automation and monitoring and then grow as large as needed by adding functional modules.

Finally, be sure that existing infrastructure does not need to be ripped out and replaced when it’s time to upgrade. Find solutions with an open architecture that accepts any module, monitoring equipment and automation enhancements.

How does ABB Decathlon differ from other DCIM systems in meeting these requirements?

Our most significant difference is our history. ABB Decathlon has evolved from technology specifically designed for industrial control, rather than the simple monitoring solutions found in commercial-grade building management systems. For a quarter century, Decathlon has been solving issues in industrial environments that are the same as those confronting data centers today. At more than 10,000 sites worldwide, ABB has installed the same Decathlon core technology automation system that it makes available to data centers today. Only ABB Decathlon can ride on the success of such a long history of lessons learned in controlling production infrastructure.

From a technology standpoint, ABB Decathlon stands out because it not only monitors operations but also controls them, all with a single system. Typically, data center operators will buy a building management system, a separate power management system, and then energy management technology and try to combine them to provide an overall monitoring capability. These commercial systems, however, are engineered to furnish the lowest cost with just the bare minimum of control functionality. ABB Decathlon costs no more than all three types of systems together and has all the technology built into a single system.

ABB Decathlon goes farther, however, offering such advanced functionality as alarm handling analysis that easily diagnoses the root cause of a problem, as well as limitless scaling capability. A data center will never exceed the capacity of Decathlon to increase the number of devices that it can monitor and control.

The single Decathlon platform also allows for plug-ins from the IT side. It’s a truly open architecture system that connects to any existing or new technology, so the data center can continue to find value in its previous investments.


To what degree does Decathlon actually automate the management of data center infrastructure?

While most commercial building management systems are designed simply for monitoring, ABB Decathlon is built for automation. Data center operators do not need to build separate systems and tie them together. Decathlon furnishes one system that automates everything. All the mechanical and electrical controls are in the same system as the automation of IT processes. Adding new servers, automating shutdown procedures, and controlling maintenance processes all are handled from same system.

Moreover, ABB Decathlon costs less than half the total expenses of purchasing and implementing three separate systems for building, power and energy management.


How does Decathlon impact conventional thinking about the over-provisioning of equipment?

In general, overprovisioning of data centers is being supplanted by resilience at the software level, such as using availability zones for backing up systems in the cloud. ABB Decathlon supports this movement, often eliminating the need for such conventional hardware. One data center operator, for instance, recently was considering installing a UPS for his equipment, but he discovered he could do everything he needed to from the perspective of controlling power availability by using ABB Decathlon.


It seems that Decathlon can take over most of the infrastructure management functions. How reliable is Decathlon? Can data center operators really take their hands off the wheel?

ABB Decathlon is so reliable that it really can be used as a lights-out control system for data centers. If you were to compare Decathlon to traditional systems for building, power and energy management—even with redundancy added to those systems—a non-redundant Decathlon system would be three times more available and reliable. With a redundant Decathlon system, availability and reliability are 30 times higher than with redundant conventional systems.

ABB Decathlon doesn’t need a human monitor. Data centers can manage very well without a person overseeing Decathlon, which automatically sends alerts if it detects a problem. Typically, however, managers do like to keep an eye on their systems in real time. So ABB has adapted its Extended Operator Workplace—a system used extensively within industrial operations—so that a single operator can control more extensive areas of the data center than otherwise would be possible.

Many data center managers also take advantage of ABB remote operation services through which ABB professionals monitor Decathlon remotely. If a problem is anticipated, the service alerts data center personnel.


As a data center grows and scales up its assets, what needs to be done to extend Decathlon so that it can manage the larger data center environment?

One of the great benefits of ABB Decathlon is that, if you are building an additional data center, to incorporate Decathlon into the new center you only need to extend your license. This enterprise licensing model promotes scaling. Furthermore, Decathlon has no limits on its ability to scale, so you could start out with the smallest of data centers and the smallest implementation of Decathlon and expand to the largest data center in the world using the same Decathlon system. Decathlon can be expanded not only in its physical scope but also in its capabilities, with modules that can be added to the core functionality for such tasks as condition-based monitoring to reduce maintenance costs, advanced energy management and asset management.

A data center that deploys a software-only version of ABB Decathlon doesn’t need to add any hardware when it scales. If the center was configured to use hardware pieces with Decathlon, more of that hardware would need to be purchased when scaling to connect the additional control points. ABB offers hardware inputs and outputs that enable such automated functions as opening and closing breakers or turning pumps on and off. But increasingly, data center operators no longer need to buy more hardware; they can use Decathlon software and simply provide more server instances, if necessary.


About the author:

Jim Shanahan leads ABB's data center automation business covering Decathlon DCIM, data center consulting, plus onsite and remote services. He has helped define ABB's overall data center strategy covering equipment, software and services for clients and also in delivering data center services to ABB’s 150,000 employees in 100 countries. 

He has previously run the international business of Lee Technologies, the US-based data center operations specialist acquired by Schneider. Before that, Shanahan held executive positions in automation and data center design houses, having started his career with Amdahl Computers. He holds a degree in Electrical Engineering and postgraduate degrees in Management and Marketing.

Automated excellence

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