I spent the last 4 days in Denver helping my company move in a new datacenter and while I was there it occurred to me that a lot of people have probably never seen the inside of a datacenter. I've been in 8 (that I can recall), and while that might not seem like a lot to seasoned hardware folks that's enough to get a feel for what makes these places tick (and understand the difference between a good facility and a great one).
Whenever I visit a facility I take a few minutes to walk through the aisles of racks and look at what hardware other people are running. I bet people probably think that datacenters are full of high end servers and SANs, but I've found that it's exactly the opposite. At the 3 facilities I visited on this trip I saw only a handful of SANs, maybe 1 per 20-30 racks. On the other hand, 9 out of 10 racks had at least one 1U server, 3 out of 4 racks had at least one 2U server, and 1 out of every 3 racks had at least one DASD drive enclosure. Regular readers of my blog may recall that I've done a lot of testing on drive performance for this kind of equipment. There are thousands of these servers in a medium sized datacenter and given the number of people I've talked to who haven't heard about disk alignment I'm guessing that adds up to a lot of wasted performance.
I also like to look at how people install their hardware in racks. Some installations are messy – cables strung about like spaghetti, no thought given to heat dissipation, etc.. A few make you stop and look twice because they're so pristine. On average I'd say that most installs are OK – not bad and done well enough to keep things running cool. There's definitely an art to installing servers in a rack.
If you end up spending any more than an hour working in a datacenter there are a few things to keep in mind. First, datacenters are climate controlled; they are cool and dry inside. Make sure you bring ChapStick to keep your lips from getting chapped and lotion to keep your hands from getting too dry. You should make sure to stay hydrated; you can't bring liquids into the facility so you'll want to remember to take frequent breaks to walk outside and get a drink of water. As I said, there are thousands of servers in a datacenter. It's loud. Wearing earplugs or headphones won't hurt. Walk outside if you need to hold extended conversations (especially on the phone – the person on the other end will appreciate it!). You don't feel it while you're working inside, but the conditions can get to you. Between the dry air, lack of water, and near-shouting to talk to my coworker who was with me I just about lost my voice after day 2.
If you're interested in seeing a datacenter in person you can talk to your hardware\network admins and ask them to give you a tour; If you have even a mild interest in computers you'll probably enjoy the experience. You can always take a virtual tour too - the video below is from FORTRUST, one many facilities in Denver, and will give you a good idea of what's involved in running a datacenter. There are a lot more videos on YouTube of other facilities – just search for "Data Center Tour" (or save yourself the effort and just click here).