IT-engineering hybrid course introduces students to data center operation, management  

Managing, moving, and securely storing data are becoming ubiquitous parts of many industries. As more industries continue to modernize, the demand for experts in data center management will only continue to grow.

To proactively address this issue, experts at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF), a US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), joined forces with the University of Tennessee to collaboratively teach a course dedicated to data center management.

“This course is, to our knowledge, the first of its kind by having practitioners actually teaching the course,” said ORNL Complex Facility Manager Jim Serafin. “This allows students to experience the full design of a data center as well as see a large data center firsthand.”

The semester-long course is constructed for students in fields ranging from information technology (IT) and computer science to electrical, structural, or mechanical engineering. The interdisciplinary nature of the course mirrors a data center manager’s job description. Such managers must be versed in networks, IT, and security but must also understand how to manage the business end, work with contractors on infrastructure upgrades, and provide support to customers or data users.

An open-science computing facility like the OLCF brings in experts to manage the various facets of its data center, and OLCF’s data center experts thought that sharing a variety of perspectives with students was the most effective way to teach the course. As a result 13 practitioners (including guest lecturers) taught this year’s course.

This year the teaching team also changed some aspects of the course. Students’ final projects—submitting a request for proposal (RFP) to build a data center—used to be done individually. In order for students to put together stronger proposals, the teaching team agreed that pairing students from different disciplines (electrical engineering students with IT students, for instance) would strengthen the quality of the RFPs.

In addition, the instructors brought in Keith Gray, HPC manager for British Petroleum (BP), to speak about how BP data center needs differ from those of a center like the OLCF and how having a reliable data center is essential to BP’s corporate health. “It is easy for the students to assume that computing is done exactly like we do it at ORNL,” said OLCF Operations Manager Stephen McNally. “Very few organizations operate at our scale, though, so it was beneficial for students to hear from an organization like BP.”

The main goal of the course—training future data center experts—is already paying dividends. Systems and Reliability Engineer John Gutman works on ensuring the OLCF’s data center resources are running smoothly and securely. Gutman interned at ORNL while taking the data center course and was able to parlay that experience into a job. He notes that the course played a major role in preparing him for his current job.

“The course allowed me to see more of the work that I could be doing,” he said. “The final project was designing your own data center. Essentially, all we were given was the room itself, which meant that we had to design everything, including safety, electrical, mechanical, and network infrastructure; size of equipment; and much more. The project emphasized the size of the task at hand. It gave me a broader skill set.”

Gutman’s personal connection to the course aside, he sees an obvious benefit for ORNL’s active involvement in the course.

“We can teach and test potential applicants before they apply for a job, and ORNL’s reputation in the data center world gets a boost,” he said. “Any student from this course that goes on to work in another data center will be a product of ORNL teaching and training, and as the reputation of those individuals and data centers grows in the field, a direct line can be drawn to ORNL. This course helps ORNL position itself as the expert in the space, not just among the experts.”

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit