Data center planning: Surprising tools of the trade

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Some skills required to be an excellent engineer might seem to have very little to do with actual engineering: Excel and Visio

The last time you applied for a tech job (or evaluated a résumé of someone applying for one), how much weight did you apply to expressing your skill with basic productivity tools like Microsoft Office or OpenOffice? My guess would be very little. In the résumés I've seen from prospective applicants, it's sometimes not even mentioned. After all, being conversant with tools that are such basic parts of life in business today might seem to be a given.

It's anything but. I've met and worked with highly skilled network, server, and storage engineers who have only a passing knowledge of Excel and Visio (or their respective OpenOffice equivalents). Although it may seem a little silly at first, I believe these skills are almost as critical as having a solid understanding of the infrastructure tech you're tasked with maintaining.

I spend an enormous amount of time working with Excel and Visio. Rather than just creating documentation for a job that's already been done, I routinely use them in the planning process, communicating design changes to business stakeholders and, in some cases, as a means for configuring hardware and services. I can honestly and unabashedly say that without Excel and Visio, I'd be almost unable to do my job.

Spreadsheets to the rescue

Although they're often considered the domain of finance folks, Microsoft's Excel and OpenOffice's Calc can be massively powerful tools that can fulfill a wide range of roles. Given the task of planning a new data center hardware deployment, I use Excel to plot hardware budgeting, engineering time/task allocation, IP address assignments, power and cooling calculations, cable length determination, number of needed fiber modules, SAN LUN sizing, full, easily modifiable switch configurations, and more.

In another example, I might be configuring a pair of top-of-rack switches to aggregate a new virtualization and IP storage infrastructure. In that scenario, I need to know how many cables are required, how long they should be, which ports each should be plugged into, and how those ports must be configured. Again, I start with building a sheet in Excel that shows each switch port, its configuration (VLAN, flow control, MTU settings, and so on), which device port it's attached to, and even which rack unit that device is planned to be in.

With all that information in place, creative use of Excel calculations allows me to know exactly how many cables I need, exactly how long each should be, and even the color of each extensions (when the client wants cables color-coded by task, that is). I can also have a column that uses the port configuration breakdown to build out a full layout for each interface -- so deploying the switch is a simple issue of copying and pasting the prebuilt configuration, complete with accurate port descriptions, directly into the switch's command-line interface.

Although you can certainly complete both tasks (and many others) without that level of prework, I guarantee you'll make mistakes and/or end up with a configuration that you wished you had done differently after seeing it all go together. The spreadsheet planning exercise avoids those unfortunate results.

A picture is worth a thousand words

When it comes to designing networks, planning the construction of a new data center, or just determining where new equipment will go in an existing rack infrastructure, Microsoft's Visio or OpenOffice's Draw are my go-to tools. Among engineers, these tools are known for creating network documentation, but they also can be excellent planning aids -- allowing you to quickly communicate what an implementation is going to look like to stakeholders and to identify potential problems before you find yourself staring them in the face.

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