Data Centre Titans: The Future of AI Data Centres with Holland Barry, Field CTO of Cyxtera
Mon 18 Sep 2023
In the third edition of Data Centre Titans, we speak with Holland Barry, the Field CTO of Cyxtera. He shares his experience in the IT industry, from the nascent days of personal computing to the evolving frontier of AI data centres.
Holland also opens up about his transformative journey — from starting an IT consulting firm with his older brother, to forming instantly provisioned data centres.
Data Centre Titans continues to illuminate the knowledge and experiences of those leading the charge in the ever-changing landscape of the data centre industry.
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Could you briefly describe your role and your journey to your current position?
My journey in the tech industry had an interesting genesis. When I was in high school, my older brother worked in a local bank as a system administrator, and he would bring these giant computers home for assembly or to load an operating system. He enlisted my help and though it could be tedious work, like loading 86 floppy disks for one install, I found it all fascinating.
I was part of the generation that witnessed the creation of the first personal computer and the nascent days of the internet, and I just wanted to take all this technology apart and figure out how it all worked.
Fast forward a few years, and my brother and I started our own IT consulting company. We had about 50 clients. Ultimately, we sold that business, but I stayed in the tech industry.
Over the years, I have worked in a variety of leadership roles in startups, small businesses, and large companies like Dell.
I came to Cyxtera through the acquisition of a cybersecurity company where I served as CTO. As Cyxtera’s business evolved, so did my role, as I went from leading cyber initiatives to focusing on how colocation services and digital infrastructure could support our customers’ needs. It was a bit like coming home, as most of my career had been on the networking and infrastructure side.
Cyxtera is a global data centre provider, offering colocation, interconnection services, and digital infrastructure. As Cyxtera’s Field CTO, I’m responsible for making sure our customers and partners understand how our solutions can support their business, and that we select the right technologies, partnerships, and architectures to meet their evolving needs.
Because we have a wide range of customers and partners in our data centres, I also need to serve as a company evangelist and chief translation officer who can turn technical information into plain English.
How do you see AI shaping future data centres?
As these high-density workloads drive up power requirements, data centres will need to evolve by leveraging new technologies like liquid cooling, as air cooling becomes unsustainable.
More broadly, AI is going to change almost every aspect of how data centres run and how people do business within them. If we get it right, the data centre will be more efficient, secure, performant, and much easier to interact with.
I see AI almost as an exoskeleton; it does not fully replace humans, but it can make humans a lot better at what they do.
For example, there are numerous systems monitoring temperature, humidity, cooling, power distribution, network balancing, and so on. With AI, we can detect patterns and trigger alerts when certain thresholds are exceeded, prompting either an automated response and/or alerting the onsite team to do the manual work needed when these elements are not in perfect balance.
AI will eventually enable us to determine the optimal configuration of data centres at any point in time and make adjustments immediately. As it makes these micro adjustments, we can move toward an optimal set of circumstances, improving building efficiency to ultimately help meet sustainability goals.
These systems will allow onsite teams to do their job better. AI can do a good job at detecting and tuning, but a human will still be needed to pull a cable, pull a drive, fix a hole in the HVAC, and more.
In addition, efficiencies realised by AI will enable data centre operations teams to spend a lot more time focused on innovation and meeting their customers’ needs.
What is one major challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Two big challenges come to mind.
The first was when my brother decided he wanted to leave our IT consulting business. I was 18 and the prospect of running the company by myself was daunting and untenable. Deciding to shut it down and move on was one of the toughest decisions of my life, even though I didn’t quite realise it at the time.
The second big challenge came quite a few years later. I had been working at an electronics manufacturer for over a decade. I was making good money, the job was comfortable, and I probably could have camped out there for the rest of my career. But I knew something was missing.
Realising this, and making the decision to leave that comfort zone to explore something else when there was no forcing function, was a major decision. It was a turning point in my career, but at the time, it felt like a challenging crossroads.
What is one thing that has greatly influenced your professional life in the data centre industry?
The Cyxtera founding team has had a huge impact on me. They formed this company with a vision that resonated with me. They wanted to make the data centre easier to consume, and they were committed to investing in research and development to generate solutions that would change the game for our customers.
As an example, a couple months into my role here, we wanted to set up a testing lab and needed connections to the internet. Typically, it took 75 days to get a new internet circuit online. We needed to instead enable instant provisioning for our customers, which we did. We thought you should be able to do the same thing for compute, storage, and all the other technologies companies could connect to in colocation.
That was the vision. And it was that vision that inspired me to learn as much as I could. It is why I am still here working with many of the same original founders today.
What advice would you give to someone starting in the data centre industry?
Historically, data centre professionals are focused on the tangible things in the data centre (racks, gear, networking equipment, etc.) as that is the core of the business. I don’t think most concern themselves with the applications and workloads that customers are actually running in the data centre.
My advice for someone starting in this industry is to work to understand the whole picture.
Get familiar with why someone runs an application in the data centre, or in the public cloud, or at the edge, and how these pieces need to work together in a hybrid environment. This will allow you to have more impactful discussions with customers and prospects, because you understand what they are trying to achieve – and how you can help them meet their objectives.
Could you share a quote that inspires you as a leader or empowers you in your work?
The quote that comes to mind is one by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”
It speaks to the power of the mind. If you trust in yourself, you can achieve great things. On the flipside, you can also be your biggest limiting factor. The power lies with you.
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