The future of the data centre

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published 2020-01-15 10:45:25

True story: a few years ago, at a data centre technology briefing meeting, a government minister asked the assembled group of industry experts: “What are all the (empty) data centres going to be used for, when everything goes to the Cloud?”!!

Of course, we all know that, however important the virtual, digital world is becoming, the data which is its lifeblood, will always require a physical home. However, what’s far less certain is just what this home might look like, who will own it, where it might be located, what equipment it will contain…Indeed, when it comes to the data centre of the future, uncertainty would seem to be the only certainty. Let’s move on swiftly before I fall into the government-speak trap of talking about known-unknowns, unknown knowns or even certain uncertainties and uncertain certainties!

So, the data centre of the future.

Well, first up, it is becoming increasingly obvious that owning your own data centre is maybe not quite such a good idea as it may once have been. The cost and effort required to build, own, operate and continually upgrade your own facility is substantial. Yes, everything is, theoretically at least, under your own control. However, the reality is that, unless your budget and workforce resources are verging on the limitless, you’ll be far better off using a combination of colocation, cloud and managed services.

Overnight, you’ll have access to the very latest, most flexible, most scalable, most agile data centre and IT infrastructure and applications, and all for a fixed monthly figure, which helps with the budgeting.

So, you’ll be able to access the resources you need, when you need them (and only pay for them when you use them). Resources which would be almost certainly out of range if you had to purchase and install them yourself. Want to run a high performance computing Big Data analysis project? Think of the time and money required to provision this in-house, and then what do you do with this extra infrastructure when the project has finished? Go the colo, cloud and managed services route and you can access the infrastructure you need for as long as you need it (and no longer).

Such flexibility applies not just for specific projects. Right now, it seems that everyone is talking about the edge. Not as a replacement for centralised data centres, but as an extra option when it comes to building out data centre architecture. It’s likely that most organisations will require a combination of centralised, regional and local data centre and IT resources in order to meet the demands of both their customers and the business itself.

How best is this achieved? Well, as with the project example above, you could go it alone, but the cost and time required to achieve the desired overall infrastructure could well be prohibitive. Access a combination of colocation facilities, some cloud and managed services, and you could well achieve the perfect infrastructure ecosystem much more easily.

Of course, ‘easily’ is a relative term and if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about the modern IT world, it is that, while, at the point of use, applications may becoming easier to use (especially for the consumer), behind the scenes there’s more and more complexity building up.

Think about it – storage, servers, networks, applications, power and cooling, cabling, racks and cabinets, mobile devices…all of these need to be managed effectively and, ideally, as an integrated whole, if some kind of data centre and wider IT infrastructure optimisation strategy is to succeed. Enter intelligent automation. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, Internet of Things, robotic process automation, blockchain…these technologies are already having an impact both on and in the data centre.

An impact on the data centre: In terms of the infrastructure they require to operate effectively – faster and larger compute pools (GPUs, FPGAs, ASICs), faster and larger storage (flash storage, object storage) and faster and faster networks, with more and more bandwidth availability. So, a modern data centre needs to be able to cope with this IT infrastructure that supports intelligent automation.

An impact in the data centre: Well, AI, ML, IoT, RPA and even blockchain, can all help when it comes to data centre optimisation. Facilities can be operated, monitored and managed proactively. Problems can be identified and remedied before they impact data centre performance, Overall, intelligent automation has the potential to provide a level of data centre efficiency that just isn’t possible with humans alone.

We might be quite some way away from the robot-run, lights out data centre (although the hyperscalers aren’t that far away), and it may be decades rather than years before a marketing executive can brief the virtual IT assistant to develop and run a new customer-facing application – leaving everything from the coding to the infrastructure provisioning for the application development to the decision as to where best to host the application (multiple edge locations, cloud, or just buy in a managed service) to the robot. Armed with real-time information as to the price of every necessary component on a global basis, the application could be built in South America, for example, hosted in every continent in a mixture of centralised and edge data centres, with performance monitoring tools deciding if or when to move the application to a different location (which might be faster for the customer and/or less expensive to run/access).

In the nearer future, however, there’s no doubt that businesses who wish to survive, let alone thrive, in the digital age, need to understand that the data centre and wider IT landscape is changing massively and continuously. It seems that almost every day, new digital businesses, unencumbered with clunky, legacy IT infrastructure, are able to bring a completely new, value for money approach to most industry sectors.

One thing they all have in common is a reliance on third party data centre and IT resources. Colocation, cloud and managed services provide a level of scalability, agility and affordability that are the foundations for new ideas; where building, owning and operating your own data centre requires resources that are, for the vast majority, unaffordable.

The data centre of the future is one that you won’t own, will be virtual (although with a physical later underneath!), and will be wherever you need it to be for your workforce and your customers.

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