What is a data centre and how can it improve my business?

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published 2018-01-16 10:19:39

You have a cupboard in the office, with a couple of servers to run all your applications, along with a separate storage box and some networking ‘stuff’ – is that a data centre?

You have a dedicated computer room somewhere in the office building, with a few computer cabinets full of servers, storage and networking equipment, and there’s some kind of air conditioning unit in there as well, but you don’t quite know how it all works (although someone probably does), and it gets very hot in there during the summer – is that a data centre?

You have a modern building dedicated to housing and running your IT infrastructure. It contains multiple cabinets, arranged in neat hot and cold aisles, with blanking panels in the racks where there are no servers, storage, and networking hardware.

There are dual power feeds, multiple connectivity options available from a handful of communications providers, several cooling units, a UPS, a fire suppression system, and trying to get into the building is far more complicated and time consuming than getting from the check-in desk to your departure gate at the airport. Is that a data centre?

Well, Gartner defines a data centre as ‘the department in an enterprise that houses and maintains back-end information technology (IT) systems and data stores’ (https://www.gartner.com/it-glossary/data-center/). And other organisations use very similar definitions. In which case, our cupboard, computer room and dedicated facility all qualify as data centres…

So, not all data centres are created equal. However, the most important attribute of any organisation’s data centre is not what it does or doesn’t contain, rather its ability (or not) to run the company’s applications as reliably and cost-effectively as possible. And even then, different companies may have different definitions of the desired reliability and cost-efficiency.

So, back to our two servers in a cupboard, looked after by someone in the company who knows a little bit about IT. If these servers allow the company to function, keep their customers happy and make a profit at the end of the year, does it matter how old or unreliable they might be?

No, but there are few if any companies who will survive, let alone thrive, in the rapidly developing digital business era if they are relying on ageing IT infrastructure housed in a similarly ageing, and unreliable data centre. Where once many businesses transactions and customer interactions could be measured in days and weeks (excluding weekends!), now customers expect service – before, during and after sales – in seconds and minutes. Anything longer and the chances are that they will shop elsewhere.

So, our cupboard and low-tech computer room have to be consigned to the dustbin. It’s time to acquire a 21st century data centre (it is 2017 after all) that is purpose-built to meet the requirements of the IT infrastructure it will house. The data centre is the foundation for the IT hardware resource. In turn, the IT hardware resource is the foundation that provisions the applications which, ultimately, are the things that really matter the most.

Clearly, if you are a small organisation, with one office and a handful of employees and customers, which relies on one main application to run your business, you will have a completely different data centre requirement, in terms of the physical size and content, than a large scale enterprise with thousands of employees and customers distributed across the globe, and a requirement for multiple applications to underpin your business transactions. However, in both cases, the companies will almost certainly require a similar, basic level of reliability, resilience and cost-effectiveness or optimisation when it comes to their data centre of choice.

An ecommerce website is down for half an hour, and loses £100,000 in sales; a pencil supplier loses the ability to access its accounts information in order to print off some invoices – perhaps not so critical? Data centre performance expectations may vary from company to company, depending on just how critical IT is to the business, but no one wants to be apologising to a customer ‘because our system has crashed’.

What’s becoming increasingly clear in the Digital Age is that less and less companies have the required in-house resources (primarily skilled personnel and money) to build, own and operate their own data centre facility to the required level of reliability, scalability and flexibility.

And even if the money is there to construct a data centre facility – do you build big and then pay for lots of unused space until the planned expansion actually comes to fruition, or do you build a data centre to meet your anticipated requirements for 2018, plus, say 10 percent extra ‘just in case’, and then find you need even more space before the year is out?!

The truth is that hardly any organisation can accurately predict its data centre requirement at any specific moment in time. 

Add into this uncertain picture the ‘known unknowns’ that are the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), the true blossoming of data analytics and the increasing importance of creating, processing and storing data in a variety of both remote (edge) and centralised locations, and it’s clear that data centre reliability, scalability and flexibility is becoming a specialised business.

Colocation companies are these specialised businesses. Thanks to a combination of the expertise and economy of scale they offer the customer, chances are that you will have access to levels of reliability, scalability and flexibility hitherto only dreamed about. Sounds too good to be true?

Well, most of us who require gas and electricity supplied to our houses don’t go out and build the necessary LNG terminal or power station. No, we leave it to the experts who have the necessary skills and infrastructure, and economies of scale, to supply our power requirements. Doesn’t it make sense to look at our data centre and IT infrastructure needs in the same way?

Who’s more likely to have the most cost-effective skills and reliable data centre infrastructure – your average business, or a dedicated, specialist organisation which lives and breathes power, cooling, UPS, DCIM, cabling, fire safety, security, cabinets and racks, hot and cold aisles, all under the steady eye of staff dedicated to monitoring, managing, maintaining and improving a colocation facility?

To find out more about data centres in the real world, check out our free infographic.

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