Optimizing Your Data Center

Data centers are mission-critical in today's information-driven business environment, but they've also become overcrowded, overheated, and expensive.

By Kenneth Gonzalez

Data centers have become mission-critical in today's information-driven business environment. Unfortunately, they've also become overcrowded, overheated, and expensive. More often than not, expansion is simply not an option.

Space, power, and cooling top the list of concerns for data centers. Just as skyrocketing energy and fuel prices are impacting households across the world, they are also causing a significant rise in the raw cost of operations for the data center. Market indicators do not yet signal that relief is in sight.

What's more, with new technology continuously being introduced, the problem of data center space limitation too often stalls important business projects and initiatives. Until organizations find a way to make better use of existing resources, there is simply no place to put new systems.

It's not just escalating powering and cooling costs that are causing concern. The financial penalty associated with lost or stalled business opportunities is also troubling organizations as they struggle to find a place to put new systems and technologies that promise to help them meet important strategic objectives.

Faced with little (if any) additional available space, companies are looking to invest in and implement innovative technology solutions aimed at delivering savings or generating revenue must put such projects on hold. However, by following a few practical guidelines described here, your organization can extend the life of your current data center while freeing up space for strategic initiatives and reducing power and cooling requirements.

How should your organization begin to optimize its data center? At the initial stage of a data center optimization initiative, you must understand what is meant by optimization. You need to clarify what you're being asked to do.

For example, is your organization looking for a cost reduction or a space reduction? If it's space, exactly how much space do you need and where is it needed? Does that space need to be contiguous? Is this a temporary or long-term requirement? Is your organization looking at data center optimization as a way to address your "green" agenda? Are you looking at the data center as a vehicle for helping drive profits through new service offerings that will, in turn, support a new segment of business? Are you searching for ways to improve problem resolution or minimize the time to provision a new application, for example?

You need to understand what tangible results are expected or anticipated as a result of any data center optimization initiative.

Understanding the project's key drivers will help data center professionals set priorities, get results, and earn and maintain support from the business.

What benefits can you expect from data center space optimization? First, it can help you avoid or defer relocating your data center and may help you revive stalled strategic initiatives, increase the utilization of existing assets, and reduce power and cooling requirements.

Compared with relocating or expanding the data center, space optimization is cost-effective and can produce a fast return on investment (ROI) without a lengthy, expensive consulting phase. Space optimization can also become effective very quickly, carries little risk, and is unlikely to threaten the timing for other projects. What's more, data center optimization is an effective way to make better use of a costly resource, and optimization activities can help facilitate clarity of cost and chargeback by associating each asset with its business owner. A best case outcome would be to help our clients defer the capital expense associated with a new facility, because we've been able to use an existing resource more effectively.

Quick ROI

A variety of activities can help your organization quickly address your data center's space limitations. For example, you can begin to reclaim space by systematically adjusting rack layouts for optimal space utilization. Where possible, replacing equipment with newer, more efficient equipment will free up space, as will decommissioning and removing equipment that is not being used or no longer meets a valid organizational need.

Your organizations can also regain space by consolidating the workload from multiple underutilized servers to a smaller number of servers. You often have the opportunity to virtualize server resources, by replacing one or more physical devices with virtual devices that run on shared hardware.

Organizations have many choices and they're not all equal. With just a little investment in initial planning, your IT team can evaluate the options and select the approach that is the best fit for your circumstances.

If power issues are driving your data center optimization initiative, establishing "power budgets" and capacity plans will help guide your organization in reducing its power requirements.

If solving the problem of excess heat is the primary objective, the "zoning" approach to managing heat can be effective. Then, by clearing out unused servers or restacking servers within existing power and cooling tolerances organizations can quickly begin to see results.

Just having an approach isn't enough. Ultimately, we need to identify and track those key metrics appropriate to the area of interest. We need to acquire and collect the data to determine whether or not our efforts are producing the desired results. Indeed, we need to do it up front to determine whether or not we believe the approach to be a reasonable course of action.

Finding the Top Inefficiencies

Once you have identified its objectives and priorities for data center optimization and have assessed their data center space utilization, they should consult with each equipment owner in the data center-typically the platform leaders, network managers, and facilities manager-as well as with other key stakeholders to understand business needs as well as the role of the company's portfolio of applications, services, and hardware in meeting those needs. The organization can then leverage this information to determine what equipment must be kept, what should be reassigned, and what can be eliminated.

Needless to say, this is typically not something that can be done in IT's spare time. Successful data center optimization requires the focused efforts of a dedicated team with experience in space-creation initiatives from both a business and an IT perspective. Still, some participation will be required from IT, which has the detailed knowledge of the environment and the applications.

For this reason, a growing number of organizations are choosing to outsource data center optimization to specialists who not only have the requisite expertise but also the resources and time to maintain the sustained effort required to ensure expected ROI. On this basis, the internal IT team members are engaged in a manner that leverages their knowledge and time effectively.

When should your organization consider completely moving a data center to drive efficiencies? Let me close with a caveat. Complex relocations projects take time and resources, introduce risk, and involve significant capital expenditures. Consequently, data center relocation should only be considered after your organization has thoroughly examined its options for creating more space in its existing facilities -- through rack optimization, equipment refresh, decommissioning, consolidation, virtualization, or similar efforts -- and determines that the supply will not be sufficient to meet the anticipated demand.

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Kenneth Gonzalez is group product manager for Symantec Global Services where he leads Symantec's Data Center Transformation Services team. He's responsible for sizing and scoping consulting engagements, providing technology management consulting services to organizations, development of new consulting services, and the design of internal consultant training, among other initiatives. You can reach the author at ken_gonzalez@symantec.com.