Challenges and Opportunities Facing Today’s Data Center

The job of doing more with less can be divided into two distinct but related tasks: achieving IT efficiency and maximizing existing resources.

by Sean Derrington and Marty Ward

One of the ever-increasing challenges for data center managers is the demand to do more with less. These managers have fewer qualified staff and less than robust budgets to protect rapidly expanding data volumes and a growing number of mission-critical applications.

According to the 2008 State of the Data Center survey conducted by Applied Research, reducing costs is by far the most important objective of data center managers today, followed by improving service levels and improving responsiveness. In other words, IT organizations are indeed laboring to do more with less.

To meet this challenge, data center managers are using a variety of cost-containment strategies that capitalize on heterogeneity to increase IT efficiency and maximize existing resources while keeping costs under control. To simplify things, these managers are using a single layer of infrastructure software to support all major applications, databases, processors, and storage and server hardware.

IT organizations are leveraging several processes across the IT infrastructure so they can better protect information and applications, enhance data center service levels, improve storage and server utilization, manage physical and virtual environments, and drive down capital and operational costs.

The job of doing more with less can be divided into two distinct but related tasks: achieving IT efficiency and maximizing existing resources.

Achieving IT Efficiency

One of the many challenges that IT organizations around the world face is staffing their businesses with qualified individuals. According to the State of the Data Center report, 43 percent of organizations report that finding qualified applications is a very big issue -- a problem that is exacerbated when dealing with multiple data centers. Because of the difficulty of finding qualified staff, 38 percent of organizations are understaffed and only four percent are overstaffed.

To address this challenge, 45 percent of organizations outsource some IT tasks. In addition to outsourcing, several equally effective alternatives are also available, including using more automation: 42 percent of organizations reported increasing automation of routine tasks to reduce costs and free IT to address more strategic initiatives.

Data Protection

Organizations can maximize an organization’s efficiency. With automated, unified data protection and recovery management tools that are available from a single console and work across a heterogeneous physical and virtual environment, organizations can maximize IT efficiency. A number of these tools provide additional efficiencies through capabilities such as continuous data protection, advanced recovery of critical applications, data archiving and retention, and service-level management and compliance. In the process, next-generation data protection can be used to reduce the operational costs of protecting and archiving data as well as to meet internal SLAs and external governance requirements.

Storage Management

A growing number of heterogeneous storage management tools automate daily and repetitive storage tasks, including RAID reconfiguration, defragmentation, file system resizing, and volume resizing. With advanced capabilities such as centralized storage management, online configuration and administration, dynamic storage tiering, dynamic multi-pathing, data migration, and local and remote replication, these solutions enable organizations to reduce both operational and capital costs across the data center.

Furthermore, agentless storage change management tools are emerging that enable a centralized, policy-driven approach to handling storage changes and configuration drift to help reduce operational costs while requiring minimal deployment and ongoing maintenance effort.

High Availability/Disaster Recovery

High availability solutions such as clustering tools can streamline efficiency by monitoring the status of applications and automatically moving them to another server in the event of a fault. These high-availability solutions detect faults in an application and all its dependent components, then gracefully and automatically shut down the application, restart it on an available server, connect it to the appropriate storage devices, and resume normal operations.

For disaster recovery purposes, these clustering tools can be combined with replication technologies to completely automate the process of replication management and application startup without the need for complicated manual recovery procedures involving storage and application administrators. These high-availability and disaster-recovery solutions also ensure increased administrator efficiency by providing a single tool for managing both physical and virtual environments.

Making the Most of Resources

Organizations are also using different technologies to get the most out of their current resources. These technologies include green IT practices, storage management, virtualization, and high availability tools, each helping to make better use of existing hardware resources.

Green IT Practices

Among the strategies for meeting green IT directives are server virtualization and data deduplication. Data deduplication can decrease the overhead associated with holding multiple copies of the same data by identifying common data and reducing copies to a single entity. This, in turn, can have a dramatic impact on the amount of disk storage required for archiving purposes as well as the number of disks required for backup. Seventy percent of respondents indicated they are considering implementing data deduplication in their efforts to maximize storage efficiency.

Storage Management

While storage capacity continues to grow, storage is often underutilized. To make better use of storage resources, organizations can leverage storage management technologies. Storage resource management (SRM), for example, gives IT visibility into their storage environment, showing what applications are connected to each storage resource, and reporting how much of the storage is actually being used by the application. With this understanding, organizations can make an informed decision about how to reclaim underutilized storage. The information can be used to predict capacity requirements. Seventy-one percent of respondents indicated they are exploring SRM solutions.

In addition, thin provisioning can be used to improve storage capacity utilization. Storage arrays enable capacity to be easily allocated to servers on a just-enough and just-in-time basis.

Virtualization

Server and storage virtualization can be used to improve utilization of existing hardware, thereby reducing the need for additional resources. According to the State of the Data Center survey, 31 percent of organizations are using server virtualization and 22 percent are using storage virtualization as part of their cost-containment strategies.

Because virtualization introduces complexity into the IT infrastructure, organizations looking to fully realize the benefits of this technology while driving down capital costs should also implement a management framework that provides architectural flexibility and supports multiple virtualization platforms and physical environments.

High Availability

Clustering solutions that support a variety of operating systems, physical and virtual servers, and a wide range of heterogeneous hardware configurations provide an effective strategy for maximizing resource utilization. With these solutions, IT can consolidate workloads running on underutilized hardware onto a smaller number of machines.

Summary

Data center managers will continue to be called upon to help their organizations meet budgetary requirements while delivering critical services with fewer personnel and limited IT resources. Because these challenges are expected to remain in the IT infrastructure, IT managers can do more with less by leveraging technologies and processes that increase IT efficiency and maximize existing resources.

Sean Derrington is director of storage management and high availability at Symantec. Marty Ward is the former senior director of product marketing for the Data Protection group at Symantec.