Q&A: The Next-Generation Data Center

What will the next-generation data center look like, what role will virtualization play, and what key issues must you deal with now to meet tomorrow’s challenges?

There is no end of work to do in the data center to keep your environment up and running at peak efficiency. While you work hard at your everyday tasks, are you thinking ahead? What will your data center look like in two or three years, and what do you have to do now to get there?

To learn more about what the next-generation data center looks like, we turned to Dave Hart, CTO and EVP of Presidio Inc., a professional and managed services provider involved in the entire lifecycle of IT's infrastructure.

Enterprise Strategies: What are the key issues a company needs to address to architect the next-generation data center?

Dave Hart: There are three, with the fundamental assumption that the primary characteristic of the next generation data center is that it is virtualized.

First, understand which applications are good candidates for virtualization and which are not. Real issues such as I/O performance limits, security, and manageability challenges make some applications unsuitable to be virtualized.

Second, provisioning and management -- aka orchestration -- must be planned and executed throughout the data center. Virtualizing 5000 physical servers onto 500 servers still leaves 5000 servers to manage, now with the added complexity of the virtual machine in the middle. I believe companies that adopt an ITIL/ISO20000 approach to data center service management and operation will be ready to invest in automation and tools to make provisioning and management smooth and reliable.

The third issue is public versus private cloud. Public cloud has a definite appeal, freeing a company from the design and build associated with infrastructure, and promising the ability to consume only capacity they need now, with on-the-fly expansion as requirements arise. Practically, though, there are many details between that vision and the reality. In my experience, it’s best for companies to focus on solving for the virtualized data center on a private cloud basis first while looking for applications that could possibly be delivered by a public cloud provider.

When it comes to setting a winning data center strategy, what is the most common mistake you see companies make during the design and planning phase?

It is underestimating the impact of the virtual server sprawl. Companies get excited about the cost savings potential of a virtualized data center, but complexity comes with the efficiency. There is great benefit in virtualizing 30 physical servers onto a single server. However, when that server’s firmware must be upgraded, you need a maintenance window for all 30 virtual servers and all the associated applications running on them.

What is the top pitfall you see during a data center transformation: during the planning phase, during the implementation phase? What advice do you have for CIOs to avoid these?

Like all IT projects, most of the pitfalls can be avoided in the planning phase. My boss says: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” Make sure the project will drive a meaningful business outcome. Make sure you have buy-in from everyone; from the line of business to your IT team to the outside vendors and partners. Lastly, make sure the planners have a stake in the implementation and operation.

Based on your experience, what are the top three technology trends driving CIOs to make investments in their IT infrastructure. How do you see this evolving over the next three years?

The next-generation, virtualized data center is the mega trend that will cause disruption at every level of the IT industry. The three-year path for this trend will be the continued adoption of new technology. I think that the concept of a “computing stack” will be very disruptive and is likely the long-term winner for the computing architecture.

Second, as we come out of this recession there will be a renewed interest in collaboration technology such as integrated video, voice, text/e-mail communication, and social networking technology. It is the lowest hanging fruit in terms of productivity enhancement, particularly for a service economy such as the U.S. It drives competitive advantage and helps companies attract the best and brightest of the next generation of workers who expect these technologies to be available where they choose to work.

Last, mobility will be a big driver in how we invest in and deploy IT infrastructure. The first wave was smartphones with e-mail capabilities, followed by the ability to run limited applications. Tablet computers will drive the next wave. Although the productivity possibilities of these devices are unquestionable, the security, data management, and support of these devices represent challenges that will impact how we design, deploy and operate our infrastructure.

How are companies trying to cope and manage virtual environments over the next year? How will this change over the long term?

Some companies are aggressively driving to a private cloud vision and jumping over the hurdles, while others are passively waiting for the technology to progress, hoping to take advantage of a more standardized solution or a public cloud offering. Over time, I believe companies will adopt a very structured ITIL approach to management and support. This will assist in breaking down traditional organizational barriers and allow for the deployment of high end orchestration automation to assist and optimize their efforts.

What is the fastest way to go from the hype of the cloud to virtualization?

Honestly, it is to ignore the hype. If you can draw a circle around an application or environment that can be outsourced to a “cloud provider” and it makes business sense, do it. Beyond that, focus on a virtualized and optimized infrastructure within your own environment. Understand what benefits you can get from a virtualized environment, plan with great care, and execute. Don’t try to fit that shoe on every foot.

Is there a single sweeping change you expect to see in both IT infrastructure and the data center in the future?

It is migration to an integrated compute stack. With so much new complexity in a virtualized world, it makes sense to deploy on a tightly integrated and tested CPU-network-storage stack supportable by a single entity. I believe it will be the preferred architecture for green-field data center opportunities in the very near future, though it will not come quickly.

What stands out to you in terms of up-and-coming, game-changing products and services to support these changes to the IT infrastructure?

Orchestration software that will help provision and manage the data center of the future will be important.

In the collaboration space, I believe how we use video as a communication tool in the enterprise will change in a very meaningful way.

Last, I think as we emerge from the recession, global demand for energy resources will drive prices higher and IT organizations will renew the focus on “greening” themselves. I’m watching this one with particular interest.

What are the top three pieces of advice you would give a client who is looking to get to the efficiency and ROI promised from architecting the next generation data center?

1. Ignore the cloud hype and focus on virtualizing your infrastructure in a way that drives meaningful business outcomes in terms of lower capital and operational costs, ease of provisioning and operations, and providing a scalable platform to support your organization’s growth aspirations.

2. Don’t bite off more than you can bite off. Plan carefully, but be aggressive. And take advantage of the experience available out there as you face some of the significant challenges to help you.

3. Consider bringing in a third party consultant or integrator rather than getting bogged down on internal turf wars or relying on technology manufacturers alone for advice and support regarding what is right for your organization.

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