How digital disrupted the data centre – and continues to do so

Schooling fresh-faced young colleagues about how things used to be in the IT game is a one-way ticket to feeling old. The thing is, with technology trends evolving so rapidly, it could easily be happening to them within 12-18 months from now.

The latest focus is around technologies like augmented reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning that are stretching imaginations yet further for how businesses engage with their customers, people and data. As exciting as each one is, what I’m interested in is how much they affect the data centre.

Those of us with grey hairs will remember data centres being controlled by facilities managers, rather than the IT team. Facilities people, with their utility belts and hi-vis jackets, who know about voltages and tensile strength and reverse-parking caravans in the snow with their eyes closed. Not IT operations people, you realise. Oh no. Nor network architects or – heaven forefend – application programmers.

Today it’s all different of course and – looking back – that switch in ownership marked a significant change; a shift in power base from screwdrivers to software. Today, data centres are the nerve centres of technology enablement. They are the physical manifestation of two buzz phrases that mean a lot in business but are tricky to pin down to anything tangible: ‘cloud’ and ‘digital’.

Many IT folk will be familiar with the term ‘software-defined’, as in a ‘software-defined network’. To my mind, all infrastructure is in fact becoming software-dominated, in one or more of the following three ways:

Being driven to achieve higher performance metrics by increasingly demanding software applications

Want to create an amazing user experience with AR/VR? Or improve business analytics through an army of IoT (Internet of Things) sensors? How about driving AI into your business decision-making? These software applications are going to fundamentally transform the infrastructure required to deliver the necessary responsiveness and agility.

However you orchestrate hybrid cloud resources to achieve your digital objectives, it will boil down to denser, faster, hotter, more scalable and more latency-sensitive infrastructure components marching to your tune.

Being driven by the flexible demands of software to move toward open-standards architecture and away from proprietary hardware

Another legacy of the old ways is to be ‘an IBM house’ or ‘a Cisco house’ etc. In other words – ascribing to the notion that no-one ever got fired for blowing a few million quid on a major global hardware manufacturer’s equipment – being loyal to a given technology brand to build your infrastructure.

Well, I’ve got news for you. Some of the smartest data centre managers see the future as riding Moore’s Law of increasing hardware performance, but without getting locked-in to a single vendor’s proprietary roadmap. They would rather look to a vendor promising that their solutions enable open standards in data centre infrastructure to give software intelligence the best possible environment to achieve their objectives. This often means eschewing the hardware brand leader in favour of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) silicon – whatever it takes to avoid being locked down. 

Being increasingly managed and governed by software automation to reduce human error and cost

Funny to think that, having successfully sprinkled its magical business-enabling fairy dust on every other part of an organisation – finance, sales, manufacturing, logistics, marketing, legal – IT has finally got its turn to benefit. For too long, IT management processes have been too manual; too driven by repetitive tasks. The digital revolution has brought a significant improvement here also, introducing better management interfaces and automated processes, thereby creating extra time for IT pros to spend on strategic IT initiatives. Data centres form a major part of the IT management burden of course – particularly with distributed data centre/server room/wiring closet estates – but this is alleviated with the development of more advanced data centre infrastructure management (DCIM) solutions.

History tells us the battle against downtime never ends

Despite all the other advances, downtime is one issue that does not appear to be evolving. If anything, organisations’ new digital agendas have raised the stakes on the importance of ensuring continual uninterrupted uptime. Data centre dependency is at an all-time high. Going slow is unthinkable, let alone going offline.

That’s when I start remembering those much-maligned facilities people (and their utility belts). The truth is, the protection they represent has never gone away. What they lack in sophistication around software, they more than make up with in knowledge and practical value around backup electrical power, balancing cooling loads efficiently, and mitigating environmental risks. When push comes to shove, those are skills worth keeping as close to you as possible.