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Blueprint for perfection?

Alan Cane
Financial Times
5 March 2008

Virtualisation, virtualisation, virtualisation. Not a new reality television show, but the rallying cry for managers of data centres large and small, as they attempt to take control of their untidy and expensive empires and align them with the needs of their businesses.

The data centre has been at the heart of business data processing for more than 40 years, but only in recent years has its seeming inadequacy to deal with the challenges of the information revolution become apparent.

Barry O'Connell, director of Hewlett Packard's recently created group for data centre transformation, sees a sea-change in data centre thinking. "There is a push for the first time since people started to think about what to do with mainframes, addressing some of the challenges of the data centre," he says.

"There are several reasons for this. One is a realisation that because of business priorities or technological sprawl, the data centre is out of control. The governance and role of the data centre in the business is being questioned."

Virtualisation - running a number of operating systems and applications on a single server - is one of the most important new technologies being pressed into service to keep down costs and reduce power consumption.

But Mr O'Connell thinks it is still early days: "A lot of these technologies are being treated as almost proof of concept. People are trying to work out what to do with them.

"There will be a point where those technologies will become real assets for data centre managers, but it is difficult to implement them without understanding what it is you want to do with your data centre, the services you want to provide and managing that relative to business priorities."

Even so, virtualisation can bring huge savings. Here, one data centre manager assesses his experience of the technology. His company, a financial services group, uses a mixture of kit from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and IBM. It operates a live data centre and a disaster recovery site.

"The older facility was due for replacement a few years ago, but financial constraints meant that was not possible so we started a project designed to reduce the load on the centre. The servers were old kit, built at a time when power issues were not really quite so important," he says.

He brought in the Morse group for consultancy: its advice was to replace the old servers, each consuming several electric fires' worth of power, with modern machines with about 10 per cent of the power requirement.

The biggest servers, essentially mainframes, each consuming 30 kilowatts, were replaced with computers using about 1 per cent of the power. He was able to halve the number of servers and move down a class, resulting in big savings on maintenance and the trade-in of his old equipment for recycling.

He reflects that the company should have realised earlier the need for consolidation and rationalisation. "We were so focused on the business that we lost sight of the future of the data centre. We kept buying hardware for new applications and eventually the centre became full."

What does a typical data centre look like? The consultancy Quocirca drew the FT a picture of the data centre for an "average" company of 1,500 employees based on its real world research over the past year.

Its picture shows a data centre based in a converted office in the hypothetical company's headquarters. It comprises 20 servers running a mixture of Windows server 2003 and Microsoft.NET. There are older machines running Microsoft NT and a few Sun machines running Solaris or Red Hat Linux.

The company operates a privately owned leased line network connecting its main branches and relies on the internet to connect smaller offices. Mail is based on Microsoft Exchange running in the data centre. The company started to virtualise its servers about a year ago and the programme is 25 per cent complete.

Quocirca is critical of this typical company's lack of back-up, both for data or for power and worries about security. It thinks the company wastes money on a poor networking strategy which does little for its "green" credentials. There is also nothing to stop employees using USB or other devices to siphon off data, and the servers are almost certainly being under-utilised.

Quocirca concludes: "A powerful and secure IP network with a highly functional unified communications system will enable better and cheaper communications between remote branches and other remote users.

"This will lead to more efficient business processes and should reduce travel costs. Add all this together and IT will be making a positive rather than a negative contribution to the company's environmental message."

Experience confirms that servers rarely do enough to earn their keep. Mr O'Connell of HP says data centre management is typically haphazard: "Each business unit gets to decide what applications it wants to implement. We worked with a customer with more than 3,000 servers in several data centres. We found that each server was being utilised on average at 15 per cent of capacity."

Mr O'Connell urges better IT governance, but is not sure that many organisations "know what IT governance means and that behind it there are a number of formal IT processes". He argues that data centres should provide a defined set of services rather than be a passive recipient of requests for new applications.

Charles Davis, chief executive of SAS group makes the telling point that, with shortages of IT staff, there has to be a match between new technologies installed and the skills resident in the centre. Without this balance, companies can find themselves the owners of complex IT infrastructures that staff are not prepared, or able, to use, resulting in wasted investment.

There are alternatives to the monolithic data centre. Anita Chandraker of PA Consulting points out that CIOs are making greater use of outsourcing. She says: "Outsourcing is maturing and the reasons for outsourcing are changing. Cost is no longer cited as the main driver. It seems that improved performance and a more responsive delivery are now just as important.

"Two observations can be made from this trend. First, experience of contract and supplier management is becoming fundamental to a CIO's organisation. Second, outsourcing is becoming even more of a strategic business issue, which is reflected by the greater requirement for board-level approval."

Of course, anything that keeps costs under control is likely to find board-level approval. "We're challenged every year to reduce our previous year's budget and normally we do that," says one manager.

He adds: "There's lots in the press about green issues and green initiatives, but companies don't do the green thing for the good of their conscience. They do it for the financial benefits.

"If you cut your power consumption by 25 per cent, you're reducing carbon emissions by 25 per cent; but it's the tens of thousands of pounds that you are saving that looks the best."

But financially prudent measures can have unexpected results. One manager replaced all the cathode ray tube monitors in his installation with flat screens, seeking to recoup the cost in 15 months... until he realised that those energy hungry screens had been keeping the building warm all winter.

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