Future differentiator

October 2015

Server rack coverThe challenge for CIOs is to embed technology into day-to-day operations in a way that is both intuitive and provides competitive advantage. As technology continues to pervade everyday life and the ‘internet of things’ peeps over the horizon, Bob Mellor MBCS explains how data centres - once, simply the engine houses of the organisation - are set to become the differentiator between companies that are simply capable, and those who excel.

CIOs are faced with a major dilemma: Their board colleagues expect them to continue to cut costs, and at the same time expect them to inject step-change innovation into the heart of the operation.

How is this possible? And which technology should they bet on to address those needs? Mobility? BYOD? Teleworking? Data analytics? Software defined network? Data mining? Cloud? Virtualisation? All of the above? None of the above? It’s all a little too much.

Such a broad collective of advancing technologies makes the job infinitely more difficult than just being in charge of the company tin. What IS clear though, is that all the advancing technologies have a couple of key - actually critical - common characteristics: The storage of masses of information, the rapid access to it, and coherent assembly of it, in a way that enables people to do their job, and do it better.

Data centres, centre-stage

Industry analysts tell us that we have published, as a society, as much information since 2003 as we did in the whole previous century. This trend is set to continue its exponential growth for the foreseeable future.

It’s simply a fact, that, with the advent of digital records, information previously held in book or paper form, no longer decays: The restoration of old BBC reels, for example, onto mp3 format means that they will no longer - ever - deteriorate beyond their current state.

Internet traffic is growing at a similar rate. According to Cisco Projects1, by 2018, traffic will reach 64 times the volume of the entire internet in 2005: The data equivalent of all movies ever made will cross the network every three minutes.

The one common theme that should be evident to CIOs in the clamour of emerging technologies, explosive end-user growth and the urgent, pressing demands from their boardroom peers, is the data centre. It takes a mere matter of minutes to draw-up a traceability diagram that shows the intersection of all these technologies and requirements, is right there, on the data centre floor.

The problem is that data centres are often a jumble of project-delivery technology that has grown in fits and starts with small budgets, urgent demand, and - often - little real executive sponsorship. Suddenly, from a timeline going back to the late 80s, CIOs now find themselves the custodian of a veritable garage full of technological whatnot, most of which just works, some of which they don’t know anything about, and much of which is seen as not coming out particularly well in a cost/benefit analysis.

Right now, the CIO who fails to get a handle on their data centre content in a precise, coherent fashion is feeling the pain - which will continue, until they invest some effort in getting on top of it.

How CIOs ‘do’ their data centre - whether they own and manage their own, co-locate with a data centre specialist, or put all they have into the cloud (or, in fact, a hybrid approach of all three) - will finally become a point of differentiation as we continue through the decade.

It’s actually of little consequence which approach is taken, provided it meets all the criteria required by their business - of greater consequence is HOW they do it; what strategy they come up with; which direction of travel they set.

Which data centre technologies?

The key to unlocking much of the emerging technology lies in ensuring the correct technologies and capacity at the backend. If your end-users can collate, format, store, retrieve, analyse and present the data you have on your data centre floor in a rapid coherent way on their tablet or notebook, you’re halfway to making the right investment choices, simply because ALL the other technologies will require this. So why not start there?

The ‘trinity’ as far as data centres are concerned is: fast, agile networks; servers with adequate processing capability; tiered storage devices utilising advanced technologies. But FIRST, CIOs MUST get a proper understanding of the content of their data centres. Without this, understanding how to landscape their ‘trinity’ will be, at best, difficult, and probably impossible.

‘Software defined’ is an overused buzzword to describe a perspective over a data centre where all resources - storage, processor, memory, network - are simply nodes over a fabric that can be dynamically controlled and orchestrated from a console or consoles, or set to respond automatically and dynamically to specific conditions.

Once simply a pipedream, today we stand at the dawn of such a utility delivery in reality, with many key vendors stepping up to the challenge and offering solutions. Take-up, as yet, is not prolific, but many organisations indicate their intention to explore, or actually invest in the technology over the next 12-18 months. This has the potential to be a game-changer, providing resources in a utility model that can bring massive benefit in terms of cost, rapid deployment, capacity management and benefits realisation.

Virtualisation is a similarly over-used buzzword, though its definition should be well understood as the technology can, arguably, be described as mature. The technology allows hardware to be configured efficiently and optimally so that processing requirements can be matched accurately and timely with the server estate on the data centre floor, without the need for huge footprint expansion.

Organisations have already seen massive benefit from virtualisation, and this technology will continue to grow. Where software-defined and virtualisation converge is where the data centre has the potential to be THE differentiator for a business - a vehicle for competitive advantage like no other.

CIOs that can get on top of their current data centre content in a coherent way and position themselves for timely, accurate investment in software-defined technologies for data centre and network, coupled with appropriate investment in virtualisation, means they can find themselves in the enviable position of having an estate that meets - or enables - their boardroom colleagues’ apparently contentious requirements for embedded technology to meet demand whilst still cutting costs.

Additionally, they’ll have a future-proofed strategy for flexibility and capacity management with maximum efficiency and little waste. For CIOs, the challenge is to get there as rapidly, as risk-free and as inexpensively as possible.

1 USA Today: ‘As Internet surges, data centers gear up’ Oct 25 2014

Image: iStock/160516952

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