Next-Gen Data Center Designs: Custom or Generic?

BACK IN THE DAY, when IT was seen as the modern engine for a more effective and efficient government, there were abundant resources for agencies to build out their infrastructures. Agency data center operators felt able to design and build facilities according to their vision of how they would fit agency needs and missions.

Maybe that’s still the case at some agencies, but times have changed. Money is tight, costs are increasing and there’s no longer the leeway for the traditional, customized approach. Highly detailed customization without a clear contribution to business goals wastes money, time and organizational resources, said Daniel Bizo, a data center technologies analyst with 451 Research.

“Specifying a custom data center can cost several hundred thousand dollars and take months to build,” he said. “There is no single approach, but all future data centers need more standardization and to be much more modular.”

However, he added, modularity for modularity’s sake doesn’t sit that well with data center professionals. That doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for some aspects of what it can deliver, though. Most new data center building still skews toward the larger facilities that can provide for all eventualities, but data center operators would prefer something that provides for “a smaller granularity of expansion,” Bizo said.

One approach to data center design that’s gaining traction is integrated infrastructure. Unified computing, an architecture that integrates the computing, networking and storage resources of a data center, is one example of that. It can dramatically cut capital expenses and costs such as cabling, and it can reduce the time it takes to provision a data center compared to existing facilities.

Converged infrastructure products take that concept and reduce it to a “data-center-in-a-box,” combining the server, networking and storage with requisite management software. Not all data center operators will support that approach, since they may have to buy preconfigured capacity they may not need, along with other things that drive up cost.

But it’s something that government outfits are starting to buy into, according to a recent article inGCN. It describes organizations deploying converged infrastructure and in the process saving on such things as power, heating, ventilation and air conditioning costs. They’re even using those solutions to replace much of the virtualized infrastructure they had been running for the past few years. One company reported an increase in federal government customers from three to 82 in less than two years.

In a survey published at the end of 2013 by TheInfoPro, a service of 451 Research, 32 percent of respondents said their companies used unified computing approaches in their data centers, while 17 percent were using converged infrastructure. Another 10 percent and 16 percent, respectively, expected to actively consider the technologies in the next two years.

Other technologies also deserve for attention. Although it seems to be leveling off, spending on server virtualization still drives a lot of the conversation about data centers. Microservers are starting to get some attention as a focus for next-generation server architectures in data centers, and some managers are starting to put a focus on software as a way of managing and automating future data centers.

That could prove a problem for many data center operators. They could tinker with the various elements to get the center they wanted, but the traditional designs of a decade or more ago that describe most of today’s data centers were fairly simple and based on a single blueprint. They all delivered more or less the same service.

Today, there are many approaches to designing a data center, and there are many IT and business goals they have to meet and that need input from relevant stakeholders in the organization. Usually, a balance must be struck between the particular engineering, environmental and cost constraints, said Simon CampbellWhyte, executive director of the Data Centre Alliance, a not-for-profit industry organization.

“Tradeoffs between resilience vs. energy consumption are always there,” he said, “but this is also true of security and the automation/operational setup.”