Moving your datacenter?

30 Aug

I recently moved residences, and since my current project is a Data Center Relocation, I thought I would compare the two moves.  Relocation is one of the largest projects a person or business can undertake. It’s disruptive, but with careful planning, it can be the biggest event a business undertakes that most people never know about.  Relocation of a home or a data center requires planning (more than you think you need to do),  communications,  relocation of services, migration execution, and follow-up.

Planning:  Step 1: Identify Need

There has to be a reason you do this, and it better be good.  I’ve moved several times in my life, and other than the anticipation of getting to school, or the move in to the first real house that I owned, I never have enjoyed it.  There is an overwhelming amount of work that needs to be done in order for it to be done right. Yet, it’s done every day!

In the case of my move, my lease was going to expiring.  My kids and I were living in a 900 square foot duplex: 3 bedroom and the bathroom downstairs; and one large room upstairs divided into the kitchen, dining area, and the rest set aside for TV, couch, desk, etc .  If it was just me, it would have been fine; for 4 of us, with books and Legos and Polly Pockets and work and homework and the need as humans to s p r e a d  o u t so we were not rightontopofeachother drove the need to find a different place to live.

Such is the same for a business relocating their data center.  Is your data center location lease  coming due and the new terms aren’t acceptable? Maybe your business is growing and you are out of space in the data center, and/or have no additional power and/or cooling capacity left?  Has your business decided that owning and maintaining a data center just isn’t one of the core competencies that they support?  While our economy relies on technology, many businesses have made strategic decisions to selectively outsource elements of their IT operations, which includes data center operations.  There is a tremendous amount of work involved in maintaining a data center, and for many, the easier decision is to contract for those services.

There is a considerable amount of work required simply in identifying the need, and careful analysis of alternatives is required.  In my case, the advantages of staying where I was were outweighed by the identified need to have some additional space for the 4 of us.  I couldn’t virtualize and consolidate kids like I can with servers and network and storage!  While we could reduce the amount of stuff we have, the fact is that the kids are growing, and for our collective mental health, moving was something that was going to have to happen.

Are you constrained in your data center by space, power and/or cooling? Do you need room to grow your IT footprint so that you can support the business?


The role of the CIO is changing–and with it, the role that IT plays in delivering core IT services to the business

9 Mar

The role of the CIO is changing–and with it, the role that IT plays in delivering core IT services to business end users.  Gone are the days when IT existed as a cost-center / corporate utility operating in a pseudo-vacuum apart from business priorities.

The proliferation of new market options for procuring IT services is forcing IT professionals to get strategic.  Globalization, competitive pressures stemming from the recession, cloud computing [both public and private], and IT governance are transforming the role that IT plays in helping companies achieve mission critical strategic objectives, as well as the skill sets IT needs to deliver the required value to the business.

Accordingly, IT is at a crossroads:  in order to ensure a “seat at the table,” IT leaders needs to adapt their orientation toward strategy.  This is the only way to ensure that the most impactful multitude of available technology options will be selected by business end users, giving the business what it needs to succeed.

Cloud Readiness: the often overlooked variable

13 Feb

The prospect of transitioning IT services to the cloud offers an intriguing value proposition for many organizations—with cost, performance, scalability, and extensibility all being key factors.  But many organizations lack the readiness to maximize the competitive advantages afforded by the cloud.

As organizations begin shaping their IT strategies toward cloud computing, many are creating teams or pools of resources that will be responsible for architecting, developing, and supporting cloud infrastructure.  Without building the internal skill sets / competencies needed to maximize cloud benefit, organizations will never realize all the competitive advantages that the cloud has to offer.  Without question, the cloud is redefining what skill sets IT resources need.

A poorly conceived cloud strategy can have disruptive impact in unforeseen ways.

Additionally, cloud utilization is redefining many important business technology relationships.

The bottom line: organizations need to be prepared.  The cloud offers compelling benefits that can only be attained if your organization is positioned to take advantage of them.

Ultimate Infrastructure

3 Feb

As I stated previously, there are many components that have to efficiently work together in harmony to deliver the services that business has come to rely on so heavily.  These are complex and need to perform exceedingly well or users in search of instant gratification will find other business services are just a click away. To deliver these services large datacenters are built that cost millions of dollars.  These are designed to house the sheet metal and silicone that deliver the services.

I wonder why a number of data centers  are built far from human habitation, in very warm climates such as Arizona.  I understand that cheap power is great, but surely the cooling of these environments consumes more than the powering of the computers contained in them? The ideal environment for computers seems to be similar to that of humans. A temperature range 20-21°C (68-71°F) and relative humidity levels between 45% and 60% are deemed best for safe server operation. These are managed by Building Management Systems and form part of a science called DCIM or data center infrastructure management. Large Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) units must be employed to manage the environments.  That not proving enough, Computer Room Air Conditioners (CRAC) units provide extra and directed point cooling. As such data centers are built for efficiency and security and aesthetics are expensive additions.

Data centers get big, I mean Huge Data Centers:  and all of these require redundant utility and connectivity.  Once those are laid on, security would be great as would some place for any people lucky enough to have to staff the DC to subsist.  However, siting all your precious data eggs in a single basket is likely to prove foolhardy so, that means another DC of similar proportion with the attendant costs.  Expensive!  So how about a DC that looks like a home?

Infrastructure as a service is a potential solution to owning a DC  but there is some data, intellectual property that is so sensitive, so core to a company that it will always have to remain internal, whether as a competitive advantage or as a result of regulation such as HIPAA or PCI. Another, is the control of one’s own destiny, the sense of ownership and comfort that owning and being able to see touch feel the substance.

Because of these reasons, DCIM will continue to be of importance to companies. Large hosting companies will continue to improve cost to profit ratios of their operations by driving efficiency in density power usage and cooling.  The benefits of these efforts is likely to affect the entire industry.

So what does the ultimate DC infrastructure look like?  I think we could see smaller, compact DCs containing high density, efficient servers  housing the core critical services and the “needs to be protected at all costs” data. These will be surrounded by the user access layer, a cloud of Applications As Services hosted either internally or in a public cloud running virtual desktops that can be securely accessed from pretty much anywhere including user owned tablets.  Control of the information is still vested in the enterprise as the users access it via an emulation interface.  Reminds me of the mainframe environment of not so long ago, or maybe it was aeons ago.

What are your thoughts?



Optimization is only the first step

24 Jan

It’s tough to get from point A to point B without defining where you’re trying to go, which is why the term “optimization” can be misleading.

“Optimized” to what?  Some external benchmark?  Individual preferences?  Is it about efficiency?  IT cost avoidance?  Performance?

You can “optimize” an individual component of IT—say, storage—but still fall short everywhere else.

And how do you even know if you’re “optimized,” if the engagement isn’t joined at the hip with enterprise strategy? Is IT architected properly to support strategic business objectives?

Are your risk mitigation activities aligned with corporate risk tolerance thresholds?

Is your IT as resilient as it needs to be?

Is your IT governance truly effective, or is it focused on the wrong things?

And are you tracking the right information to answer any of the above?

IT is a corporate utility that exists to enable the rest of the organization to achieve.  Therefore, it is important to figure out what your organization is trying to accomplish [vision], and then determine whether your IT is architected to support this vision [strategy].  The first step in this process is to develop a framework for assessing IT activities / projects / etc. to determine whether or not they contribute value to where you’re trying to go as an organization.

Cloud Skills

18 Jan

The cloud has emerged. Visionary companies identified early on how they were going to exploit the power and agility that the cloud offered. Others have been more cautious in moving to the cloud. Both types (and all in between) are right; there is a lot to consider when moving services to the cloud. As the economic cases become clearer, as well as other issues (data security, identity management), more companies will be moving services into the cloud.

In addition to the economic and security cases, IT executives need to identify the skills their staff require to enable the success of the business when IT services are provided by the cloud. Dan Sullivan highlights a few of these in “The Evolution — Not Revolution — of IT Skills for The Cloud” (registration required).

Additionally, companies want to have strong skills in:

  • Vendor Management – development and enforcement of contracts and SLAs established with cloud vendors
  • Disaster Recovery / Business Continuity – clear, tested plans for restoring business services in the event of primary data center failure, and trained people to execute the plans
  • Release Management – Coordination of hardware and/or software releases within a company, and also considering business initiatives to reduce complexity of a release

Sending IT Services to the cloud does not mean everything will be seamless and smooth and always available (in the last 13 months, Amazon has had 5 service outages). Before moving out of a data center to the cloud, we need to think outside of our cubes about the impact of cloud-based data centers and develop the skill sets in our teams to ensure that when we do, we are able to support the business.

The Ultimate Datacenter – for the moment.

17 Jan

One thing I have learned in all the years I have been doing IT is that there is always “the Next Big Thing”, “The Killer App” or the “Ultimate Datacenter”.   As I look back over the years, I see many strategic inflection points, (Oh my, that was back so last century, 1998 to be exact) that are part of the IT roadmap. In typical IT lifetimes

These are changes that, according to  Andy Grove is “what happens to a business when a major change takes place in its competitive environment.  A major change due to introduction of new technologies. A major change due to the introduction of a different regulatory environment”

Now as Moore’s law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware: the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.

So if I map Grove’s comments onto Mores law, we have 6 IT lifetimes! Many reinventions, many changes so let me look at the datacenter for a moment.

Datacenters house the computer based system resources that business consumes.  Due to their very nature, these are strategic as they often house some of the most sensitive business IP and customer information.  As such, they are consumers of a lion’s share of the IT budget.  They are energy hogs, requiring power to run, generating heat and requiring cooling.

<ETLA Alert>

The science of managing these has led to a discipline, called Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) which we at N’compass are really good at.  In particular, we have developed a metric, Cost to Compute (C2C) which allows business to see the cost of the DC as a functioning component of the business.  It is a methodology that correlates Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and Compute usage factors to produce a baseline from which to track value for IT operational effectiveness.

</ETLA Alert>

So back to the point of this post, the Ultimate Datacenter:  What is it and how does it currently look? Datacenters are typically built in “Hard Blocks” these are built to standards and fitted according to requirement.  However, they are often over engineered as they need to take into account the inefficiencies of current power conversion technologies.  For example:  Utility company power -> Converted to DC for  UPS batteries  and “clean” power which is then fed to a computer as AC only to be converted again to DC.  Yet another inefficiency is cooling.  Air cooled rooms with CRAC have to be built big to obtain efficiencies.  Cool air is forced up into server racks through the raised flooring.  This is drawn through the running components and out into hot aisles.  Google has a number of best practices around their datacenters.   As can be seen these are often be enclosed or curtained off to increase efficiency but still are reliant on the cooling medium, in this case air to extract the heat.  A more efficient solution is liquid cooling where a liquid is used to perform the same function. Hardcore Computing has developed a system that immerses the hot components in a coolant which is pumped out of the computer room for processing.  Used as an ambient heat source this must have appeal.

So if we could limit the conversions and the attendant inefficiencies as well as contain the heat in fluid, we can optimize the compute side of the DC.  The next step is managing the compute load efficiently.  This is currently done by means of virtualization.  In effect, compute resources are abstracted from the hardware and fooled into thinking that they are running alone on a dedicated platform when in effect, there are multiple instances running on the same physical compute.  That means that once you have instantiated the hardware as far as power and cooling are concerned, deploying a virtual server has little impact on the environment by extracting more efficient use of the hardware. This has resulted in huge virtual server farms with the difficulty of managing server sprawl and movement.  Vendors have become adept at moving virtual servers around, optimizing the hardware which whilst providing redundancy, produces a number of issues when trying to manage the environment.  If the hardware on which a server is running fails, then the resource needs to be migrated.  This can lead to capacity bottlenecks which monitoring systems are often not capable of tracking these migrations and produce false positives if the metrics being used to track the service are not flexible enough to allow for this churn.

Monitoring systems are as only good as the metrics.  Most modern systems expose metrics for performance and health which are often tagged on as afterthoughts.  These address operating requirements and are often only exposed via proprietary interfaces.  This makes it difficult to obtain a meaningful, integrated view of the business application for consumption by IT and ultimately the business.  It is an ongoing operational challenge to ensure that these metrics are accurate and relevant to business.  One way to look at these metrics is to reduce them to a business facing metrics such as the length of time it takes to perform a user transaction, ideally a basket of representative transactions.  If these are tracked and fed into the monitoring system over time a baseline is obtained which is used as the basis for measuring system performance.  Most modern monitoring systems are aware that there are multiple methods of obtaining this and will consume these measurements in a variety of ways for example SNMP traps or WMI or ssh calls. Some are reactive, such as SNMP traps which rely on the occurrence of an event before notification can take place.  Active polling on the other hand can often miss an event if the counter polled is not in breach at time of polling.  Agents that are deployed on the endpoint provide much better response but consume resources which are often scarce at time of need.  I have seen agents bring servers to a grinding halt by consuming resources to the point that the server cannot function.  The ideal situation is therefore a blended solution that utilizes the most lightweight method possible in order to obtain the counters that make up the baseline.  This is made even more challenging when the applications can “float” up, often seemingly without control to the cloud.

So, as seems to be indicated above, in a perfect Ultimate Datacenter, there is a predictable supply of well managed and cooled servers running on redundant or near redundant energy efficient platforms.  In this world, proactive monitoring alerts the support technician to trends indicating a potential malfunction that could lead to degraded or system outage.  Business is tracking the metrics that matter to it and are working with correlated IT metric feeds that address their performance concerns.  IT is alert to the business performance metrics that form part of its negotiated and agreed service level tasks. Nirvana? In the upcoming articles, I will attempt to address and define certain vital pieces that will transform the datacenter and drive it up the maturity curve.