The datacentre of the future

Read time 8min 50sec
Grant Bennett, SUSE South Africa.
Grant Bennett, SUSE South Africa.

The datacentre is where your competitive advantage will lie as you employ technologies to manage your compute, storage, networking and analytics.

Back in the 1940s, computers were massive machines, slow and noisy. One of the first, called ENIAC (Electronic Numerator, Integrator, Analyser and Computer) was used by the US Army in Maryland. It took up over 160 square metres and ran on vacuum tubes, relays and resistors. There was more downtime than uptime, and it required an army of technicians to keep it running.

But things got better, slowly. Transistors were used instead of vacuum tubes, and the machines got a bit smaller, say, the size of a car.

The modern datacentre is a complex collection of technologies. This is where all of the hardware is kept on racks, and includes switches and firewalls, and a fair bit of cabling to connect it all. It also needs to be cool, and if the air-conditioning should fail, expect the hardware to follow suit. Now, as technology evolves, datacentres are just getting emptier. Where there were once racks of servers, there now stands one gleaming hyperconverged box in the corner, combining compute, storage and networking.

Perhaps the greatest shift in datacentre design is the introduction of software defined infrastructure, which includes software defined networking and storage. This means the management of the function is controlled by software and isn't tied to any hardware, ushering in more automation.

AWS and Microsoft are also lighting up their hyperscale datacentres in South Africa soon, which will bring efficiencies of scale to many businesses in the country.

Here, we ask vendors how new technology is changing the way datacentres are run, and how cloud fits into the picture.

How is the datacentre changing?

JP Smith, the pre-sales director, emerging EMEA at Hitachi Vantara, says organisations are now expected to process ever expanding amounts of data, and mentions the unimaginably large figure of 163 zettabytes, which IDC predicts will be the total size of data worldwide by 2025. There's also increasing pressure on firms to roll out modern apps, some of which will run on multi-clouds. He says co-location datacentres are useful for this and can offer clients connectivity into multiple clouds. Artificial intelligence (AI) also has a role to play, particularly in datacentre management, optimisation and security.

"Through the integration to AI, operation software collects analytics from across your datacentre to predict and prescribe adjustments that help the entire datacentre run more efficiently. It can also automate processes to accelerate action so that you begin delivery of an autonomous datacentre," he says.

Datacentres are now boundless and a decade has changed the landscape immensely.

Jan Hnizdo, Teraco

The modern datacentre is one that is integrated with the cloud, has optimised data protection software and uses hyperconverged technology to meet business demands, says Smith. It's also important to offer consumption-based models.

Grant Bennett, country manager for SUSE South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, also points to the explosion of data, as well as businesses embracing digital transformation, as factors playing a part in datacentre evolution.

He says there's been a shift in datacentre design because of the profound changes in how the technology is implemented and managed. Virtualised servers have replaced the physical, and the rise of public and private clouds means there are pools of resources waiting to be consumed.

He says this all points to the rise of the hybrid cloud environment, in which compute, network and storage have been decoupled from the hardware and are controlled by the IT department.

"When this happens, the datacentre will truly be the great strategic asset and source of competitive advantage that every organisation wants. Long deployment times, rigidity and inefficiencies of hardware-defined infrastructure will be relics of the past."

Teraco is the mother of all South African datacentres and is the only homegrown hyperscale centre. It has co-location points at its centres in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. It created NAPAfrica, the continent's most connected internet exchange point, in 2012. This means it's able to offer free peering to its clients.

Jan Hnizdo, Teraco's MD, is in a good position to chart the evolution of the datacentre. He says when Teraco started out over a decade ago, there was a single fixed line offering, and just one operator licensed to build infrastructure. Connectivity costs were high, there was no peering, and there was little in the way of submarine cable capacity. By contrast, there are now 350 electronic communications network service licensees, which can now build their own networks, several undersea cables, and 60% of content is distributed by local content delivery networks.

"Datacentres are now boundless and a decade has changed the landscape immensely," says Hnizdo.

The next big thing

For SUSE's Bennett, it's open source that's leading the way to the datacentre of the future. Open source technologies for managing and provisioning compute, storage and networking are the building blocks for datacentres of the future, he says.

"This makes sense when you consider the widespread adoption of Linux in enterprise with private and public clouds. It's also a natural outgrowth of unrestricted access to open technologies that encourages their use and adoption of large communities of technologists. Sharing and collaboration on code also lends itself well to technical advancement and rapid innovation," he says, adding that open source innovation can help businesses improve service agility.

Today's private clouds, public clouds and virtualised resources are all stepping stones to the datacentre of the future.

Grant Bennett, SUSE South Africa

Smith thinks the next big thing in datacentres is the move towards hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), and this addresses the need for simpler, more agile infrastructure. Converged infrastructure combines compute, storage, networking and virtualisation into a single box.

The main difference between hyperconverged and converged technology is that the former abstracts the underlying infrastructure, and then allows a number of tasks to be automated. HCI also adds a few things into the mix, including, but not limited to, compression and backup capabilities.

Frank Iro, NetApp's business development manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, also identifies HCI as a key technology in the hybrid cloud era.

"The level of abstraction and simplicity of management it offers means enterprise-grade cloud services can be provided to almost anyone with minimal complexity."

He says with first-generation HCI, however, there were still challenges around performance, especially when multiple workloads are consolidated on a single HCI platform. He says NetApp sells its components separately, making it easy to, for example, add storage nodes when needed.

Jim Holland, Lenovo's country head for the South Africa Datacentre Group, believes the next 10 years will see providers being driven to the edge of the network.

He says vendor-neutral datacentres will also play a key role in providing access to internet infrastructure and connectivity and will extend to technology hubs such as Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco and Kenya.

Disrupting the traditional datacentre

Hitachi Vantara's Smith says a datacentre is housed in a physical location, requiring a datacentre architect to monitor cooling systems and ensure that everything's running smoothly.

"But now the cloud allows for greater flexibility and scalability by helping extend complex resources over vast distances. For example, according to Cisco, in 2018 alone, more than three-quarters of workloads were processed by cloud datacentres. This truly speaks to the role of cloud in enhancing datacentre performance and creating a new benchmark for efficiency," he says.

With cloud, organisations can roll out applications quickly without worrying about infrastructure costs or maintenance.

"Cloud technology is a departure from previous datacentre strategies as it provides a pool of resources that can be consumed by users as services, as opposed to dedicating infrastructure to each individual application."

SUSE's Bennett echoes this, adding that operating expenditure can be trimmed by leveraging Infrastructure-as-a-Service capabilities.

"Today's private clouds, public clouds and virtualised resources are all stepping stones to the datacentre of the future. The challenge is to make smart choices given the available options, choices that fit into the business' existing operations with little or no disruption while efficiently and cost-effectively leading to a fully software-defined future."

Hybrid future

Frank Iro from NetApp says there's no doubt that the future will be a hybrid one.

"However, the transition to the cloud for most is very difficult and moving back from cloud when it doesn't work out is even harder."

He says it's better to offer cloud-integrated and cloud-native data management solutions that allow organisations to leverage cloud, while making it easy and cost-effective to transition workloads in and out of the cloud.

"With the right vendor, moving data between on-premise and cloud-based can be a simple native replication operation, both ways."

Teraco's Hnizdo says leading datacentres will continue to be the home of the cloud, allowing for scale, interconnection ease and flexibility. He expects more demand for outsourced and cloud datacentres as strategies to build to scale will be implemented.

"A focus on growing last mile connectivity networks will be embraced as space and power density will be imperative. Platforms will redefine internet strategies from the edge."

He says cloud adoption is being spurred by a lack of resources and skills, access to, and lower costs of connectivity, and the increasing acceptance of infrastructure capex. There's also improved security, data sovereignty, lower latencies and a growing emerging market with local cloud.

"Users now have access to multiple networks and several internet exchange points. South Africa has become the ideal internet enabling country across the continent. Thanks to its large, addressable market, internet freedom, broadband penetration, stable power infrastructure, geographic location and favourable location, South Africa has become the location of choice for cloud providers," Hnizdo concludes.

This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.

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