Data centres are being improved from all sides
Technology improvements to data centres have been building up steam for a while now. As the industry swings back in favour of putting more computing power in the data centre and less on the desktop, so data centres have been seeing some interesting improvements. Perhaps the most pressing need in South Africa is for better usage of power. Data centres are monstrous devourers of electricity, both to drive the equipment inside them and to keep it cool. Dawie Bloomberg, business services director at The Webcom Group, says the data centre of the future will be built to optimise energy and space with infrastructure optimisation solutions to encourage more effective placement of servers and better management of hot and cool air.
"For example, at the moment many people are guilty of over-cooling and over-populating cabinets, as opposed to spreading the load in the data centre, resulting in energy wastage. We will also see the phasing out of the characteristic raised flooring and false ceilings of server rooms, and the creation of cold isles to concentrate correct airflow."
Bloomberg says to tackle existing data centres, it is possible to use monitoring tools that measure heat, humidity and power, and map out exactly where the hot and cold spots are.
"What we try and do is install monitoring hardware that shows in real-time where the hotspots are. People tend to overcool data centres and they waste a lot of energy. But you can place new servers in a centre in an optimal way. Most technicians will populate a cabinet completely and then move onto the next one. You waste more energy by overloading one cabinet instead of laying them out correctly."
Companies are also pouring money into renewable ways to power data centres. According to a recent research paper by HP, powering one with cow dung is not a pipe dream. At the 4th ASME International Conference on Energy Sustainability, held in the US in May this year, HP outlined how a farm of 10 000 cows could fulfil the power requirements of a medium-sized 1-megawatt data centre. The research was done by HP Lab's sustainable IT ecosystem division, which seeks to design efficient green data centres using renewable energy resources.
"HP's main business, of course, is not in the market of green energy research and biofuels," says Jim Holland, category lead: HP Enterprise at IT distributor Axiz. HP's research is into how a data centre could be powered using only sustainable biofuel, solar and wind resources off the grid. "It is about managing different energy resources to deliver the consistent power necessary to run a data centre."
Alternative energy sources aside, with virtualisation technologies becoming mainstream and adoption rates rising, traditional data centres are being transformed into virtual data centres, where technologies are virtualised to provide business services, resulting in further energy savings.
"The data centre of the future no longer focuses on technology only, instead it concentrates on the services that need to be provided to the clients. In effect, the data centre transforms into a services data centre," says Holland.
New servers, new links
The need for more sustainable power isn't stopping hardware vendors from improving their server ranges. Dell has recently announced some refreshes to its server line, including the R910, a four-slot, four-core server that supports a terabyte of RAM. Dell SA's enterprise brand manager Kobus de Beer says the company has been watching virtualisation trends closely over the past two years, and the new machines give customers more options.
"With the new hardware coming out, it allows the customers more possibilities," he says. "In the past, a lot of companies said, for instance 'we can't virtualise Microsoft Exchange'. But as Dell we're not taking the route of 'don't do this or that', we'll do what's right for the customer. But a terabyte of memory lets you consider virtualising something that maybe you couldn't before." A big trend in the IT industry has been to utilise IT to generate income for a business - turning IT into a profit centre, trading online and using cloud computing. Manoj Boola, ESSN lead at HP SA, says the uptake of virtualisation has since been rampant, and agrees that this trend will continue to create a lot of confusion in the industry, as businesses are not sure what virtualisation can achieve.
"What virtualisation can do is reduce IT costs, the number of server units in the environment and the number of dedicated devices per department," he says. "Energy and cooling costs will also be lowered."
Virtualisation may be the next big thing, but whether businesses, both big and small, are moving to virtualisation or not, they still need data centres. And where there's a data centre, there's a link to telecommunications infrastructure.
"The data centre of tomorrow needs to facilitate seamless peering with telecommunications providers," says Hubert Wentzel, Divisional Director at EOH.
"Choice has finally arrived in South Africa in terms of international submarine cables, but the last mile is still prohibitively expensive," he adds.
With the arrival of more competition in the international submarine cable arena, as well as infrastructure sharing and continued investment in national and metropolitan links by South Africa's major operators and infrastructure providers, there is general consensus that the local loop is now perhaps the single most significant contributor to high communications costs in South Africa.
Most of the country's local loop infrastructure is still under the control of one company. Alas, the local loop unbundling regulatory process that will allow other telecoms players to use Telkom's last mile copper infrastructure doesn't seem to be on track to meet to meet the November 2011 deadline.
"So much more the reason to put the servers and computing capacity where the networks are: the telehousing facilities," says Wentzel.
Wentzel maintains that owning data centre infrastructure - unless you are a bank and can afford to fill a 500m2 data centre - is no longer cost-effective. "Hosting your data centre at tier one suppliers - who are making use of the best energy-efficient cooling and reticulation design - is the way to go, as proven by the growth of telehousing facilities worldwide," he continues.
This, in turn, enables access to new designs and architectural considerations around cloud computing, as all the relevant and important access providers are free to peer with each other.
"There is a big opportunity in South Africa for traditional data centre providers to redefine their services. Previously, clients were locked in with a telecoms vendor, and while the providers were prepared to peer, they charged you a fortune to do so and essentially, they weren't adding any value to the service. Now is the time for existing data centre providers and telecoms vendors to come to the party and deliver real data centre capabilities to businesses."
A fresh perspective
But sometimes, a fresh look at data centre components can help. The enterprise database, for example, has plenty of hardware and connections thrown at it, but much less attention is paid to its operation.
"With transactional databases and data warehouses, people think they run themselves," says Michael de Andrade, MD of EnterpriseWorx. "And it's a mess: either there are too many indexes or too few because people don't know how to fine-tune queries."
De Andrade says the country is in dire need of data management.
"Data is taken for granted. It should be treated as an asset, but it isn't. It's all very well to have all of the latest hardware but then you need a team of qualified people to manage it."
He says companies are starting to catch on to database appliances.
"The beauty of a database appliance is that it simplifies the environment. Re-engineering the data centre is not necessarily the best - or most cost-effective - way for companies to prepare the data centre of tomorrow. New, powerful software applications have the ability to consolidate existing data from a range of storage systems running on a variety of hardware platforms. It's not just about buying a big machine, and putting software on top of it, and certainly it's not about being tied into proprietary hardware and software combinations from some major vendors."