Where today's datacenters have gone wrong

Afcom CEO Jill Eckhaus discusses how datacenters got so crowded and why they're finally getting the respect they deserve

Today's datacenters are downright cramped, yet forced to continue absorbing more technologies and tapping into the latest trends, all while maximizing efficiency and reducing costs. The current recession makes now the time to glance back for a historical perspective to better understand how to not only survive in this different world but also to best prepare for the future.

In advance of the association for datacenter professionals Afcom's Data Center World show taking place in Las Vegas this week, CEO Jill Eckhaus spoke with InfoWorld Editor at Large Tom Sullivan about how datacenters got where they are today, what's gone wrong, what they'd be wise to concentrate on right now, and one bright spot amid the economic uncertainties.

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InfoWorld: Would you go so far as to call this recession and its budget cuts something of a disaster to the datacenter?
Eckhaus: I've never really thought about that, but I don't know if I'd go that far. Afcom did a survey in 2008 about how the economy is going to impact the datacenter manager's budget. Then right after we did the survey, unfortunately the economy took a bigger dump and Wall Street took a hit. So we resurveyed those individuals in October 2008 and 49.6 percent of datacenters are seeing some sort of impact in their 2009 budget, which I thought was really interesting because it means that 51 percent of datacenters were not asked to cut their budget as of November 2008.

When you think about that, for the first time ever corporations are realizing that the datacenter is the lifeline of their organization, and if it goes down, they could stand to lose millions of dollars an hour. Of those people that were asked to cut their budget, it was by 15.2 percent. When you look at organizations that are cutting overall budgets by 20, 30, or 40 percent and laying off a lot of people, the datacenter is being hit by only 15 percent. That shows us how important the datacenter is, even today.

InfoWorld: It sounds like if there's a bright spot in this economic darkness, it's the realization of the importance of the datacenter. You said this is the first time people are realizing this about the datacenter.
Eckhaus: I've been in the industry for almost 18 years and it’s the first time in my career I can remember the datacenter not being looked at as just a money pit. People are really taking notice, and when you look at it, datacenter managers are responsible for the entire datacenter and the integrity of the data. Now it comes down to the CEO, they have to take responsibility for anything that happens with their data, so there's been a larger focus on the datacenter.

InfoWorld: Are IT shops preparing for the recovery now, or are they just trying to hang on while their budgets tighten, to essentially ride out the storm? Ideally, of course, they should be hanging on, but can they actually afford to?
Eckhaus: It's easy to just hang on and ride out the storm, but if you look at our survey results, they are adopting virtualization technologies. Whether they're doing it to just to ride out the storm or actually planning for the future, I don't know if that's something they're thinking about.

In the 1990s, when servers were popular, datacenter managers were gobbling them up as fast as they could. Now they're running out of space, blade servers run hotter, they're facing heating and cooling issues, and we need to understand how we got there, how we can prevent that in the future, and what we can learn from that. It's become extremely important in today's world to look at what you're doing and really plan because now companies have a lot of servers they could probably just turn off because they're not using them.

InfoWorld: Where are datacenters today; what's gone wrong?
Eckhaus: The biggest thing that's gone wrong is the addition of those servers. Another thing that's happening is the government is looking at datacenters a lot more closely today. So you have government mandates that you need to follow, and storage is an enormous issue. Some of it is out of the control of the datacenter manager, but we need to look at the policies and procedures as a corporation, and I think for the first time ever, datacenter managers and the CIO need to work together with the business side.

I almost think we've grown too fast when it comes to technology. In the history of the datacenter, they've taken on a lot of these new technologies when maybe they should have researched more or put policies into place before they did it.

InfoWorld: What jumps out at as an example?
Eckhaus: Servers, again, and also the datacenter is cramped. Even cable management is a problem now because there's just so much stuff in there. And they need to make sure they're monitoring everything so that it doesn't go down. It's become a different world because they have outside customers as well as the inside customers.

InfoWorld: In addition to the well-known datacenter trends these days -- green IT, cloud computing, virtualization, consolidation, etc. -- what should datacenter managers be concentrating on, in the here and now, during this recession?
Eckhaus: Two things come to my mind that are very easy to ignore because it's not something you do every single day.

One is disaster recovery. It would be very easy in this financial crisis to say, "OK, we have a disaster recovery plan in place, let's not revisit it, let's not test it, let's not spend the money to make sure it's right because we don't have that money." So it's very easy to ignore, but when you think about it, it's one of the most important things a datacenter can do. And when it comes to disaster recovery, some of the things ignored are the people aspects: What are you going to do if there's a major disaster and you have people there? How are you going to feed them? Do you have emergency care for them? How will you get them out of the building if you need to? All of those things need to be incorporated into your disaster recovery plan.

The second thing is security because you need to make sure not only your physical datacenter is secure but that your data itself is secure. Those are two things that are easy to ignore for a while as you're dealing with lots of other stuff.

InfoWorld: According to the survey Afcom conducted late last year, some 77 percent of datacenter administrators are not planning to increase their use of cloud computing anytime soon, which I take to mean during this recession. Since the economic advantages are well reported, why not?
Eckhaus: I was shocked by that. Then when I started thinking about it, people have a lot of reservations about it, they don't have just one clear definition of cloud computing, and a lot of things under the guise of cloud computing are really just repackaging of older things, such as automation. So I believe this is what's going to happen in the next three years: As an industry we need to educate our datacenter managers and professionals about it and make sure they understand what it can do for them. Once that happens, its acceptance is going to jump dramatically. But it's probably going to take two or three years for them to get on board with it, just as they did with virtualization.

InfoWorld: Then again, industry analysts say that business units, rather than IT, are the folks who subscribe to hosted services.
Eckhaus: That could be true right now, but I also believe IT is going to start incorporating it once they really understand the cloud. And if they're getting pressure from the business side, that's going to make them want to do it faster.

InfoWorld: What's the next step; what's beyond the cloud?
Eckhaus: I don't know what's beyond the cloud. We don't see enough of this, but we need to see everybody come together and come up with solutions to problems we're having such as running out of space in the datacenter, power, and cooling, all of the issues that seem insurmountable when it comes to resolving them. Groups like the Green Grid and Afcom, we need to get together with the people who are making cloud computing, and end-users as well, to determine what the future will be, what to expect, and how to prepare for it. I can't tell you what the next thing is, but I can say we're an industry that needs to come together as one.

InfoWorld: So are you volunteering to spearhead that Herculean task?
Eckhaus: I don't know that I'm volunteering to spearhead it, but in the next year or two, Afcom will be talking to other groups and our members to find out what's really needed. You need to go to users and the people that are in the datacenter, and ask what they need and how we can help them get there. Then you need to look at the industry as a whole.

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