Data centre consolidation is a term being thrown around in 2012 almost as much as virtualisation, cloud and big data. You’ve heard people singing its praises and you’ve heard a few disaster stories too. What you really want to know is, what can it do for your business and is it worth investing in? Ben Rossi speaks to industry experts to present you all you need to know.
The primary benefits of data centre consolidation are simple. Anybody trying to sell you the shift (especially with virtualisation) would have told you over and over again that it provides you with clear cost reduction – and with analysts predicting another tough financial year in 2012, this is something that rings very sweetly in the ears of company executives.
“IT organisations are aggressively deploying server virtualisation in data centres to consolidate applications and improve resource management,” says Samer Ismair, MENA-systems engineer at Brocade.
“The limitations in current network technologies have often prevented organisations from meeting the performance, availability, security and mobility requirements of server virtualisation. The cost savings resulting from increased asset utilisation, higher availability and on-demand application deployment meets the business mandate to do more with less,” he adds.
Cost and energy reduction aside, the underlying business foundation of making the switch is to provide a better return on investment. The idea is that with a more consolidated and integrated virtual environment, and storing organisational information in one place, companies can have more flexibility to release services quicker and more efficiently.
Further benefits – including physically having more space and more efficient communication from the IT team with other departments and end-users because they have all data in one place – mean that at least on the face of it, data centre consolidation is a very attractive business prospect.
It has also recently become far more popular in the Middle East. Eight months ago Oracle released research showing this region to be ranked bottom in terms of data centre consolidation. Oracle revisited the subject in November 2011 – surveying 949 large organisations in 10 regions around the world – and on January 11 released updated results showing the Middle East to have overtaken the likes of Italy and Iberia to reach a mid-table position.
Those with “very little” consolidation in place had dropped from 37% to 17%, and those with less than 10% of their IT estate virtualised was down from 52% to 16%. Those doing “nothing” about consolidation were down from 37% to 16%.
The results also showed significant improvement in feedback from organisations that had already committed to consolidation. Those who said they had seen “no impact” were down from 42% to 16%, and Oracle concluded that organisations that had moved to a consolidated data centre had better visibility of future workload requirements.
“Encouragingly, this research suggests businesses realise they have a need to catch up on data within their organisations. The unique challenge of big data represents the coming together of many IT trends – the growth in connected applications, devices, systems and individuals, in both the consumer and business world, creating vast amounts of structured and unstructured data through everything they do,” says Luigi Freguia, senior VP at Oracle Systems EMEA.
“The findings of this report suggest businesses in the Middle East are becoming aware of this and are rapidly trying to get on top of their short and long-term data needs. Consolidating data centres is the first step in that direction,” he adds.
The benefits are easy to find when it comes to data centre consolidation, and Oracle’s latest figures leave you with little doubt that it is the right move for your business. However, what are not as widely circulated, are the risks and challenges associated with the shift.
Striding into a move like this without care or concern for the risks could lead to a potentially bad situation.
“Even those with the most advanced approach to data centres, doing all the necessary planning, still have a lot of things to consider in terms of risks,” says Ayman Abusaffaqa, deputy GM of data centres at Emitac Enterprises Solutions.
The most common challenge associated with consolidating your data centres is how to deal with the server down time that is necessary while the transition takes place. Companies must prepare for how they will offer their services and deal with situations while the servers are down. Problems can arise when businesses do not prepare for this, or when this transition period takes longer than expected.
The risks can reach further than this, and there are many things that IT departments do not consider prior to virtualising their data centres.
“Consolidation has to be done right to avoid backfire from the sub-optimal deployment of new technologies. We’ve seen cases where people have attempted certain consolidation exercises and things went wrong,” says Zaher Haydar, regional pre-sales manager for Turkey, emerging Africa and Middle East at EMC.
“Many virtualisation exercises have turned into nightmares when IT managers converted physical servers to virtual machines (VMs) without giving enough thought to how this consolidation would impact storage and backup components. This is why it’s key to always develop and follow best practices by hiring qualified resources with proven experience,” he adds.
Ahmed Youssef, business development manager of network infrastructure at Alcatel Lucent MEA, goes into more detail of the challenges and how they can be prevented.
“One of the biggest risks is not looking properly at the big picture and, since an organisation has a lot of silos of expertise that’s related to the data centre, they don’t talk to each other. So the application developers don’t talk to the infrastructure management, who are not talking to the storage group. That lack of coordination is a big challenge in properly designing the data centre,” Youssef says.
“Another thing is protecting the network, meaning the risk involved in disaster recovery related to the data centre. As data centres grow, especially when you start to have multiple data centres, you have to plan for disaster recovery and many people don’t,” he adds.
In fact, security is a key aspect that many companies are ignoring as they become more virtualised this year.
Costin Raiu, director of global research and analysis at Kaspersky Lab, is concerned businesses are so busy trying to keep up with trends like data centre consolidation, that they don’t realise they are opening themselves up to bigger cyber attacks.
“In my opinion, virtualisation means that more servers will be available in the same physical space. So if somebody manages to break into a data centre, they will have more data to steal,” Raiu says.
“There is also the connection to the cloud. In the future, we will see more attacks against the cloud. Clouds mean bigger incidents because you have all of the customers’ data in one place, readily available for hackers to steal over a high speed internet link. This means that the cloud hacks in the future will be much bigger than the small incidents of the past,” he adds.
Another aspect that must be considered is how companies handle the cultural issues that arise from the internal change management, which is inevitable from data centre consolidation.
“When you make large changes in an organisation, such as with a data centre, there will always be someone who may be worried about the introduction of this technology. For example, they might think that work places may move with the data centre,” says Nicolai Solling, director of technology services at Help AG ME.
Abusaffaqa adds, “If you’re going to tell a staff member that through data consolidation his job will become less necessary, it’s going to create issues. But if the customer’s strategy is to go for cost reduction then that is what will happen. The political and cultural issues that arise as a result of data centre consolidation are very sensitive in this part of the world, but this is something that the customer must manage internally within the team.”
However, regardless of all these challenges, Marc Heger, senior director of MENA hardware sales at Oracle, thinks the biggest risk is not moving into this next generation of data centres at all.
“One of the dominant trends at the moment is the big data boom going on – there is a massive amount of data becoming available. I think if you don’t have a plan in place to take advantage of that in the coming two or three years, many Middle East companies are going to expose themselves to external competitor pressures,” Heger says.
“Once the financial spending begins again and some international companies come in – if they’re set up to take advantage of that big data and local companies aren’t, there is a clear business risk,” he adds.
Preparing for the future
Our industry experts predict the average life cycle of data centres to range from three to 10 years. However, regardless of the current condition and how long it is likely to last, the resounding advice is to virtualise your data centres to adequately prepare for the future.
“The cloud computing and ICT convergence era is a driver in enhancing ways that data centres can add even greater value to the business. Server virtualisation, storage virtualisation and network virtualisation will transform the way companies across the enterprise market operate for the better,” says Steven Huang, director of solutions and marketing at Huawei ME.
It is also advised that companies should not go through logical and physical consolidation before rationalisation.
“That’s the key thing, because it has to be properly designed from a bigger picture. A lot of people are focusing on the data centre from within a particular organisation in one particular location, but they’re not looking at the big picture over the WAN and the data centre inter-connect between locations,” says Youssef.
“So consolidating in the single data centre is fine, but you have to look into several things like open standards and not tying yourself to a single vendor, because any decisions you make are going to affect you for the next 10 to 20 years. You have to be very careful in really making the right decision in the core of the network, the data centre fabric,’ he adds.
Youssef also adds that when it comes to metrics, it’s initially all about the saving on immediate costs, especially in elements such as energy. “The easiest way to measure the value of data centre consolidation is to look at the immediate savings in utilities,” he says. However, he emphasises, these are short-term metrics and companies must not forget the long-term values of setting themselves up for new technologies and trends.
When it comes to data centre consolidation, it is simply something companies must turn to. It is not a case of if they should do it, but how they can do it safely and efficiently at the earliest stage. Enterprises have to set themselves up for the influx of big data, and data centre consolidation is vital in allowing them to take advantage of 2012’s rise of virtualisation.
Oracle’s research shows significant improvement in the Middle East’s implementation rate of this new generation of data centres, but it is important to note there is still a way to go, and stopping or slowing down is not an option in the ever-changing world of business.
“We shouldn’t laud ourselves and pat ourselves on the back, because we still haven’t surpassed the standard in mainland Europe at this stage. But now companies in the Middle East are looking in the right areas and have people looking at these technologies,” says Heger.
“The next few years are vital. It’s not about how long can it take or should it take to reach that level, I think we have to reach that level. Our advice to enterprises is that they really need to adopt new technologies and data consolidation projects. They need to work with integrated solutions that allow them to consolidate, virtualise and move forward much faster, and take benefit from the big data boom that is to come,” he adds.