Stop Designing Data Centers from the Bottom Up

A business demand aligned approach increases effectiveness and longevity

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Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of swinging a hammer for a living or to pay for a semester of school knows this fundamental truth:  build a solid foundation or whatever you place on top of it stands a pretty good chance of toppling over at some point in the future.  This truth is perpetuated everywhere, in the Bible, in the story of the Three Little Pigs...it’s as old as time.

But a data center isn’t about a building.  Ok, so the structure itself is, but at its core it serves a very different role than that of a habitat for survival.  I’ve watched data centers evolve over the past 20 years in this business and the Truth that I’ve learned is that no matter how well you build your foundation the only things that stay the same are the outside walls.  The best laid plans are sabotaged by changes in the business (M&A, organic growth or lack thereof) and changes in technology - the ever-shrinking components that consume more power and generate more heat in a fraction of the floor space that was originally allocated. Anyone had the pleasure to walk through a telco central office that’s more than 30 years old?  Or been in a corporate data center that has enough open area to play hockey but is “out of capacity”?

Last week VMware CEO Paul Maritz announced VMware vCloud Express, a new suite of virtualization tools that let providers offer low-end, self-provisioning, pay-as-you-go Cloud services that align with enterprise’s internal VMware deployments.  Applause all around; a smart marketing move just made it easier for VMware to sell more licenses and for CIO’s to cease being hampered by the pesky constraints of their data centers and allow their server footprints to sprawl into the Cloud.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of Cloud…but how many IT execs really know what’s consuming their resources?  Are they generating revenue/reducing risk, or just consuming space & power?  So now you can provision a server internally or externally in minutes - in most IT environments that translates to making bad things happen faster.

So where am I going with this?  In order to effectively design data centers today – whether internal or in the Cloud – you need to start from the top down.  That means understanding the business at the most fundamental level; how does it make money versus what it does just to keep the lights on.  What application & systems support those functions?  And only then drive down to the physical resources that these systems run on.  When laid out like this it makes sense, right?  So why do we, as a community of IT professionals, always start data center projects by counting servers and bytes of storage?

Ask yourself what’s more likely to change, how your business makes money or the technology and deployment options for hosting those functions?  By adopting a top-down approach you’ll be able to react to business changes, and transparently adopt new technologies and deployment models.  And that data center?  You might be surprised how much longer it lasts with this approach.

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