Mind the gap - where physical meets virtual

* Facilities management and the data center

When companies budget for new applications, do they have a line item for “cooling the servers”? Not often, to say the least.

Even in the recent past, we could live with a clear separation between facilities management and IT. If IT had a requirement, facilities could most often deliver. That is no longer the case, necessarily.

Today’s IT growth places extreme demands on the physical infrastructure - the data center facilities. A simple capacity projection based on floor space is no longer enough, or even possible: facilities managers must take into consideration power density, circuit availability, cooling requirements, and yes, floor space (and what about availability?). When computing reaches extreme densities we find companies applying computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations to model the airflow and temperature gradients in the data center.

Weather forecasting in the data center - have things really reached that point? You bet.

The traditional facilities role in the days of “yore” (only five to 10 years ago) involved a “container” view of the data center. Data center facilities could often be managed and planned with little consideration for the contents. A bit of cooling and more power requirements than the average office, but without complex capacity planning and forecasting. Sure, there were some redundancy requirements, and the AC needed to be more powerful, but the level of specialization and expertise required was not significant.

When I was interviewing IT executives for Nemertes Research’s recent benchmark on data centers, I spoke with a few “data center managers” who quickly admitted they didn’t know much about what was housed in the data center; they were “pure” facilities specialists. One participant also managed the cafeteria, the campus building and the parking lot, and had little contact with IT.

In today’s high-density computing environments the skills needed to manage data center facilities are highly specialized. Different cooling techniques (overhead, in-rack, raised floor, hot/cold aisles) all make for complicated choices. More importantly, though, the facilities cannot be managed in isolation from IT, any more than IT can be managed in isolation from the business units consuming the applications.

Frameworks for service delivery and management, such as ITIL, offer companies a means to more closely align the business-unit needs and IT resources. Now we are seeing a significant trend involving closer collaboration between IT and facilities. In some companies data centers are managed entirely within IT, from the concrete up. ITIL is reaching down to the concrete.

As data centers become more complex and the demands on facilities become more exacting, we see the need to align the unique skills and expertise of facilities managers with IT and eventually business service delivery. Facilities managers can navigate the zoning rules, plan for extreme power densities with local utilities, manage construction and expansion.

But the end goal should not be to deliver a “Tier III” data center. It should be to deliver a “Tier III” business service to the business unit. Just like managing application performance requires close alignment among computing, storage and WAN, application availability requires close alignment among facilities, IT and business units.

Whether you plan to incorporate facilities experience in IT or educate facilities managers on the goal of IT service delivery, you must address the problem from an end-to-end perspective. As they say on the London Tube (subway), “MIND THE GAP!”

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.