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Four IT executives discuss their favorite new data center technologies.

In the first of an ongoing user discussion series, four IT executives shared their thoughts on hot new data center technologies. They all agree that the flexible new infrastructures they’re building have a major upfront benefit — lower total cost of ownership — and each suggests a favorite young technology. Participating in the discussion, moderated by Signature Series Executive Editor Julie Bort, are: Tony Adams, IT analyst, J.R. Simplot, Boise, Idaho; Matthew Dattilo, vice president and CIO, PerkinElmer, Wellesley, Mass.; Carmine Iannace, manager, IT architecture, Welch's, Concord, Mass.; and Rael Paster, head of collaboration services IT, Serono, Geneva, Switzerland.

When thinking about your infrastructure over the next few years, which emerging technologies are most important to your plans and why?

Adams: Virtualization of servers and storage are our two most significant infrastructure initiatives. Both have been underway for more than a year and have proven successful enough to warrant more aggressive adoption. We have to reduce our accumulated server sprawl and prevent [more] sprawl. We have to be more flexible, and virtualization is the ultimate protection against initial sizing errors or unplanned growth. Our Intel server virtualization strategy is 100% VMware ESX with a storage-area network (SAN ). These two technologies complement each other so well that we consider their adoption to be co-requisites. We also must have a seamless disaster-recovery capability. ESX with a SAN-to-SAN remote mirror is a great disaster-recovery strategy for us.

Iannace: At Welch’s, the extended enterprise already is incorporated into our business model and, to a degree, in our IT systems. We currently use a combination of Plumtree Enterprise Portal, Oracle and a number of business intelligence tools [such as Noetix ] to collaborate with our partners and produce unique, up-to-the-minute views of sales and marketing data. In the next 18 months, we plan to allow our strategic partners not only to view but also to participate actively in live business transactions in an interactive manner.

Wireless technologies such as RFID will increase the speed and effectiveness of order and inventory tracking in manufacturing facilities and warehouses. We will see a great increase in the use of short-range wireless technologies akin to Bluetooth and ultra wideband. Forget about the ‘last mile’ — it’s the final 10 or 20 feet.

Paster: Application service provider (ASP) offerings, service-oriented architectures (SOA ), on-demand/pay-for-use models, server and storage virtualization and convergence are on the agenda for the next 18 to 60 months. Many organizations are running IT as an internal "business" these days - aligning with the needs of the business to be able to charge for these services based on consumption. Therefore ASP and SOA models are strategic and in some sense mandatory for the future of IT departments in most enterprises. Business users within the organization who see that [their] service-level agreements are met will be happier to foot the bill when they see how competitive it is to in-source vs. outsource the service.

Anything that can be done to simplify the architecture, while making it more scalable and robust with fewer machines, network ports, back-up devices, CPUs and [operating system] licenses, adds up to a lower overall TCO. Automated systems that will self-heal would be Utopia [and similar to what we’ve enjoyed on the IBM pSeries and iSeries platforms with a processor failure detection, for example, and continuity of service when this occurs].

The drive to reduce TCO also means Web services is generally strategic. Bandwidth availability and utilization are only going to continue to increase. Convergence is reaching our users at home with their ISPs. They will be expecting that same level of functionality, if not more, from their [workplace] - secure, ubiquitous access that meshes voice, video, data and allows new levels of collaboration.

Several of you named virtualization as an important technology for getting more value out of your infrastructures. How can IT better utilize existing resources?

Dattilo: We estimate our current utilization of servers at somewhere in the 10%-to-15% range, but many of our departmental applications demand their own computing environment. We're pretty excited about the possibilities of virtualization to reduce costs and simplify our server infrastructure. We're also beginning to implement [Multi-Protocol Label Switching ], which we think will allow us to do a much better job of optimizing our WAN traffic and bandwidth.

Iannace: Grid computing is an interesting concept and may hold great promise in the near future. Grid infrastructure is possibly the next logical step in what I believe is the overall commoditization of the corporate data center. Enterprises that do not embrace commodity servers, virtualization and grid computing and related technologies will not be able to compete effectively due to high operational costs and poor flexibility.

Paster: Application front-end processors [AFP] greatly enhance the use of existing resources. [With an AFP, you can] offload server I/O, [perform] data compression, multiplex client session requests, and [optimize] Web applications. We’ve seen our server requirement decrease with AFPs, and the WAN and VPN bandwidth requirements drop dramatically [in some cases, to as much as a one-ninth of the traffic]. Network-attached processing, or compute pools for portals and application servers, is a very interesting emerging technology for performance management and worth watching.

When thinking about your infrastructure over the next 18 months to 5 years, which emerging technologies are least important to your plans and why?

Dattilo: While we continue to keep an eye on convergence, voice rates have come down enough that we aren't seeing the return on the hardware investments for [voice over IP]. There may eventually be business process reasons that drive us to a convergence strategy, but I don't see cost as a compelling driver any longer.

Adams: Grid computing. We've worked hard (and spent a lot of money) over the past few years to implement an [enterprise resource planning] system that resides fully on a centralized midrange platform. To distribute processing across less-expensive systems would be impractical. Aside from our ERP platform, there are no ‘serious’ processing requirements; definitely none that would lend themselves to grid.

Iannace: Automation/self-healing networks is least important. It all seems like a lot of "magic pixie dust" marketing to me. A better "view" into the inner workings of the data center through advanced software tools and automated corrective action is one thing, but total self-healing is probably just a TV commercial during the Super Bowl.

Paster: We’ve spent a great deal of time and money on that Holy Grail called single sign-on, which relies on identity management. Frankly, this was an ambitious endeavor, which was costly, and in some senses, painful. In my humble opinion, to realize true federated identity management with our partners won’t happen any time soon. We will "federate" by having third parties be an entity in our identity management systems. Most enterprises will have to sort themselves out first and feel the pain before they can realistically consider this and the true benefits and costs involved.

IT professionals always have worked hard to make sure their efforts support business goals, but the emphasis on faster, cheaper, better has made this objective imperative. How can IT better align with business goals while still keeping its own costs and workloads reasonable?

Dattilo: We consider IT productivity to be our "ticket to the game" so we continually look for ways to demonstrate cost productivity with regard to our continuing costs of operation. We do separate out our IT investment costs, and justify those expenditures on a business ROI basis. All of our projects are sponsored by business partners, with their productivity targets built into our justifications and success metrics. IT projects compete for investment funds alongside every other investment priority, so the projects that do get funded are really owned by the full business team.

Adams: The stereotype is that systems people like to immerse themselves in their world of design, optimization, work management, automation, etc. while the business people like to concentrate on making money for the company and prefer to be insulated from the IT process. An effective relationship between the business and IT has to be in place before IT can even understand - much less meet - business goals. How the relationship is nurtured will depend upon company size, culture, product, etc.

With an effective relationship in place, IT is then able to optimize with full understanding of business goals - whether IT is treated as a business unit or simply as overhead - the business will be very aware of IT costs and performance. Some IT shops will need to concentrate more on cost while others may need to focus on performance.

When thinking about what it takes to develop a flexible and efficient infrastructure, what is one bit of hard-learned advice you can offer?

Dattilo: When we think of designing a flexible, efficient and cost-effective infrastructure, we really need to think in terms of opportunities to enact change and to implement strategy. If you don't do a good job of aligning things like leases and service contracts, you can find yourself unable to take advantage of developments in technology or price/performance.

An example of what I've run into would be a data center hosting contract that runs out in 2004, but all of the leases are in effect through 2005, and upgrades to equipment extended beyond the base equipment's lease term. In this scenario, you either lose flexibility or pay a premium to implement change. You may have accepted the lowest cost alternative for each transaction, but the total cost picture has been sub-optimized.

We make every effort to align services and equipment time horizons, so that at each major decision point we have the flexibility to choose the best alternative for us without penalty.

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