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9/27/2007
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Art Wittmann
Art Wittmann
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IT Survival Guide: Build An Automated, Modular Data Center

Get off the one-off treadmill--today, standardization does not have to mean inflexibility.

You know those guys who start out with a stack of plates and a handful of sticks and eventually manage to get a bunch of platters spinning away? Most IT organizations, unfortunately, manage their data centers an awful lot like that. Each application requires care to get it loaded, you tweak and prod it until finally it's spinning, then you don't dare do anything but fine-tuning ... which you have to do constantly.

In fact, most IT departments look sillier than those sideshow guys because none of IT's plates look the same, and most require specially trained administrators to get them on the stick in the first place.

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No wonder it's become fashionable to question the value of IT: Where most enterprises have elevated their core business to a science, IT has largely remained a dark art, with each application and installation uniquely imagined and implemented.

The Opportunity
>> COST CUTTING
The typical data center is grossly inefficient. Standardization and better utilization of existing resources should yield steady savings.
>> INNOVATION
Data center automation results in savings that can be used to develop game-changing IT capabilities for use elsewhere in your company.
>> KEYS TO SUCCESS
When redesigning for power savings, get buy-in from management and business managers, as you'll be messing with the infrastructure that supports applications central to their functions. Professional services are worth considering--this is their area of specialty, not yours.
In the data center, uniqueness and specialization have resulted in waste--in servers, storage, power and cooling systems, and perhaps most egregiously in dedicated labor. A clue to the future comes from those who run data centers as their core business: Managed hosting provider Rackspace has standardized on 2U (two rack unit) servers and strives to minimize any variations. Today it might be a Web server, tomorrow it might be running SQL Server, and the next day it might be used in an Exchange cluster. On top of its fairly generic hardware, Rackspace is increasingly using VMware virtual machines and VMotion management software to flexibly meet the needs of its customers. Think of it as an automated plate spinner.

CONFORMITY IS COOL
Standardization and modularization go beyond the same server form factor. While it may have made sense in the mainframe era to design and build data center physical systems to meet the unique needs of the installation, it makes zero sense now. With standard-size racks housing standard-size servers, you can certainly meet your needs with standardized power and cooling systems.

Almost every power and cooling vendor today will work with you to preconfigure systems. Just like car shopping, you pick the model and color and choose from a few option packages; the rest is standardized. The result is a system that's less expensive to buy and own and that behaves far more predictably than its custom counterparts--so much so that the physical room itself need not even have been designed to be a data center.

Particularly for small and midsize data centers--say, those less than 3,000 square feet--the raised floor may no longer be necessary, and in fact you may be far better off without one. In-row and rack-based cooling systems provide the modularity needed and can be deployed in almost any interior room. It can be as simple as this: Get the physical security right, make sure you can pull enough power and access for external chillers, then have your modular data center dropped off at the loading dock.

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