How to Repurpose an Obsolete On-Premises Data Center

Data centers have a finite lifespan. They can also be successfully reinvented.

John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author

January 13, 2022

4 Min Read
physical building leading to cloud against yellow backdrop
JL via Alamy Stock

There comes a time in the life of every data center when its owner faces a stark choice: update, repurpose, or unload the facility. In 2019, Gartner predicted that by 2025, 80% of enterprises will shut down their traditional data centers. Today, the trend shows no sign of slowing down.

A “cloud-first” mentality has gripped today’s IT world, and one result has been vacating the physical data center space, observes Steven Carlini, vice president of innovation and data center at energy and automation technology provider Schneider Electric. “Similar to the vacating of office space by desk workers due to the pandemic, lots of on-premises IT equipment is no longer needed, leading to vacant data center space.” He adds that the trend has spurred a growing number of enterprises to repurpose older and functionally obsolete properties and spaces. “In real estate jargon it’s called adaptive reuse,” Carlini notes.

When it comes to repurposing an existing data center, the first step is assessing the facility and its assets. “You must understand your current hardware lifecycle, power, cooling, and physical security before setting out to make any changes,” says James Obukhovsky, associate director of cloud services at IT services and infrastructure consultancy Netrix.

Multiple Options

In most cases, enterprise-owned data centers are regarded by management as cost centers. “Any conversion leading to income-generating functions is usually welcomed by upper management,” Carlini says. “For example, if a retailer has allocated valuable space for IT equipment that cannot be outsourced and/or consolidated, that space can be used for income-generating shelf space or additional storage space.” Another approach might be to lease or sell the unused data center to an organization that can use the facility as a warehouse or distribution facility.

Many data centers feature tall ceilings, open spaces, and high power and cooling capabilities. All of these attributes could be attractive to potential buyers or lessees, such as enterprises looking for a laboratory or testing facility. Another option could be targeting manufacturers specializing in some type of demanding industrial processing, such as water desalinization or electrolysis for hydrogen production, Carlini suggests.

Obukhovsky notes that enterprises also have the option of transforming an obsolete data center into a disaster recovery facility. Look at the existing hardware and other resources to see what can be leveraged, he recommends. “Building a resilient multi-phased approach will ensure that you have a method to centrally manage and automate across your new and old data center.”

If you want to repurpose a data center for disaster recovery, the first thing you need to do is wipe everything … so digital files can't be traced back by hackers, advises Ryan Fyfe, COO of Workpuls, a workforce analytics software firm. “The best way to do this is with zero-knowledge encryption, which breaks down clean data into codes that can't be read.”

Equipment Repurposing

Once a data center has been decommissioned, remaining servers and storage resources can be repurposed for applications further down the chain of business criticality. “Servers that no longer offer critical core functions may still serve other departments within the organization as backups,” Carlini says. Administrators can then migrate less important applications to the older hardware and the IT hardware itself can be located, powered, and cooled in a less redundant and secure way. “The older hardware can continue on as backup/recovery systems, or spare systems that are ready for use should the main cloud-based systems go off-line,” he suggests.

Equipment Recycling

Besides reducing the need to purchase new hardware, reassigning last-generation data center equipment within the organization also raises the enterprise's green profile. It shows that the enterprise cares about the environment and doesn’t want to add to the already existing data equipment in data centers, says Ruben Gamez CEO of electronic signature tool developer SignWell. “It's also very sustainable.”

When data center hardware is totally obsolete and not suitable for any future use, it should be responsibly scrapped. Gamez recommends choosing an external vendor to handle the job. “A prior plan must be communicated as to how each step will be executed,” he says. Ask the vendor it outsources any part of the process and check their credibility. “Understand their security protocols for recycling,” Gamez advises.

Yet Another Option

While dedicated data centers are on the decline, there are many enterprises that, for one reason or another, still need to operate their own facility. “I think the best use for a data center is as a data center,” states Steve Padgett, global CIO at Actian, a data management, cloud integration, and analytics solutions provider. “The equipment is rather specialized and tearing the equipment out for another purpose is terribly expensive,” he notes. “As a society, we would be better off if all this equipment does not wind up in a landfill or in electronics recycling.”

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About the Author(s)

John Edwards

Technology Journalist & Author

John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic Design. He has also written columns for The Economist's Business Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers' Communications Direct. John has authored several books on business technology topics. His work began appearing online as early as 1983. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, he wrote daily news and feature articles for both the CompuServe and Prodigy online services. His "Behind the Screens" commentaries made him the world's first known professional blogger.

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