June 16, 2006
Every time I've visited a big tech-enabled company, the trip inevitably ends with the data center tour. It's usually squeezed in at the end of the day, we're short on time, and nobody's quite sure what to do once we're all there. The data center pros, far from the introverted geeks people like to portray, are always smiling, outgoing people eager to talk my ear off about the latest astounding advancement in data center performance and impenetrable jargon. One gets the feeling they don't get many visitors.
But lately, everyone wants to know what's going on in the data center. A number of factors are coming together to make data centers more interesting than they've been in years. And what's happening in these data centers has the potential to change how we look at business computing.
One factor is changing technology. Darrell Dunn writes this week about blade servers (see story "HP, IBM Revamp Their Blade Server Platforms"), and we've been closely tracking advancements in virtualization. After years of ever-expanding servers and floor space, IT has valid strategic choices about how best to grow computing capacity. Blades or boxes? Increase server utilization rates with virtualization, but add management complexity and risk? Or stick with the same buy-an-app, buy-a-server approach and have to ask the board for a--gulp--new and bigger building to house it all?
Spiking energy costs double-down the stakes. As the costs to run and cool the machines begin to rival equipment costs, the operational decisions multiply in importance for any company with even a moderately good-sized data center.
But the biggest change factor is Internet-based applications. Call it Web 2.0, software-as-a-service, or any other label, it's remaking the demand landscape for data center power.
My colleague John Foley observed to me that the technology industry is getting closer to a model of computing that's been sought for years: one defined by plug-and-play simplicity, elegant interfaces, and lower costs. Google is but one example, where dozens of creative options spring forward from a minimalist home page. But it's a veneer of simplicity. The complexity's still there, it's just hidden from view, and shouldered by the people running these massive data centers.
It's a complexity that's rippling out of the data centers at places like Web search engines and into the lives of business IT managers. Ray Ozzie, days before taking over as Microsoft's chief software architect last week, warned IT pros they're going to have to start thinking differently about computing power because of what's being offered from the mega data centers being built by the likes of Microsoft and Google. Yes, he said, they'll mostly serve up consumer apps. But as Aaron Ricadela reports on InformationWeek.com, Ozzie contends companies will tap into those data centers for more powerful tools--running Microsoft online business software at the same time they're running on their own computers Windows and Office and internal applications. Ozzie paints a world of business IT that blurs what's inside and outside firewalls, where computing power comes from, and even what's business versus consumer technology.
I did once visit a hedge fund that didn't end with a data center tour. This is a business that uses electronic trading to make multimillion-dollar bets on small moves in financial markets. The closest I came was the CIO taking me past a small glass section of the wall through which I could peer upon a few rows of the data center. To get us in, he said, he'd need to go through security procedures to get clearance--for both of us. The CIO knew precisely how precious the inner workings of that room were and saw only risk in walking around in it.
IT pros without that kind of reverence for what's going on inside data centers these days are operating at their peril.
Senior Executive Editor
Rob Preston, VP/editor in chief, will return next week.
To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.
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