Feature

CIOs debate the future of the datacentre

In recent years, the datacentre has been at the heart of most IT leaders' efforts to cut costs and optimise IT service delivery.

Technologies such as virtualisation have transformed the operation of datacentres – but not necessarily removed the complexity inherent in legacy systems.

In future, with greater business demands for web and mobile access to applications and data residing in the datacentre, the need for greater flexibility is only going to grow – and such complexity will increasingly be the enemy of achieving the desired flexibility.

To discuss the best way forward and the future of the datacentre, IT leaders met at a roundtable event hosted by Computer Weekly in association with Oracle.

The influence of regulation 

Sean Curran, chief operating officer of investment management firm CCLA, said: “The future of the datacentre is not driven by technology, it’s driven by regulations.”

Energy efficiency is at the heart of much legislation, and reducing the cost of power to the datacentre goes hand-in-hand with going green, but there are concerns this will affect legacy datacentres.

Martyn Boxall, UK datacentre manager at Telefonica O2 said: “The EU Code of Conduct on datacentres will bite all datacentre owners eventually.”

With the cost of energy increasing, Boxall said it is possible to move to wherever power is cheapest.

Other legislation covering data protection, however, means CIOs are concerned about where data resides.

Case study: SThree and the commodity datacentre 

Lance Fisher, global CIO of specialist recruitment company SThree, said his focus is not just on the datacentre and its evolution – it is on what you do with data. “These are two distinct perspectives – data and how we use it is key,” he said.

The company, which has 64 offices in 18 countries, consolidated 68 databases into a single Oracle Exadata system, following a risk assessment by Fisher which highlighted that a fragmented and expensive legacy system was unable to support the business and projected growth.

“We have grown organically, but now have the same technologies wherever we are, and the Oracle database is a key part,” he said.

Fisher, who comes from a financial services background, said matching a recruitment candidate with a client is simply a transaction, but the secret in making a successful match is the data. To this end, having an optimised datacentre is fundamental, and Fisher foresees a move to the cloud.

“I see the future as cloud, and to get there through three key stages – getting core technologies to be the same; having a hosted facility; and then moving to cloud services. Before, the attitude was if you didn’t build the frame room, you couldn’t control it, and people could get into the network, but now that has changed and the datacentre is becoming a commodity,” he said.

Fisher believes the differentiator is data, search algorithms and being clever with applications. “I don’t want to have to worry about the hardware, the rack or the operating systems. All I want to have to worry about is the data or the application and how I gel it and knit it together with back-office systems,” he said.

Fisher does a lot of work justifying the cost of IT. “It boils down to cost per user per month, and the whole of IT is a figure per month per user,” he said.

Within that figure are all costs such as capital expenditure and licensing, but although it is easy for Fisher to see how costs change, he said the challenge from public cloud services is they are offered as a cost per user. “That’s great for start-ups because the clever bit is in their invention or intellectual property – it isn’t in hosting.”

He sees the future of the datacentre as giving value to the business and relying on cloud services to prevent the problem of legacy becoming outdated at an increasingly fast pace. “There are two iPads coming out this year, for example. The rate of change is becoming harder and harder to keep up with. The datacentre will become just a commodity,” said Fisher.

However, the future of data is something CIOs will have to grapple with. “Data is increasing on personal devices and increasingly used in different sources. Lots of that data needs to be protected. For example, we have to be anal about protecting CVs and who sees them,” said Fisher.

He said the future plays into where data is going and the control of that data. “You increasingly need to know who has control of data and where it resides. I spend a lot of time thinking about that problem.”

However, moving to the cloud is just a matter of time and money. “It’s a timing issue. We haven’t got Microsoft’s Azure yet, but it’s inevitable if the price is right,” he said.

“I need to know where the data is. The reality is people abuse it, but increasingly we are becoming more anal about it,” said Lance Fisher, global CIO of recruitment company SThree.

IT leaders need to be able to have control of data as well as access to data – these considerations affect use of the cloud and datacentre location choices.

North America has just experienced a natural disaster," said Vijay Mistry, head of European datacentres at Morgan Stanley. "At what point do you stop caring? You need the confidence of uptime and availability of your service in the cloud.”

Fisher said CIOs must maintain control of data.

“With any supplier going down the cloud route, you have to plan for that,” he said.

As for legislation concerning data protection and the movement of data, Fisher said it is possible to ensure personal data is protected and stays within its legislative boundaries, but derived data – such as the results of anonymised queries – can be subjected to analysis elsewhere.

“You can split the model easily,” he said.

Geoff Linnell, group CIO at Celerant Consulting, said datacentre outsourcing can give access to better skills than he could recruit, but data protection is an overriding concern.

“I spend more time with lawyers to find which country has maximum protection for data rather than discussing box and type. I need to know where a provider is on legislation,” he said.

Cloud versus build-your-own 

The argument for cloud has not been won outright. Although many CIOs and suppliers are heading in that direction, Damien Daupeyroux, UK IT manager at recruitment firm Ambition, said: “We have been disappointed with software-as-a-service [SaaS] and cloud offerings and are thinking of build-your-own.”

The size of an organisation and how many datacentres it already has helps determine whether cloud is a viable option. O2's Boxall said smaller firms would choose outsourcing, but that Telefonica is doing the opposite and offering managed datacentre services itself.

“The frame room is already heavily commoditised. We’re vertically integrating and joining with the Rackspaces of this world and offering a service,” he said.

Many CIOs opt for cloud for improved disaster recovery capability, but cloud is not infallible – just as build-your-own comes with no 100% guarantees.

Guy Ruddock, vice-president of design and delivery for datacentre services at Colt, said that in both models it comes down to resilience, reliability and uptime, but he questioned who has the capability to build a datacentre from scratch.

“We spend a fortune keeping up with legislation and on efficiency,” he said.

Matthew Malthouse, datacentre manager at Guardian News & Media, said the firm built a datacentre five years ago, but doubts whether it would do the same again.

“You wouldn’t build on that same scale today,” he said.

But Morgan Stanley's Mistry said CIOs wanting to move to the cloud are often hampered by decisions they made years ago, pointing out that business forecasts have no clue on growth and the appetite is not there to build your own datacentre.

“We are looking at a modular datacentre,” he added.

Si Chan, global datacentre architect at Manpower Group, said he has no problem with a hybrid approach to the datacentre based on cloud and co-location hosting.

“One gives you more control and the other more freedom to do what you want to do in the business, but isn’t it inefficient [to do both]?” he said.

In creating a private cloud, it is also vital to think about the network infrastructure and data transfer, especially if office locations are global.

Corrine Dive-Reclus, senior vice-president of enabling technologies at Pearson, said: “You need to think about data transfer across the datacentre and data traffic across applications. There is a careful topology to think about.”

Paul Flannery, senior director for server product management at Oracle, said: “Choice starts not at the datacentre, but at the application. Very few companies can deliver hybrid in the cloud – we have developed middleware to enable that to happen.”

Datacentre requirements 

Colt's Ruddock said many CIOs want flexibility from their datacentre to match changes in the business, which is not possible if you buy a datacentre.

“If you have tonnes of heavy duty equipment, but it later becomes unnecessary, you want some chance to get money back,” he said. 

Richard Stern, datacentre and transformation manager at chip designer ARM, said bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to energy efficiency and keeping power costs down – a requirement for all CIOs.

“The Europeans are way ahead of the Americans, who are not innovating and are stuck in the same mentality as towards their cars – biggest is best – but that’s inefficient,” he said.

However, the IT leaders agreed that in some European countries, change in the datacentre may be slowed because of employment laws.

“It is easier to change in the UK than anywhere else,” said Gareth Webb, database infrastructure architect at Vodafone.

In less-developed European countries, however, the lack of legacy means they can embrace new technology more readily. “In Eastern Europe there is little legacy, and the attitude is, do it now to embrace innovation,” said Flannery.

Webb added: “Carrying legacy is not a drawback, but being unable to adopt new working processes is. If you drive cost out of the datacentre, then you find people don’t want to use new features because they say their job is being changed."

We have been disappointed with SaaS and cloud offerings and are thinking of build-your-own

Damien Daupeyroux, UK IT manager, Ambition

The datacentre is a commodity 

Ruddock highlighted how CIOs may think their requirements are unique, but often they are not.

“Over 85% say their datacentres have very distinct requirements, but they all have very similar requirements,” he said.

Convincing the business that the datacentre is becoming a commodity is not a problem, said SThree's Fisher – it is the IT team that needs persuading, fearing the effect on their jobs.

Fisher spends a lot of time working out the cost of IT and talks about cost per user when building a business case. “As the business grows, the cost per user should come down. By commoditising, it should bring the cost down further,” he said.

Service outages also affect cost, and need to be accounted for.

The O2 network outages earlier this year were in the public view. Boxall said the internal implications were clear because cost is calculated by "customer lost hours" (CLH).

“We had hundreds of millions of CLH due to an outage on the servers. We count them up and put a monetary value to it,” he said.

Flannery said he is not so sure platforms are as commoditised as some people like to think and there is a reputational risk from making the wrong decisions.

“CIOs are making bets on the next five years – what’s relevant and deliverable, and making decisions about what’s most appropriate in a market which is potentially polarising,” he said.

IT leaders need a vision of how to drive cost out of the datacentre so they can focus on innovation.

“Up to 85% of budget is spent on keeping the lights on – we want to change that, so not everything is spent on re-engineering IT infrastructure,” he said.

Vodafone's Webb said it is no longer about what IT can do – it is about what the business can do with data: “There is an opportunity for the business to change significantly, but the business has to understand the opportunities and IT must give those opportunities."


Image: Thinkstock


This was first published in December 2012