Datacentre checklist

Regional uptake of datacentres continues apace, but remains complex. ACN highlights some of the key areas to focus on in the market.
Datacentre checklist
By Eliot Beer
Sun 25 May 2008 01:00 AM

Regional uptake of datacentres continues apace, but remains complex. ACN highlights some of the key areas to focus on in the market.

For all bar the most dedicated of IT professionals, datacentres remain a dense and often uncharted area, filled with complex terminology and vested interests.

To complicate matters further, current interest in datacentres has driven evolution of the sector into overdrive, with new products and vendors entering the market every month.

Here, ACN runs down some of the key areas to look at when planning a datacentre deployment or upgrade, and highlights a few of the latest developments or major players in each sector.

Cabling and racks

It's not glamorous, but it is essential - and as much as people might like to dismiss the claims of cabling companies as so much marketing waffle, the choices organisations make about cabling today will be with them for many years - or decades - to come.

Most enterprises will now be familiar with the issues surrounding 10G cabling - and certainly in the limited environment of a datacentre, will be happier to invest in the most current cabling systems, which they might not choose to deploy to individual desks.

But datacentre managers also need to look at issues around managing cabling - especially in more complex datacentres. While cable management sounds like a mundane detail, the impact an effective management system - and procedure - can have on the day-to-day maintenance of a datacentre is dramatic.

Many companies offer up methods of dealing with an unruly mass of cables - cables which are growing increasingly thick, as speed demands dictate more shielding and higher-gauge copper cores.

US infrastructure giant Leviton alone offers horizontal, rack and frame and hook and loop cable management, a fibre raceway system, and its trade-marked Versi-Duct management system - and other cabling players such as Systimax, Nexans and Panduit all pitch equivalent offerings.

The boring-but-vital label also applies equally to racks - and again, a moment's thought would suggest that investigating the units that will house the vast majority of equipment for the coming years would be a sensible move.

Racks - or enclosures, as vendors prefer to call them - can affect everything from cabling management to thermal efficiency, power supply to ease of maintenance.

Not collapsing under the weight of half a dozen servers is also a key requirement for racks - and, levity aside, is a strong argument for thoroughly evaluating a potential purchase in advance.

Many of the same cabling vendors also offer enclosures designed specifically for modern enterprise datacentres - but the key element here is planning exactly what will be going into a datacentre, and how the centre is likely to expand in the future. This leads us neatly on to...

Servers

Think datacentres, think servers. Lots of servers.

One of the most enduring images of a modern datacentre is a rack - sorry, enclosure - filled with shiny new blade servers, probably being hot-swapped at will by cheerful-looking technicians. Hopefully the technicians are cheerful, but the image of blades-in-everything is more marketing dream than enterprise reality.

Perhaps one of the most surprising points about the modern server market is the persistence of the mainframe. Although sales have declined - rapidly - in recent years, there is still a significant market for traditional UNIX servers, as well as the cheaper and more common x86 varieties that have gained ground in recent years.

Mainframe stalwart IBM is certainly talking up its mainframe offerings, not only making them an integral part of its new - and fashionable - cloud-computing initiatives, but also releasing powerful new models, such as the Power 595, based around 32 5GHz Power 6 dual-core processors, against which eight-core offerings from x86 vendors seem weedy in comparison.

Big Blue has also rationalised its server offerings, bringing both its System p and System i lines together under the ‘Power' moniker - hopefully making the process of choosing a server somewhat more straight-forward.

Seeing as IBM had around 1000 different options for its server ranges - somewhat more than other vendors, but not necessarily dramatically more - server buying for enterprises is never going to be a wholly simple process.

What is now certain is that the CPU arms race between AMD and Intel has led to dramatically improved energy efficiency and performance from processors, and this movement is now extending to the rest of the server.

Buyers should be looking for the most modern available chipsets and server architectures - and be paying careful attention to overall power consumption figures and performance per watt.

But once the servers are in place, they still need to communicate with everything else: bring on... Switches and networking

As networking vendors - especially Cisco - seek to muscle in on more and more areas within enterprise IT, the main beneficiary has been the switch. Formerly a humble device designed to connect machines together, switches are now packing increasing amounts of - increasingly sophisticated - functionality.

Cisco's latest offering is a case in point - the Nexus 5000 series sees the vendor attempt to unify storage and regular network functions in the same box, by including both 10G Ethernet and Fibre Channel over Ethernet functionality.

The Nexus 5000 is aimed at enterprises looking to consolidate their datacentre operations, but Cisco also insists the range will be ideal for organisations building out their first datacentre - the majority of Middle Eastern firms included.

Aside from integrating with elements such as storage networks, switches are now one of the front lines for preventing attacks - and with increasing numbers of security breaches being found and exploited (Cisco suffering more than many, being the market leader), more and more vendors are putting security issues at the top of their switch agendas.

Foundry updated its ServerIron range of application delivery switches last month, to include (dauntingly-named) Federal Information Processing Standards 140-2 level 2 certified SSL encryption capabilities, as well as physical tamper evidence, various authentication modes and what the vendor calls "sophisticated key management" to encrypt web traffic.

While US enterprises especially are under enormous pressure to ensure they operate secure IT environments - thanks to the punishing compliance and disclosure laws now in place - regional firms are also coming to view security as an integral part of IT development, rather than as an adjunct or after-thought.

The flip-side to increasingly sophisticated switches and network infrastructure is the increasingly complex management required to keep them - and thus all IT operations - working - something many enterprises are increasingly looking into. But a rather more overlooked side-effect of this switch feature creep is the increasing demands they place on power and cooling resources...

Power and cooling

Servers, storage, switches, security, routers - over the years, all elements of a modern datacentre have grown increasingly power-hungry - and hot. The latest fashion in IT - ‘green' initiatives and power efficiency - have helped reverse this trend somewhat, but datacentre boxes are still hungry beasts.

Simply getting enough power into the datacentre is now a major challenge for some organisations - especially in the Middle East, where communal power infrastructures are often not equipped to cope with the large single-point drain of a packed datacentre.

But in addition to this, as the amount of power drawn goes up, the requirements for uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) also rise inexorably - and the risks of not having UPS systems also increases over time. No wonder UPS vendors are having a field day, in the region and throughout the world.

Big names such as the newly-unified and rebranded APC-MGE have been amping up their product lines, and now offer UPS solutions in - almost literally - every shape and size conceivable.

These systems go hand in hand with larger generator facilities that higher-tier datacentres are required to have - again in the Middle East, a critical feature, with many areas suffering from irregular power systems.

Even more vital for regional enterprises, though, are issues around cooling all of that hot electronic equipment. While there are plenty of point solutions for air conditioning, the most effective method of cooling a datacentre is to install a well-planned air conditioning system when the datacentre's building is first constructed.

Unfortunately this is not usually an option for enterprises - bar those lucky companies which are setting up in new premises, in which case go and have a word with your MEP contractor now.

And actually working out what the most effective configuration for cooling a datacentre will be is surprisingly complex - so-called ‘hot-spots' are likely to appear.

Help is at hand however, with a new wave of datacentre and air conditioning consultants, many of which claim to have advanced models for predicting heat generation and airflow, and can thus provide much more detailed advice on how to deploy not only air conditioning units and vents, but also racks and equipment within the datacentre.

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