Plug and pay

Arabian Computer News explores some of the critical issues behind datacentre infrastructure.
Plug and pay
By Eliot Beer
Mon 13 Aug 2007 03:36 PM

In many ways, IT is one of the most exciting industries to work in. It brings fast-paced development of shiny, science-fiction like products to the masses - both consumers and enterprises - pushing forward the boundaries of what is possible.

Not only does IT deliver things such as instant, global communications, unimaginable processing power, and storage that would be inconceivable just decades ago, but it has also now pushed into the realms of high science - quantum computers, molecular computers and, artificial intelligence are now the vanguard of IT research.

Any infrastructure replacement involves mirroring existing server and storage facilities to allow services to be maintained while the network is disconnected.

And yet, when it comes to the core components, IT still comes down to a lot of boxes - in various colours - connected by wire. Lots of wire.

However apparently unglamorous the infrastructure is that IT systems sit in, it is still an absolutely vital component. Considering the value of the systems that will sit on the infrastructure - significant in itself - will be overshadowed by the value of the information and services running on the systems, making sure a datacentre's fundamentals are right is as critical as it gets.

Simon Wilson, portfolio leader for enterprise data solutions at Nortel, says he sees the increasing centralisation and integration of business systems in the datacentre as a key reason to focus on the fundamental infrastructure: "We're now seeing large organisations consolidate their phone systems, for example, from PBXs in every office to now having two large IP media gateways and call servers. These sit in perhaps two datacentres - so suddenly they have more of their eggs in fewer baskets.

"Along with core enterprise systems, we're also seeing much greater penetration by customers into enterprises' systems - your customers, sales force, staff and suppliers are all coming in through the network. You're bringing everything you do together - and it all sits in the datacentre. Obviously this increases the amount of technology you have in there - servers, storage, security systems, high-speed internet links," Wilson continues.

"All these factors come in on top of each other, to make the datacentre something to be concerned about - and something that demands a lot of planning and forethought."

Making the right choice at the start of a project will not only have an impact on the datacentre's performance at its launch, but more importantly will go on to dictate how the facility performs in the years to come - or how much it costs to get the required performance.

"One of the most important things - and one of the most costly to change at a later date - is the fundamental physical layer in a datacentre," comments Ciaran Forde, managing director for the Middle East, Pakistan and Africa at Systimax, the market-leading cable provider. "The criticality of getting that right, on day one, is sometimes far higher than choosing the types of server or other active equipment, which can easily be changed."

Beyond just the choice of IT components -such as cabling or switching components - making good datacentre infrastructure choices is about finding the right location, and designing the right facility. With a working life potentially of decades, a datacentre should be ready to accommodate the future requirements of the business.
Forde expands: "The big challenge is the fabric of the building, the location of the building, the base construct inside - and the transmission layer. These are not the most IT-oriented elements - you have IT guys, who are much more used to active devices and networking, working on these issues."

Tarek Helmy, regional director for Nexans Cabling Solutions in the Middle East, also emphasises the cost of moves, adds and changes: "Unplanned replacement of cabling is not easy since it is installed under a raised floor in the majority of cases, which is difficult and expensive to access. Any replacement involves mirroring existing server and storage facilities to allow services to be maintained while the network is disconnected. To enable this, an organisation must replicate networking hardware, servers and storage devices, usually at a remote site - this all adds to unplanned costs."

As with most things - in life as well as business - the choices enterprises make come down to cost. But with long-term projects such as datacentres, working out the optimal spend can be complicated by the fast-moving nature of technology. The budget allocated for infrastructure at the planning stage, for example, may not be appropriately sufficient 18 months later when the IT infrastructure implementation actually takes place.

"Some of the fundamental mistakes are made early on at the budgetary stage - if you look at a typical datacentre project, the concept was often born two to three years before. Within that time, you generally find there's been some fairly significant changes in technology and trends," confirms Wes Tweedley, regional technical manager for the Middle East, Pakistan and Africa at Systimax.

While cost is a major consideration, many businesses are increasingly seeing datacentres as profit enablers, rather than cost centres, according to Mazen Hamadallah, country senior officer for the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain at Alcatel-Lucent.

"Today, decision-makers have to take a look at the bigger picture and conceive datacentres as a business enabler," he explains. "In general, CEOs believe that technology has a larger role to play in their business strategies, helping them capitalise on strategic opportunities. Business strategy is a long-term vision and to include datacentres in this strategy is the assurance of a project that will still be viable in the next five years."

Even with the datacentre acting as a business enabler, decision makers must still balance the capital expenditure of the project with the operational requirements coming out of the business. Laurent Amestoy, regional manager for Reichle & De Massari (R&M), is sceptical of there being a ‘right' answer to the question of cost.

"You have the people talking about applications, from the user side, the IT people talking about costs, and then the CEO or CFO would have to decide on how future-proof they want the system to be," he says. "There is no magic formula - in the end it is down to up-front investment, and the business will have to decide the appropriate level for the company."

Further complicating the question of how much to spend on infrastructure is how to predict what future upgrades the datacentre will need - more of an issue for active infrastructure components such as routers and switches, but increasingly a concern for components such as racks and structured cabling.

"The majority of the cost of running a datacentre will be in the opex - so although everybody negotiates a good deal when they're purchasing equipment, that legacy they're left with will be there for the life of the products," comments Nortel's Wilson. "Customers now want to sweat the assets a lot more - in the past we saw three to five years between refreshes; suddenly it's five to seven years, and beyond. The foundations you're laying today have to be lasting a lot longer."

Amestoy makes a final observation on how to approach infrastructure planning: "Businesses often try to consider each aspect of a datacentre separately - trunking, power, AC, cabling - rather than an integrated whole. This is actually the biggest challenge. For the companies that have little experience, this is the area they spend most of their time on."

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