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What Are Data Centers and Why Do They Matter? (Part 1 of 3)

18 Aug 2016 by Howard M Cohen

What are data centers? In a nutshell, they are robust collocations of server arrays that help host data and distribute or share it. In essence, they are a way for organizations to remotely store and process, as well as share data instantly.

Every cloud service is produced at a purpose-built, special-function IT data center. Some produce data backup services while others provide productivity tools. There are also general purpose infrastructure-support providers that exist, too. But, at the end of the day, they are all data centers.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to back-up all the data on your hard drive, you would go to your local computer store and buy a tape backup device and some tape cartridges. If you wanted to protect your computer from malware, spam or other unmentionables, you’d go buy some anti-malware or anti-spam software. Likewise, if you wanted to process some words, you’d go out and buy word-processing software.

Today, in each of these scenarios, you’re more likely to subscribe to a cloud backup service, an anti-virus/anti-spam service or an online productivity suite.

The changing definition of ‘systems integrator’

Many IT service providers identify themselves as “system integrators.” For many years, that has meant they take hardware devices from various manufacturers, software from various publishers and combine those into a complete solution installed at a customer’s location. Since the products selected are chosen for being best of breed, the resulting system is the best possible solution.

But, along the way, systems integrators realized some of the services they were integrating and installing on customer premises could be delivered more efficiently and reliably from their own data center.

They could build one infrastructure to deliver those services from their own data center and sell the subsequent services to many customers. Even if they charged each customer less than they would to install the service on the customer’s premises, they still made more money.

Defining the cloud: Data center 101

Two key definitions in the IT world changed forever. The first was the definition of being an “integrator.” They were integrating both hardware and software on customers’ premises, as well as integrating services produced in their own data center into the solution.

And at the same time, the “cloud” was born. Interestingly enough, most people who wonder, just what a data center is are likely already using it via cloud hosting. Whether this is from a computer program like Office 365, or from a cellphone app they use, the truth is that many of us use data centers every day and do not even realize it.

Perhaps the most pragmatic definition of cloud computing services, beyond what is embodied in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) definition, is that cloud services are delivered from a purpose-built, dedicated data center operated by IT professionals.

It follows that there really is no such thing as “the cloud.” There is no singular repository, or place, that contains all the powerful services and distributes them out to everyone. Instead, there are many clouds all over the world. In the IT world, we refer more commonly to these many “clouds,” simply, as “data centers.”

To put it into better perspective, if you have ever wondered where Google stores all its data, the answer is in their data center. The same goes for just about every other large web service you know and love. Twitter and Facebook data centers share many commonalities, as do countless others.

The future of cloud computing: Combining data centers

We’re reaching an important transition in the history of cloud computing, a maturing of the digital world that began with the thought that data would travel best in binary packets of ones and zeroes. These changes are leading to the development of the digital economy, and are forcing the heads of data centers to focus on agility, innovation and gaining a competitive advantage. However, data centers must also use the latest technologies and integrate through intelligent software layers.

“At the same time, there will be an increase in investment around the Nexus of Forces (cloud, social, mobile and information) as many businesses focus on growth and new opportunities,” according to Gartner’s report, “How to Select the Correct Data Center Option for the Digital World,” published in October 2015.

Gartner recommends a modern data center strategy, including three different data center personality models to classify your workloads. The analyst firm refers to the first of these “personalities” as “Agility and Innovation.”

Agility and innovation in the new digital world

What we have witnessed in the past decade since the introduction of the concept of “cloud computing” is the enablement of a far more modular approach to computing altogether.

Previously, as discussed at the outset of this article, adding functionality to any system required a purchase, usually of products. In the consumer framework implied earlier, this seems simple enough. But in the corporate framework, purchasing something requires research and development of the right solution, requests for approval of allocated funds for the purchase, vendor approvals, negotiations, the processing of purchase orders and, ultimately, a lengthy project to install and implement the products purchased.

This is clearly not a process designed to promote agility or innovation. In fact, it is the antithesis.

Cloud computing changed everything by eliminating the purchases altogether and replacing them with simple subscriptions. If a project requires data back-up protection, someone clicks on a provider’s portal and subscribes to the service. It is then instantly provisioned and quickly configured to provide the required services. Number crunching requiring more processors, more memory, more storage or other resources takes immediate advantage of the “elasticity” of cloud computing and requests the needed resources, which are also immediately provisioned and configured.

There is no delay. Response is immediate. Decision-makers can respond to opportunities with great agility to fuel their innovative ideas.

Opposing forces

It does seem, however, that every advance in computing strategy brings opposing forces face to face. Mobile computing is an excellent example. Users want quick, nimble, unobstructed access to their resources without being hampered by extra keystrokes or procedures. Corporate wants to provide that, but puts more emphasis on authentication, authorization and other network and data security concerns, which unavoidably introduce more keystrokes and procedures. Compromises must be reached.

The same is true in the new digital world with what Gartner refers to as the “bimodal IT” model of computing.

“Gartner research has shown that the tension between doing things safely and scalabley on the one hand, and quickly, flexibly exploring new opportunities and threats on the other, has been massively amplified by the emerging digital world. Not dealing with this tension results in dysfunctional internal behaviors and competitive weakness. Leading organizations have begun operating IT in two modes to address this issue. Gartner calls this type of operating "bimodal." Traditional (Mode 1) IT needs a subculture focused on delighting the internal and external customer. Nonlinear (Mode 2) IT needs a subculture focused on constantly exploring new technologies and innovations, while continually pivoting and adapting.”

Managing bimodal IT

In the following articles in this series, we’ll explore the balance between the agility and innovation “personality” of these IT data centers, and the other two personalities, “Intelligence and Integration” and “Risk and Availability.” We’ll also focus on the implications of this shift from integrating products to integrating services on the worlds of the “Value-Added Reseller” (VAR) and the IT Service Provider (ITSP).

In the meantime, download Gartner’s report, “How to Select the Correct Data Center Option for the Digital World,” to learn more about prescribing the best, most effective data center strategy for your customers. 

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