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State of Technology: Evolving the Data Center

For years, Tim Hebert, COO of Atrion Networking, has been keeping a close eye on data-center developments from both IT vendors and customers. And after a long drought in spending, he likes what he's seeing now.

For years, Tim Hebert, COO of Atrion Networking, has been keeping a close eye on data-center developments from both IT vendors and customers. And after a long drought in spending, he likes what he's seeing now. Hebert says customers are once again looking to innovation as a way to trim data-center size, lower power consumption and heat, gain utilization efficiencies and turn IT into more of a service. And the vendors are climbing over one another to fill demand, with a raft of data-center initiatives coming from the likes of APC, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Sun, VMware and others.

Hebert's not alone in his optimism. In VARBusiness' recent quarterly State of Technology survey (this one devoted to servers and storage), a high percentage of solution providers cited advances in hardware and software technologies, from blade servers to virtualization software, as a prime driver for sales in the coming year. And those technologies are laying the groundwork for even bigger changes to the data center in years to come, they say.

"Things have been changing drastically," says Hebert, whose Warwick, R.I., company hosts and operates cutting-edge data centers for customers such as K-B Toys and its 650 stores across the country. "The major trends we're seeing are, No. 1, server consolidation, lots of blade-server implementations and storage solutions designed to centralize the footprint of the data center."

Add to that the burgeoning market for virtualization software, multicore chips and the growing roles of VARs as day-to-day stewards of their customers' data centers--both remotely and in a hosting capacity--and the stage is being set for a new era of data-center refurbishment.

"I think you'll see partners taking a bigger role in [data center] services and a lesser one in the lower-level tasks of setting up and configuring the box," says Paul Miller, vice president in charge of industry-standard servers and blade systems at HP. "Just as data center admins will have to work at a more strategic level, leading-edge partners will have to take a holistic approach as opposed to just fulfilling an order."

But getting smarter about providing higher-level services is only half of what VARs must do to be successful. They also have to bone up on the technologies that will fuel future data centers and then apply their own value-add to the solutions.

Data-Center Economics

Many of the shifts in the data center are being driven by business demands--growing volumes of digital data, legislation-compliance requirements, labor arbitrage, more efficient power usage and cooling technologies.

With the overall economics of the data center being as important as its constituent technology pieces, increasing each server's utilization will be very much front-of-mind for administrators. Virtualization should help that cause. Most servers are now being utilized at only 5 percent to 20 percent of their capacity. But as more software gets delivered as a service among servers, most of the remaining servers will be working at 80 percent to 90 percent capacity over the next three or four years.

Virtualization not only will allow VARs to dramatically reduce the number of servers in a data center; it also will virtualize specific functions of a centralized server operating system or application, allowing servers to more efficiently run far-flung pieces of an enterprise. The technology will enable larger companies to set up second and third data centers for disaster recovery at a fraction of what it would normally cost to do so.

"Virtualization is a huge element today," says Lewis Johnson, president of Siwel Consulting. "There's an increasing amount of interest in it...Even though the software in VMware is expensive, when you balance out that cost, you can run 10 servers on one machine. It's a very attractive process."

From IBM's perspective, the evolution of the data center is all about simplification, and that gives virtualization a starring role. At a recent technology launch in New York, Bill Zeitler, senior vice president and group executive of IBM's Systems and Technology Group, told attendees that "virtualization is an important component" of simplifying large data centers.

When it comes to virtualization, one can't ignore the considerable efforts of VMware, which has commanded a strong presence in the space and recently released a free version of its VMware Server to help seed the marketplace. Microsoft, which offers a competing product, called Virtual Server, plans in 2007 to bake its HyperVisor virtualization technology directly into Windows Vista, pushing virtualization capabilities beyond even the data center to everyday users.

Next: Blade Power

Blade Power

As VARs know, blade servers are already play a key role in shrinking the physical size of data centers. By 2010, blade servers will be significantly more powerful and offer an attractive price/performance option. There's a wrinkle, however; as administrators potentially deploy hundreds of blades over time, serious systems management issues will arise, says Michele Bailey, research director for enterprise servers at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

Meanwhile, Big Blue is bringing to market a new generation of its BladeCenter computing platform, which pools not only servers but also the storage associated with them. The new line boasts significant improvements in power utilization, running at 31 watts per processor and 180 watts per blade.

Sun is planning to launch new energy-efficient blades later this year, but the vendor is already talking up improvements in power and cooling in its new Galaxy and T1000/T2000 SPARC servers. The company refers to a benchmark for its servers called SWAP: space, watts and power. At the current pace, by 2010 customers will need more processing capacity and data centers will require three times the power consumption they do today, generating exponentially more heat, says Scott McNealy, Sun's chairman and CEO. "Trying to cool those suckers off is getting to be a real challenge," he says.

Get Adapted

HP has evangelized what it calls the Adaptive Enterprise, which focuses on applying computing resources as business requirements change. HP is now advocating a new concept it calls the Next Generation Data Center (NGDC).

Rolled out at last December's annual analyst conference, the NGDC is being touted as pivotal in removing cost and complexity from the data center. "It's advancing the adaptive enterprise," HP president and CEO Mark Hurd told Wall Street.

So how does HP plan to pull it off? Through software-based components on its OpenView platform, HP sees an opportunity to pool server and storage resources and provide tools to manage remote resources and automate many processes that now require manual administration. "This isn't going to slow down; it's going to keep gaining momentum," Hurd said.

HP executive vice president Ann Livermore, who oversees the company's Technology Solutions Group, says software will be key in pooling systems and automating processes. That will come from research out of HP Labs and through numerous acquisitions--some completed and others to come in the future.

Those recent investments include the acquisitions of RLX, for tools to manage Linux-based blades, AppIQ, for a storage and server resource-allocation app, and Peregrine Systems, which makes software that provides proactive systems management.

By integrating automation and virtualization into the data center, one technician now required to manage 20 servers would be able to handle 200, says Livermore.

Meanwhile, mainframes will remain an important pillar of the new data center, although most of the flashier technical innovations will be introduced on much less expensive distributed servers.

"When we talk to users on site, the oldest guy in the room is always the most appreciative of what we do because they know how hard it is to recreate what mainframe operating systems can do," says David Crosbie, CTO of Leostream, a Waltham, Mass., specialist in virtualized disaster recovery and rapid backup software.

It's in the Chips

Multicore x86- and x64-based processors--as many as eight cores to a single die--also figure prominently in changing the dynamics inside and outside data centers. Both Intel and AMD are moving into that space.

For its part, Sun, in collaboration with longtime partner Fujitsu, will be releasing new SPARC processors--that will deliver mainframe-class computing--by year's end.

On top of that, Sun is evolving its N1 strategy to systems-management software that will provide a common interface for virtualized systems. Also, AMD's and Intel's extension of the instruction sets on their next-generation processors will render virtualization software more efficient and will decrease processor overhead, says Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 servers for Sun's Network Systems Group. "With the new instruction sets, customers will be able to leverage more of the capability of the processor," he says.

Next: Cooling Down

Cooling Down

Seeing the movement toward blade servers and modular systems with small form factors, last month, American Power Conversion (APC) unveiled a new power and cooling architecture better suited for these environments. That architecture will be embedded in racks rather than existing in central systems.

Given that administrators will be faced with denser, more-heat-generating computing environments by 2010, vendors and partners are planning to invest generously in a range of newer cooling technologies. "You're talking about eight to 10 kilowatts of power consumption at the (x86-based) rack level in three years, and maybe even north of that," says Frank Gillett, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research. "The short answer is that water cooling is coming back into the data center and it isn't for mainframes," Gillett says.

Storing It All

In the near future, data centers are expected to have a single backbone that will tie together all physical and virtual resources across an enterprise. That sort of speed and power, along with virtualization, will make it difficult to distinguish the roles between servers and massive storage devices, according to HP's Miller.

Storage virtualization will exist in two forms--via products such as IBM's SAN Volume Controller (SVC) or by pooling multiple SANs, network-attached storage and other storage media. The former is most common today, with SVC virtualizing multiple tiers of storage on a SAN, but the goal, over time, is to pool media.

"The vision is one where you can look into your data center where you have multiple SANs and you don't have to deal with them individually and separately," says Charlie Andrews, director of storage products at IBM. But rival EMC sees it another way. For large data centers, much of that virtualization will be done through the network and SAN switches provided by the likes of Cisco, Brocade and McData.

"Virtualization at the network level gives customers the choice to do things they have never done before, such as keep mission-critical applications running, available and live while still being able to make changes under the covers," says Ken Steinhardt, director of technology analysis at EMC, whose InVista product is based on that model.

So where does EMC see the future of storage virtualization? "Today we have taken a position of being able to virtualize NAS, as well as the SAN environment," Steinhardt says. "I envision a day when the entire network infrastructure is able to be virtualized."

According to most observers, whether it's virtualization, storage pooling or blade servers, new technologies for the data center should bring about the move toward IT as a service, albeit slowly.

"Future data centers will work a lot like the Staples Easy Button," says Sean Brown, CEO of U.S. Network Management, an authorized Dell reseller. "They're going to be all about centralized management and infrastructure."

Next: Searchable database

Search our 2006 State of Technology: Storage and Servers Research
Select a question:
SERVER QUESTIONSWhich server architecture are you planning to sell, recommend or influence in the next year?Estimate the percent of your server revenues from the following types of server processors for the past year.Estimate the percent of your server revenues from the following types of server processors for the next year.Estimate the percent of your server revenues generated from the following server technologies for the past year.Estimate the percent of your server revenues which will come from the following technologies in the next year.Why are these server technologies/product sets important to your business?Which platform has the most potential for technical/business innovation? What are the most innovative attributes of server technology that will help your business in the next year?How often do you evaluate new or existing server products/technologies?When looking for new server technologies and products, you look to:As a VAR, how are you being innovative with server products/solutions?As a solution provider, how do you innovate in the selling, deployment and service of server technologies?When evaluating a new server technology vendor, what are your most important considerations?Which vendors offer the best support, guidance and collaboration on innovating server technology?Which of the following vendors do you consider the most innovative when it comes to virtualization technology?STORAGE QUESTIONSWhich storage technologies are you planning to sell, recommend or influence in the next year?Estimate the percent of your storage revenues generated from the following storage technologies in the past year.Estimate the percent of your storage revenues which will come from the following technologies in the next year.Why are these storage technologies/product sets important to your business?What are the most innovative attributes of storage technology that will help your business in the next year?How often do you evaluate new or existing storage products/technologies?When looking for new storage technologies and products, you look to:As a VAR, how are you being innovative with STORAGE products/solutions?As a solution provider, how do you innovate in the selling, deployment and service of storage technologies?When evaluating a new storage technology vendor, what are your most important considerations?Which vendors offer the best support, guidance and collaboration on innovating storage technology?DEMOGRAPHICSWhich of the following technologies do you currently, or plan to sell, recommend or influence in the next year?Which of the following statements best describes your company's business activity?Approximately how many employees does your company have, including all locations?Which best describes your job function?

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