Rack 'Em Up

Research firm IDC predicts that the worldwide enterprise data center networking market will reach $7 billion by 2007. Add the opportunities in the small- to midsize-business markets, along with the chance for return-engagement revenue across the board, and prospects appear golden for solution providers willing to tackle these projects.

You don't have to tell that to New York-based Align Communications--it's already reaping the benefits of this trend. Align's data center redesign business is "really picking up," said Project Manager Tom Weber. "We've done six in the last six months, and I have five on the burner now that are in process."

One of these completed projects was for the CRN Test Center. Amid all the industry fervor over data centers, CRN realized it was time to re-engineer its own lab. Align worked with vendor partner American Power Conversion to give the Test Center lab its makeover.

Other solution providers are seeing similar data center activity. Mainline, Tallahassee, Fla., is finding that customers can be convinced to move beyond just thinking incrementally about expanding their data centers to embracing full-fledged re-engineering projects. "There are opportunities across the board. We're seeing it everywhere," said Rick Kearney, president and CEO of Mainline. "We say [to customers], 'Let me change your thought process"you're thinking in a pay-as-you-go mentality. What if you were to rethink your entire architecture and deployment of these commodities?' "

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Vendors have noticed this growing interest, too. Tim Dougherty, director of IBM eServer Blade Server offerings, says customers now contemplating their current infrastructure and data center needs are "voting with their dollars" for re-engineering. "[Through a redesign] you can save 83 percent of the cables you're using. If you look at rack-mounts vs. blades, you can save up to 40 percent in power consumption and cooling required. It's all shared, as compared to each one of the units having to do their own power and cooling. Those are the kinds of things that make customers say, 'Wow, it's worth doing this for.' "

Jonathan Gilad, program manager in Cisco Systems' Enterprise Solutions Marketing, says he's seen more companies move away from the "siloed" approach they took 10 years ago when they often built their data centers in piecemeal fashion to support specific business requirements on an as-needed basis. "They're saying now, 'We have a situation where things are getting out of hand. We need to be looking at this from a much more strategic perspective.' "

Solution providers have ready answers to potential customers' questions as to how a data center makeover can help them, including fewer employee-hours required to maintain, run and secure the operation. They can also point to the improved performance, especially in the areas of data replication and backup. Re-engineering projects can also improve efficiencies and allow companies to align their resources more effectively with their applications and needs. Solution providers and vendors also say redesigning data centers can make a company's IT infrastructure more agile and better prepared for emerging technologies such as on-demand computing.

Throughout the CRN Test Center renovation, engineers discovered the best approaches for handling power, cooling and other issues that arise during a data center makeover. The first step, planning a layout, is an ongoing process that doesn't really end until every piece of equipment is in place. Since customers are the key stakeholders, they must be an active part of the design process. In the beginning, customers should be advised that it is natural for changes to be made as the project progresses but also reassured that they will be part of the process at each juncture.

It's also important to simplify the terrain by presenting the plan in separate pieces--IT infrastructure, power, air, management and services. This will ease the education and decision-making process. Making visual floor-layout tools accessible to customers eases communication, allowing them to seamlessly participate in the design process: moving racks, repositioning air units and so on. In the Test Center's case, we were able to make decisions working hand-in-glove with Align during planning meetings and were able to make changes via e-mail by sending diagrams back and forth.


&#149 Communication with the many stakeholders is key to a smooth project, including the customer at the top of the list, followed closely by facilities management, building owners, HVAC specialists, electricians and plumbers. This is especially important, not just because of the number of craftsmen involved, but also because of the number of design changes that occur during a rollout. Given the amount of give-and-take needed and layers involved, contingency planning is not an option, it's essential.

&#149 Blade systems and slim servers are being increasingly used in data centers, but a consideration of their promise would be incomplete without a serious look at the cooling and power support they require. Blade servers require more cooling than traditional multiprocessor servers, and 1U servers require more power than blade servers, as well as additional cooling. Demands on power, cooling and other data center resources, such as cable management, are further stressed by the addition of the switches and data storage needed to knit a cluster into a useful fabric.

&#149 Try to accomplish as much of the construction off-site as you can. This postpones interruption of service at the customer site and reduces downtime. It also allows for quality control to be practiced in a controlled environment should adjustments be needed. As a bonus, it enables the solution provider to develop building blocks and tooling that can be reused across jobs to make them more turnkey.

&#149 Whenever possible, select components that avoid cranes and rigging. Rigging not only involves heavy-equipment rentals but can raise a host of political issues among the job stakeholders. For example, instead of replacing an old cooling tower on our roof as part of the retrofit, the Test Center explored options that didn't require a tower and found a solution that still met our needs.

&#149 Try to leverage existing plumbing, HVAC and electrical systems in creative ways. This reduces cost and complexity while speeding deployment. We used our building's main HVAC ducting to vent hot air. We also reused some of the plumbing of the old AC unit to drain the condensation lines from the new units.

&#149 The installed solution should be upgrade-agile. Allowing for growth means selecting racks, equipment chassis and other devices that are extensible. At the end of a job, there should be rack space left over, the system should be ready to accommodate additional UPS batteries, there should be sufficient wire management and patch panels to support more connectivity, and so on. This will save the customer time and money in the long run as infrastructure demands increase.

MICHAEL GROS contributed to this story.