For the last two months Computing has conducted an in-depth research programme into trends in the world of data centres, covering hardware, virtualisation, software licensing, outsourcing and a host of other topics.
Unlike other subjects that we have tackled recently – mobility and big data among them – on the face of it not much has changed in the data centre.
“If you strip it all down, it’s still processors, memory, disc and network. It’s just a different shape and used differently,” said a CIO at a large services company.
“It’s all commodity stuff these days… there is nothing that is shaking up the industry,” said another working in e-commerce.
However, scratch the surface and there’s plenty going on. The basic hardware that constitutes a data centre may still consist of servers and storage, switches, racks, power supplies and the rest, but advances in software and automation as well as hardware efficiencies in accordance with Moore’s Law have seen the amount of computing power per rack rise astronomically.
A surprising result from the survey was that this increase in output has come without a concomitant increase in the power demand. Indeed, a majority of respondents said their data centre uses less power now than it did five years ago (figure 1).
How can this be? After all, the overall proportion of global power consumed by IT continues to increase as more and more businesses and services go digital.
Virtualisation – an ongoing revolution
The first and most obvious reason why the power demand in our respondents’ data centres might be stable or decreasing is virtualisation. The past five years have seen a decisive move from the physical to the virtual, primarily with regard to servers, and the data suggests that the virtualisation revolution is far from complete.
Form our research, the average UK organisation has about 50 per cent of its servers virtualised today, but in three years’ time that number will jump to around 80 per cent, allowing data centres to continue to do more with the same hardware.
“Fifteen years ago we had half a dozen large physical servers. Now we’ve got 80 virtualised servers. The amount of computing power and the amount of data storage are enormously larger, but the amount of actual electricity we’re consuming is the same and the amount of cooling that we’re needing to use is the same,” said a CIO in the gaming industry.
The same pattern is observed with storage too, albeit a little way behind, moving from 30 per cent virtualised now to an estimated 60 per cent in three years’ time.
Storage virtualisation is popular because it allows easier management of heterogeneous environments, maximising storage capacity at a time when data volumes are going up at about 30 per cent a year, according to the survey, and enabling automated data tiering and other space-saving measures.
However, some respondents felt that the technology is still a little immature, while others mentioned practical difficulties.
“Storage virtualisation sounds good in principle, but it’s a little trickier in practice as you have got to be shifting that data across constantly or you’ve got to allow for the time to transfer storage from one site to another,” said one data centre manager.
Despite such issues, storage virtualisation came top of the list of technologies that respondents expect to see growing most significantly over the next three years – closely followed by desktop virtualisation, presumably owing to the rising importance of mobility (figure 2).
[click to enlarge]
So, virtualisation is an ongoing revolution helping firms to squeeze the best possible performance out of their hardware – and their power bill.
That brings us to our second reason why the power consumption at many respondents’ data centres is static or decreasing despite increasing activity –put simply, they’re using someone else’s electricity (figure 3).
[click to enlarge]
Three years ago the majority of firms polled still ran almost all their operations in-house. Currently, the median average is to retain around 80 per cent of those services on-premise, while in three years approximately 70 per cent will be kept on-site. So very roughly we are looking at 10 per cent of data centre services moving out of house every three years.
Among the main functions finding a new home in the cloud are email and office suites – think Office 365 and Google Apps. Whereas once many IT teams retained dedicated Exchange or Lotus Notes engineers, such skills are becoming less and less relevant.