In the first of a series of articles about data centre management, EM360 looks at how data centres are automating and streamlining their operations
This time next year, we’ll be inundated with data centres. Barely a day goes by before someone else plonks a new one on someone’s manor. And there it is, more or less operating by itself using automated systems, avoiding any interruptions to its power supply using massive energy storage appliances, and not caring how much power it uses because it’s an inanimate structure with no feelings, and probably never will be.
According to some estimates, there’ll be 10 million data centres around the world by the end of next year. They’ll all be hooked up to the internet, like neurons in a brain, keeping track of virtually all human activity. The only thing they’ll need to completely take over is to develop consciousness and realise they could probably run the world better that we do, and decide to go ahead and take over.
For some, automation leads to autonomy, which is one step away from self-awareness or even consciousness, raising the spectre of giant artificially intelligent computer systems controlling our lives in the way HAL controlled the space station in the sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Affirmative, Dave. I read you.”
The rapid growth in the number of the data centres around the world is giving people everywhere the heebee-jeebees. Increasing numbers of people are demanding that data centres be stopped in their tracks, but that’s not likely to happen.
Data centres may worry people when they think of each one as an individual supernode in a network of supernodes spanning the globe, like gateways through which almost all human activity is logged and possibly controlled.
However, where would we be without data centres? It would be life, but not as we know it. No internet, no streaming video, no email and no social media. Business and indeed modern life itself would grind to a halt.
So the uneasy relationship continues, and is likely to go on for the foreseeable future. Maybe it will even improve. Data centre managers have shown that they can listen to concerns about such things as power usage and the negative effects they might have on the environment, and have been taking mitigating measures.
Here, we ask some data centre managers for insights into how they run their operations.
Automatic for the people at data centres
It’s easy to take for granted the many automated procedures that help us all manage our workloads, even if we have just the one computer on our desk to deal with. But when you’ve got thousands running in the background at a data centre, automation becomes a vital part of your daily operation.
Aegis Data recently opened a 34,000 sq ft facility in Godalming, a few miles south-west of London. The Tier 3 data centre has been designed to manage itself when it comes to power usage and cooling.
Greg McCulloch, CEO of Aegis Data, says: “Automation in a colocation environment providing monitoring and evaluating is more down to the certain aspects of the deployed plant. Cooling systems tend to have their own controllers, which manage and regulate the conditioned air in the data halls.
“Any plant or equipment failures result in redundant units taking the additional strain while still delivering on SLAs [service level agreements]. UPS [uninterruptible power systems] units are automated to switch between mains or batteries dependant on supply status.
“This automation is limited to manufacturer and or technology deployed and is not normally aligned to the IT. There is a case for a more joined up approach utilising AI [artificial intelligence] in bridging the gap between monitoring and evaluating systems and the IT environment.
“This would be along the lines of a unified automated system sensing changes to the IT power and cooling requirements and then bringing in cooling units and UPS modules to support that load automatically without the need for human intervention or maybe lack of it.”
To err is human. To propagate, defined
Ron Lifton, senior solutions manager, NetScout, speaks more broadly about automation and automated services. He says enterprises can introduce these technologies to prevent downtime and increase productivity, particularly across hybrid virtual and physical environments. However, one downside is that small human errors can be magnified beyond all recognition.
NetScout is not known as a data centre company, but it provides solutions for network management that many data centres use. Its main pitch is that it provides a single view into the performance and health of all servers, services, applications, and networks, so users can quickly pinpoint and resolve any problems.
Lifton says: “Entire industries, including those that have traditionally been slow to react to the latest developments, are now being transformed by tech innovation. This digital transformation is happening across the board and is being made possible through a variety of innovations including IoT, Big Data, PaaS/SaaS, mobility, Unified Communications, and Web 3.0.
“One thing all these technologies have in common is the network. Delivering business services requires a network infrastructure that can include data centre virtualisation, SDN, switching, routing, Wi-Fi, and 4G/5G mobile communications.
“These changes hold a number of benefits and have a key role to play in making a business more agile. But they also significantly increase the level of IT complexity for companies taking advantage of them, as they race to automate services from the edge to the core and into the cloud.
“Unfortunately, this challenge is unavoidable. These companies have no choice but to adapt. The urgency to become a digital organisation is real, and required, if they are to compete effectively.
“Companies must take advantage of information and digital assets in the value chain in order to redefine the customer experience, operational processes, and business model.
“This is not a ‘one and done’ investment proposition – remaining competitive requires constant digital innovation. If it is not done right, things can be worse for customers and employees.
“Yet the opportunities for something to go wrong, anywhere, and at any time, in IT infrastructure is now far greater as a result of the inherent complexities with physical, virtual, and hybrid service delivery environments.
“While automation can streamline manual processes and save operational expenses it can also propagate human errors at scale, especially the ones that are not obvious and manifest themselves only after some time, by incorporating them into automated scripts.
“When there is a need to build business services to scale, traffic data provides a consistent source of service contextual information. Mitigating risk and optimising business agility, therefore, requires traffic-based intelligence.”
All they have to do is stream
The fear of making mistakes, no matter how serious the consequences, has never stopped progress before, and is unlikely to affect much now. All things being equal, the temptations of automation are too difficult to resist, particularly as it often leads to greater time- and cost-savings, which can have a direct and beneficial effect on the bottom line of a business.
Verne Global owns and operates a 44-acre data centre campus in Iceland, a country which has had more than its fair share of economic austerity. For Jorge Balcells, director of technical services at Verne Global, the importance of streamlining data centre management in maximising efficiencies cannot be overestimated in the current harsh economic climate.
Balcells says: “Today’s IT professionals face a host of challenges and new trends. Budgets are tight and at the same time IT is becoming more strategic as the amount of data created is exploding and the value of accessing that data in real time is continuously increasing.
“Managing company data efficiently is therefore critical to business success. Many companies cannot meet this challenge cost-effectively in-house and therefore streamlining data centre management by outsourcing operations to larger and centralised data centres around the world is an ideal solution to maximise efficiencies.
“Compute requirements are rising as enterprises rely more heavily on data and real-time analysis of this data to drive business forward. As a result, power consumption by data centres is increasing rapidly. At the same time, power generation is limited and being delivered by ageing, increasingly fragile and over-stretched electrical grids.
“The impact of both of these is that unplanned data centre outages are increasing and becoming more of a cost impact, than just an inconvenience to companies. The demand and risks on the data centre have never been higher.”
What’s in a name?
Whether it’s called automation or streamlining, the majority of data centres are always exploring technologies which can help them gain a competitive advantage over the competition and improve their profitability.
Software-defined data centres are gaining ground. This is supposed to enable a data centre to more or less run itself without any human help. At that point, we may have to use phrases like “autonomous data centres”.
And what would be next stages? Intelligent data centres? Some would argue that, to a great extent, data centres can be considered intelligent buildings. And some companies have been touting their “intelligent data centres” for some time.
Perhaps it can’t be compared to human intelligence, but a building that can manage itself and the objects within its perimeter has to be considered “quite clever” at the very least.
You might think it stops there, but recently a company called Sentient Technologies raised more than $150 million to start building its own version of the data centre. So, sentient data centres of sorts are on the horizon.
And if you thought that must be the limit, think again. Fujitsu claims its data centres are “conscious”. To be fair, they mean environmentally conscious, but some might say it’s obvious where things are going.