Interop Data Center Chair Doug Washburn On Data Center Strategy

It's no secret that the recession has had an impact on IT, but business demands march on. The longer IT projects are put on hold, the increase in that pent-up demand is going to force companies to move plans forward anyway, but with limited funds, says Doug Washburn, an analyst at Forrester Research and the chair of Interop's Data Center conference track. Whether you are consolidating data centers, building a private cloud, interested in cost savings and green IT or simply keeping current on new

Mike Fratto

April 9, 2010

12 Min Read
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It's no secret that the recession has had an impact on IT, but business demands march on. The longer IT projects are put on hold, the increase in that pent-up demand is going to force companies to move plans forward anyway, but with limited funds, says Doug Washburn, an analyst at Forrester Research and the chair of Interop's Data Center conference track. Whether you are consolidating data centers, building a private cloud, interested in cost savings and green IT or simply keeping current on new technologies, architectures and business drivers for building data centers, the Data Center conference track will have something for you. We asked Washburn what he sees as the hurdles and opportunities in data centers for 2010 and 2011 and how that is reflected in the track sessions.

NWC: When you set up the data center track, what were the key elements you were trying to present to the audience, what were the key drivers in what you selected the tracks and the topics?

Washburn: Thanks, that's a great question that doesn't often get asked. There's actually a blog post about this on the Interop site, but regardless of content, there are basically two things we wanted people to be able to walk away with. First, a vision into the future of the best that we could give them, and that's not only based on presentations from peers and IT, but also the vendors, who in many cases, whether we like it or not, dictate what's going to be coming in terms of new innovation and technologies. At the same time, we really wanted organizations to be able to walk away with a sense of action and the ability to put these forward-looking concepts into practice. So we tried to juggle the best that we could of the content that will be forward-looking, and some that will be very practical. And again, from that level, we tried to think of what sort of content will fulfill these goals.

One is, of course, the pure technology side of things, and one of the big trends that we're seeing is convergence of server/storage/network gear. So we have a really good panel with some of the really good vendors in that space on the vision of how this is going to impact data center managers -- and in particular their direct report, the servers, storage, network administrators and managers -- in that role. Another example, along the lines of new technology, is cloud, which many organizations are familiar with. We're doing a bit on what the cloud means to data center managers, but how do you start taking advantage of it today? So it's not a pitch on why cloud is good, we're taking the approach of assuming there are many benefits, but let's talk about those and the inherent risks, and beyond all that, let's focus on how are we going to take advantage of or set ourselves up for success in the cloud down the road.

Beyond technology, one of the things we really want to focus on the role the individual--and this is basically Forrester's go-to-market strategy, and how we organize our whole research organization right now, writing for the individuals who manage servers and data centers, who manage IT infrastructure and operations. A lot of the questions we get at Forrester are not about technologies, but about aspirations, personal career development, etc., so we are leading the data center session off with a session on that topic. We see the data center manager of the future, let alone the IT professional of the future, not necessarily being a person who is a great technologist, but those who can put the business hat on as well and pitch business cases. They have to be great team coordinators, not just of technology teams, but of teams across the organization.So we're leading with a session called "Bridging the C-Suite Gap: How to Build a Business Case for Data Center Transformation," and we think that this is particularly relevant because it's part aspirational and part about the changing role of the data center managers. But again, going back to my previous comments about the challenges and what's coming, these individuals are going to have a lot of pressure to modernize equipment, and they might have dollars to spend, but how are they going to build a case for that? How are they going to prioritize these sorts of investments?

And then finally, we do have sessions as well on the process issues, so it's not just about the technology, but how can we make the most of the technology that we put in place? That brings us to systems management tools, and things like that.

NWC: What do you see as the biggest hurdles for data center managers in 2010-11?

Washburn: From anecdotal evidence I have, from my conversations with data center managers and IT directors, I'd say the biggest hurdle is that there is so much pent-up demand for IT services, which inevitably trickle down to IT infrastructure to run them, most likely within the data center. So data center managers are really racing to keep up, and although we're starting to recover, money isn't exactly flowing, so organizations are still being pressed to do more with less in many cases, or at least more with the same under a constant or growing pressure to deliver and execute new apps, which eventually rolls down to the infrastructure.

One thing that we have found, looking at data points from a lot of Forrester surveys to business and IT execs, is that increasingly, as we look a trends over time, more and more businesses view IT as a strategic asset, meaning it's being used as a way to attract new customers. It provides the ability to generate leads, etc, but also improving employee productivity, which relates to revenue-generating activity. So the focus is on the ability to support mobile devices or sift through vast amounts of data that organizations are collecting now, not only about their own people, but about customers, and IT is under demands to deliver.On one hand, that's very good, but the higher expectations of IT are a two-sided coin, since the ability to do all of these things really resides within the data center itself. So, I would say it comes down to the flood of projects and higher expectations for what's got to come out of the data center. People are really busy right now, in a good way, and money is coming back, organizations have money to spend, but it comes back to, what are their priorities? And people in the infrastructure group find themselves pulled in various directions. The data center is a great example of that. We have seen heightened spending, but when we look over the next twelve months, what sorts of investments are people going to make?

Well, the largest increase in spending will go to storage within the data center, and the next is modernizing, updating and expanding data center facilities, looking at co-location and other alternatives. Of course, servers will be another high-spending category. Along with this, there's a definite interest in investing in more comprehensive management tools. The recession also did a good job of making companies look at what they have that they aren't using or what can go, so they will not just spend on servers and storage, but now there is a mindset to make sure you have the tools to get the most out of that. That's going to require training, and adoption of new system management tools. Those are the challenges, but also the opportunities.

NWC: So all of these pent-up projects that organizations want to launch, are they revenue-generating or revenue-impacting projects, or are these focused more on internal build-outs and updates to support all the new projects that will be coming along?

Washburn: It's a combination. A lot of them are revenue-generating and very competitive types of investments, and this is coming from higher-up than IT. The entry point for a lot of these initiatives is the applications. So, a lot of the projects will be focused on customer-relationship management tools, that's a big focus for dollars, but it's also about improving the inner workings of the organization. So there will be a need for a lot of Business Intelligence (BI) tools, which then requires, of course, a lot of databases, storage, etc.

A lot of it, too, is about organizations taking advantage of new kinds of computing, things like thin-client computing, mobile devices, all of those things that inevitably have an impact on the back-end, that allow their workers to work from home, or on the road, all of these sorts of things that help them get their jobs done better. Also from a resiliency and recovery perspective, doing backups not just regularly but quickly, which is almost being forced on the organizations and creates much more need for storage, in the event of some kind of disaster. And so disaster recovery is one of those areas that always gets targeted for high-spending.And all of this rolls back down to the data center, and as organizations try to make the most out of every dollar they spend, they're going to be going after not only competition, but new markets, new revenue streams, etc which is going to make IT much more important, hopefully. Everything is pointing in this direction. So it's not just about hiring new sales people, but giving them the tools they need to do their job better.

NWC: So as far as the data center (DC) management, systems management, network management tools, there's a lot of push in the track on DC automation. How widespread do you see DC automation today, what are some of the stumbling blocks, where will it be in the next two years, and what challenges are organizations facing?

Washburn: Right now, honestly, while I can't pretend to know all of the features or functionality of all of these tools, what we're seeing is the "digestion period." There have been a lot of these out for many years, and so now the job is getting organizations to want to purchase them, because when budgets were tight, these were the things people weren't really spending money on. They figured, well, we can just make do with manual proxies, spreadsheets, and maybe this level of management isn't necessarily absolutely critical right now. If they are going to spend more money on VMware licenses or new boxes, or new management tools, I think  in many cases it went to the hardware side.

Where there is an opportunity for improvement, is if organizations can take the time to purchase these tools, if they haven't already, and if they have, then to really use them to the full extent possible, and relying on automation, not the manual checks that organizations put in place. So this is process-engineering from one perspective, but on the other its more about training. It's not just the purchase, but the ongoing education and use of these sorts of tools. To that extent, we see organizations spending more on training, or hiring those with skill-sets that might more familiar with the large-scale system management tools and actually being able to take advantage of those.

Many times, these tools are in place, but when you ask someone how useful they are, and are you getting everything out of this that you could be, the answer is no. So again, it goes back to getting their dollar's worth -- if they have tools in place, how do we use them, if we have too many, what do we get rid of? And if they don't have it, what do they need? The focus isn't going to be on point solutions, but on things that will get them 80 or 90 percent of the way there. It may not be perfect, but it will be one vendor they're dealing with instead of wide range of tools.There could be another track on automation altogether, the IT management track, because a lot in the data center management track is on the typical server/storage network access, and you see the facilities themselves looking at things like cloud computing and outsourcing to these alternative models of data center ownership and management, which the DC manager, in particular, will be very responsible for.

And then another one, green, which has its own separate track, instead of putting the green data center track and the green IT track, we kept it in the same track, since in many cases we do see this as the becoming the de facto standard for data center management and operators into the future. In particular, not just the environmental benefits, but reducing the energy costs and making the most of every kilowatt that's coming in, and ensuring that we're not going to suffer a lack of space, power, or cooling in the data center, which links itself to the broader green IT ideas and initiatives. So we're starting to see it as a trend, and there are a lot of submissions especially for green in the data center. So it's purposeful to put this in the data center track itself.  

NWC: From what I hear, a well-defined data center is inherently green by definition, for cost-savings, etc?

Washburn: I personally think that's true, but a big part of this that traditionally it was about the upfront design and build-phase, for IT architecture as well. It was about what we were buying and bringing in. Now, tying it to system's management, it's more about ensuring that the organization is getting the most out of what they bring in once they have it in place and using it efficiently, which has been lacking. That can reflect a green perspective or a cost perspective, or just asset utilization. Servers, for instance, fall poorly on the utilization scale, and that leads to over-provisioning of servers, so you're buying more than you need because you're only running things at five or ten percent. Same thing with storage, with a lot of redundant or duplicate data, that if you are not using the right tools, you're basically just wasting money.

About the Author(s)

Mike Fratto

Former Network Computing Editor

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