Data center optimization: Overhaul or incremental changes?

Moderated by Bill Detwiler | April 1, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (00:00 PDT)

Summary: The opportunities for cost reductions and efficiency improvements are undeniable. But which approach best serves your organization?

David Chernicoff

David Chernicoff

Overhaul

or

Incremental

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

46%
54%

Audience Favored: Incremental (54%)

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome

    ...to our weekly Great Debate. Are you ready?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    Ready

    Set to go

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Here

    Let the games begin

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Overhaul vs. overkill

    To some, the term "overhaul" means replacing servers or reworking cables. To others, the
    term implies more significant changes, such as energy-efficient cooling solutions and modular data centers. To ensure we have a clear understanding of how our debaters characterize an overhaul, what is your definition of a data center overhaul?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    Significant changes

    I define overhaul as making a significant change to any part of the data center infrastructure or IT component. This means replacing, consolidating, adding, or significantly changing the capabilities of the data center.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Three tenets

    An overhaul to me is any action carried out that is designed to improve performance, increase reliability, or reduce costs. These are in my mind the three tenets of data center overhaul, and everything should come down to one or more of these.

    With that in mind, overhaul becomes a very broad term and can range from small changes
    such as reworking cabling, to more significant actions such as installing faster drives,
    switching to SSDs, or adding new processors, all the way to starting from a totally clean slate at a new location with all-new hardware.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Incremental vs. piecemeal

    Likewise, individuals can interpret the term "incremental" differently. What is your definition of an incremental data center change?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    Replacement cycles

    I see incremental change as maintaining standardized replacement cycles for infrastructure or IT hardware components. Changing at perceived end-of-life or on a set schedule as an ongoing process, something like the apocryphal stories of painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, a never ending process done at a slow and steady rate.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Changes over time

    Small changes over time, concentrating specifically on getting more out of the hardware infrastructure that's already installed. Again, these will revolve around the three tenets of improving performance, increasing reliability, or reducing costs.

    I'm not for one moment suggesting that a complete overhaul of all the major hardware isn't necessary from time to time, but incremental improvements help keep things running at peak efficiency the rest of the time.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Complete overhaul: Benefits and hazards

    The benefits of completely reinventing one's data center can be significant, but the potential pitfalls are also very real. David, what are the three or four top benefits of a total data center overhaul? Adrian, on the flipside, what are the three or four top hazards?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    The benefits

    First, I don’t think that you can do a “total” data center overhaul in the sense of it being a single sweeping redo. I think the advantage of the overhaul approach is to examine the business processes operating ion the data center and overhaul the equipment that is used be each process. Or, as new business processes and model are adopted, to add hardware and infrastructure capabilities that will deliver the best performance and ROI for that process, while also being able to support other activities in the data center.

    This goal-based approach allows you to make sure that the newer processes are running on the most optimized environment, while also adding capacity that will allow, over time, the migration of older business processes to new equipment that is more effective and efficient.

    If I was to attempt to define the benefits in three or four items I think it would be this:

    1. Measureable improvements in energy efficiency
    2. Measureable improvements in application or process performance
    3. Faster delivery of capabilities to users
    4. Shorter period to achieve measureable ROI

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Pitfalls

    There are huge potential pitfalls revolving around undertaking complete overhauls. Here are
    just a few:

    Cost – If you work for a company that's happy cutting blank checks then complete overhauls are awesome, but in the real world that rarely happens, in a tight economy companies have to make the most of what they already have.

    Time – Overhauling a data center is nothing like replacing a PC, and it takes considerable time to plan and execute.

    The unexpected – The more new hardware and software you are having to deal with, the greater the scope for things to go wrong, and this invariably leads to downtime, which, in turn, hits the bottom line.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Incremental change: Benefits and hazards

    A slow-and-steady approach to data center modernization may limit disruptions, but it can
    also stifle innovation. Adrian, what are the three or four top benefits of incremental data
    center optimization? David, on the other hand, what are the three or four dangers?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    The endless cycle

    The biggest danger is getting trapped in that endless cycle of being behind the technology curve; by the time you’ve worked your way through your entire datacenter it’s time to start over. Second, many of the optimizations, such as those that affect cooling or power delivery efficiency, don’t see real benefit until they are complete, or simply can’t be done on a small scale effectively. And, of course, you will find that you need to constantly be justifying ongoing capital investment without being able to show ROI improvements in the short term; simply projections on benefits when the cycle is complete (and about to start all over again).

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Keep it simple

    While a balance needs to be struck between complete overhaul and incremental change, a slow-and-steady approach has a number of advantages.

    Keeping up with the times – Better processors, faster drives, and denser RAM is a fact of life, and incremental upgrades allow you to take advantage of better hardware in a more timely – and cost-effective – way.

    Cost – Incremental is always cheaper than a complete overhaul.

    Focused spending – Incremental upgrades and improvements allow IT managers to focus spending more effectively depending on need.

    Less scope for problems – While small changes can result in problems, which in turn lead to disruption, the scope is far more limited.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    This time it's different?

     Data center technology is constantly evolving, but the rate of change seems to be increasing as does the variety of new server, storage, and networking tech. What new technologies are pushing companies to completely rework their data centers and do they strengthen the argument for a complete data center overhaul?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    The cost of "Green"

    The number one differentiator between the past and present is the data center facilities issue; building design, power, and cooling were formerly the domain of dedicated facilities groups. But the huge increase in the cost of power and the recognition that energy consumption and utilization were factors of the IT workload of the data center, have brought IT and facilities together. With technologies such as cooling and power distribution suddenly moving to center stage, most data centers find themselves well behind the curve and need to address these issues on a facility –wide scale. Plus, of course, the greater public awareness of "Green IT” means that being a good corporate citizen now requires paying heed to the greenness of your facility.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    It's just getting better

    The factors are today pretty much as they were a decade ago:

    Better processors
    Faster drives
    Increased computing density/footprint reduction
    Virtualization

    Despite being an advocate of incremental change, I'm well aware of the fact that a time will
    come when almost every company will need to consider a total overhaul. While a relatively
    modern data center will be able to take advantage of new technology without requiring a
    complete overhaul, if your data center has that Flintstone feel to it, then an overhaul might be the only thing that saves it!

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The role of cloud, _aaS, and SDN

    Does the proliferation of cloud services such as Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), cloud storage, and Software-Defined-Networks (SDN) favor a the overhaul or incremental approach?


    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    Two answers

    I see this as two different questions. If you are moving services of any type to cloud providers, the most significant impact on the data center is that the money being spent of cloud-provided services is no longer available for data center internal use. If a business has made the cloud approach paramount, then the changes to the data center will need to reflect the new service-provider focused environment. The changes necessary for that will be individual to each business based on what services and how much of the IT infrastructure is moved to cloud providers.

    Software defined networking (SDN) is another story. In most data centers the decision to implement a complete SDN environment will require a major overhaul of the networking infrastructure to support the demands of SDN. Few older data centers have the underlying networking infrastructure necessary to support a full scale transition.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Lifting the pressure

    The more computing work you can offload on some other company, the more you shift the pressures onto that company, freeing you to take a more leisurely approach to change. This is exactly the reason why companies have embraced the cloud. This way companies can buy exactly what they want, rather than being sold something that they may never need.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    It's all dollars and cents...Direct cost savings

    When organizations calculate the ROI of their data center optimization projects, they often begin by calculating the direct costs (fewer servers, software licenses, personnel, and facilities). Thinking only about the direct costs, is a complete overhaul or incremental update the better optimization strategy--in the near-term and long-term?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    Happy returns

    Overhaul projects, by their very nature, having more significant upfront costs. But they also have more rapidly identifiable ROI, in terms of their impact on overall IT costs and potentially on identifiable improvements in business workflow.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Getting the job done

    Again, assuming that the existing data center wasn't around at the time of the dinosaurs, then incremental updates are by far the better optimization strategy because they allow the IT managers to focus spending on what they need more of to get the job done, whether that be more compute power, more storage, more RAM, or whatever.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    A riddle, wrapped in a mystery...Indirect cost savings

    Calculating the indirect cost savings of a data center optimization project, such as energy savings, efficiency gains, and increased scalability, can be more challenging than determining the direct costs. Nevertheless, doing so is still a critical step in measuring the project's ROI. Thinking only about the indirect costs, is an overhaul or incremental update the better strategy--in the near-term and long-term?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    Measuring its worth

    The way this question is asked touches directly on the benefits of the overhaul approach. With this approach there are very often direct, quantifiable savings on energy expenditures, which gives you greater efficiency measurement and on the availability of additional IT workload capability, allowing applications to scale or new processes to be added without additional investment. This provides direct measurement of savings, often in both CAPEX and OPEX spending.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Identify the options

    Think about it this way – which option gives you the best change to see whether your improvements are having a marked – and positive – effect on indirect costs? Small changes
    allow a company to keep an eye on those indirect costs, and even help steer them in a
    particular direction. For example, you can incrementally change a specific subset of your hardware and compare that to the baseline.

    On the other hand a complete overhaul can be a total leap of faith, and many times doesn't
    allow for a "Plan B."

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    A strategy that fits like a glove

    David, what are the characteristics of a company that's well suited to optimize their data
    center through an overhaul? Adrian, what are the characteristics of a company that's well
    suited to optimize their data center through incremental changes?

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    Optimization

    First, they need to be willing make the investment in technology. Second, there is a compelling business need to have a best-in-class solution to the specific problem they are looking to solve or business process they are looking to add. Third, their existing infrastructure can’t adequately support their planned growth or expansion related to the business issues. And forth, they want to be on the leading edge and reap the business advantage that can provide.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Keeping up

    The companies that are best suited to optimize their data center through incremental changes are, rather ironically, those who are already taking this approach. Incremental betterment of their hardware and software means that they've kept up with change over time, and have not allowed their infrastructure to get too old.

    Other companies suited to optimization through incremental changes are those who have
    recently overhauled. Their overhaul will – or at leas should – have left them with hardware
    that they can build upon and improve.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Leading by example

    For our last question, provide at least one example of a company that's either completely
    overhauled its data center or optimized it through incremental changes and is seeing the
    benefits.

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

    Defining a business

    Almost all the examples that are public knowledge (i.e., that companies are publicizing these changes) are technology businesses or companies that have built entire new data centers. For example, when eBay needed additional capacity in their existing data centers, they simply dropped in data center-in-a- box solutions to upgrade their capability while the existing facilities were then upgraded to their new standards. That can be considered the extreme example of the overhaul approach; the next step up would be to build completely new facilities.

    Other Internet-based businesses and technology businesses are quick to announce the major upgrades and changes that they are making to their data centers, but it is very rare to hear a public announcement from businesses in other than the technology field that they have overhauled their data center processes.

    Most businesses consider these types of choices to be confidential business information because it defines the way they plan to do business.

    David Chernicoff

    I am for Overhaul

    Incremental all the way

    One company where incremental changes have been paramount is Facebook, as demonstrated by its Open Compute Project initiative. Anyone involved in optimizing or improving a data center needs to take a look at this because it is a mine of information, and it should convince you that incremental changes are the way forward.

    These shared custom data center designs clearly show that incremental changes are at the
    heart of how Facebook operates, making sure that that there will always be enough server
    capacity for one more LOLCAT picture!

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for Incremental

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks for joining us

    You'll agree that both David and Adrian did a great job defending their positions. Come back Wednesday for their closing statements and Thursday for my final verdict.

    Posted by Bill Detwiler

Talkback

8 comments
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  • As a techy ... I'd like to take the overhaul approach but...

    It's expensive!

    Expensive! == The CFO won't like it,
    All new stuff == The staff won't like it,
    New usually means unstable == The clients won't like it,
    Unhappy client and staff == The VP won't like it,
    So I don't like it.

    Slow and steady with gradual and targeted improvement is the safer and smarter approach. IME, If you had a roadmap in play and generally have done your job, you will get at the same place Mr. Overhaul will. It just won't hurt or scare everyone nearly as much.

    Only the vendors will like you if you go the overhaul way...
    ydecelles
    Reply Vote I'm for Incremental
  • This is another non-sequitur debate

    It is not an either-or situation. Incremental changes can and do take place every day in IT but, every so often, the rat's nest needs to be cleaned out and replaced. The analogy which immediately comes to mind for me is Chicago's O'Hare airport versus Atlanta's Hartsfield airport. They are the two busiest airports in the United States.

    O'Hare is a hodge-podge of wings of gates added over decades. it is a rats nest to negotiate with multiple TSA check-points. Layovers are a nightmare and connections are often missed.

    By comparison, Atlanta's Hartsfield airport is made up of independent terminals (organized by carrier) connected via subway with a unified TSO check-point in a single location and used only by those who are coming form the Atlanta all others have been inside a TSA secured region since they boarded their inbound flight. layovers are well managed and connections are rarely missed.

    For years, we have watched software vendors come and go because they didn't realize until it was too late that it was time to re-write (instead of continuing to "patch") their flagship product.

    Well, it is exactly the same problem in the data center. One needs to plan for periodic facilities upgrades so that the massive funding needs can be available when it is needed.

    Hopefully, each upgrade includes room for expansion. (Don't just build what you need today, build to accommodate what you will need five years hence.)

    Otherwise, your data center will quickly become a rat's nest of cables without any coordination along with overlapping power and cooling systems which will sap away the efficiencies which were originally built into your data center.
    M Wagner
    Reply Vote I'm Undecided
  • Overhaul where it makes sense; Incremental where it makes sense.

    There is a time for each and a time for both, depending on the data center and the business. I think this is a forum looking for a debate (in this case) rather than a debate looking for a forum.
    tr7oy
    Reply Vote I'm Undecided
  • Of Course Incremental - Why Take Chances?

    I'm sure there are big, one-time funding availability situations were overhaul makes sense to some, but for the rest of us that need to preserve and protect important data and data center operations, incremental should be a no brainer. Why "bite the bullet" if it can backfire significantly?
    nevinhouse
    Reply Vote I'm for Incremental
  • This is funny.

    If your datacenter has any measure of complexity or size, migrations will be phased in conservatively whether you want it that way or not. Especially if you need to complete your migration without negatively impacting your core business. I pity the CIO/CTO who embarks on the rip and replace method for a large infrastructure.
    mikedees
    Reply Vote I'm for Incremental
  • I'm pretty sure it's not the first even split.

    "We've had close votes before, but this was the first time in Great Debate history that the audience was evenly split."

    I'm pretty sure it's not the first even split. It would be a pain to search through all of my talkbacks on the great debates (I'm pretty sure I mentioned it was evenly split) or through all of the previous great debates (the data for the older debates doesn't even seem to be available anymore), but I'm pretty sure it's not the first time we've had an even split.

    I should note that at the time of this writing, the audience seems to have changed towards "incremental." So apparently it's still collecting data.
    CobraA1
    Reply Vote I'm Undecided
    • Late votes haven't changed my mind

      CobraA1,

      You're right. It was a pain to go back and search through all the Great Debates that allowed audience votes. But I did, and I didn't find a single one with a 50/50 spilt. When I submitted my conclusion at 11:30 EST, the vote was still 50% Overhaul and 50% Incremental. In fact, the percentages hadn't moved since yesterday afternoon.

      Despite the "incremental" side taking the lead after a few late votes (not sure why the system allowed this), my mind remains unchanged. As Adrian noted, if your datacenter looks likely something from the Flintstones' era, it's time for an overhaul. On the flip side, I don't know any company that rips out its datacenter and starts over from scratch every year.
      Bill Detwiler
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
      • Not meaning to change your mind

        Not meaning to change your mind :). After all, I wasn't really in the debate and never cast a vote (not a datacenter guy). Just an observation.
        CobraA1
        Reply Vote I'm Undecided