The 21st Century Data Center: An overview

The 21st Century Data Center: An overview

Summary: Data centers range from on-premise facilities running traditional enterprise applications to massive outsourced installations offering a variety of cloud services. We examine the state of play in data center-land, and consider some of the trends that will shape its future.


The green data center
Traditional data centers consume large amounts of power and other resources (such as cooling water). Since data center capacity is set to continue growing, the pressure is on for businesses and service providers to be good environmental citizens and reduce the resource footprints of their facilities.

The Green Grid-inspired PUE metric, now widely used and quoted, has focused attention on power efficiency, with state-of-the-art data centers now operating at a PUE of around 1.1 — that is, a DCiE (Data Center Infrastructure Efficiency) of 90.9 percent.

Trends noted earlier such as the move from traditional on-premise data centers (with low server utilisation) to modern cloud facilities (with high server utilisation), the increasing use of low-power microservers and solid-state (or hybrid) storage, plus power-efficient modular data centers such as HP's POD 240a (dubbed the 'EcoPOD') will all make for more power-efficient data centers. Another initiative, the Facebook-inspired Open Compute Project, which promotes simplified open-source server and other IT infrastructure designs, may also contribute to improved data center power efficiency in due course, although it's still early days for this intiative.

Verne Global's modular data center in Iceland uses a 100 percent green electricity supply and cools the IT equipment using external air rather than chiller units. (Image: ZDNet)

Data center location can be a crucial consideration when it comes to environmental credentials. Last year, for example, ZDNet visited a modular data center in Iceland, for which operator Verne Global has secured a long-term, low-cost, 100 percent green (renewable hydroelectric/geothermal) electricity supply. Iceland's climate also makes it possible to use free cooling — using outside air to cool the IT equipment rather than installing power-consuming chiller units.

Some data center cooling schemes verge on the exotic. Intel, for example, has experimented with submerging servers in vats of mineral oil (see this video). Other more conventional ideas from Intel are summarised in this infographic:


Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM)

In order to run an IT operation efficiently and make informed decisions about future data center capacity, you need current and predicted data on the range of application workloads in your business, their capacity requirements and the comparative costs of running them on-premise, in the public cloud or as a hybrid solution. Otherwise you run the risk of over-provisioning and wasting money, or under-provisioning and suffering performance bottlenecks or outages. Both are undesirable and, for the IT manager, job-threatening outcomes.

The tools that help you gather and interpret these data go under the general heading of Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM). This is a recent and rapidly evolving sector with solutions ranging from those that concentrate on managing the data center's physical infrastructure (IT hardware, power and cooling systems, and so on), to more sophisticated solutions that not only provide an overview of the physical, virtual and cloud infrastructure but also offer predictive analytics and 'what-if' scenario planning. This latter category is sometimes called DCPM (Data Center Predictive Modelling).

Forrester Research's 2012 market overview of DCIM solutions identifies eight core functions: inventory and discovery; maintenance and change control; data collection; consolidated monitoring and display dashboard; alerts; control; trend analysis; and the ability to model future solutions for implementation. Emerging functions identified by Forrester are: power planning and capacity based on actual, not rated, usage; workload-aware modelling; network capacity modelling; and integration of DCIM with conventional IT management tools.

Forrester identifies three groups of DCIM vendors: Data center facility and infrastructure vendors (example: Emerson); IT management vendors (example: CA Technologies); and Systems hardware vendors (example: HP).

Sentilla's Data Center Performance Management software offers basic DCIM functionality along with predictive analysis and 'what-if' planning. This example shows the comparative costs of various server upgrade strategies. (Image: Sentilla)

For more analyst insight on the DCIM market, see the reports from Gartner (June 2012) and 451research (December 2011).



Topics: The 21st Century Data Center, Cloud, Data Centers


Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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  • Severe Client Abuse

    That is what this article is. How many of the 7 Deadly have you Violated ?

    A miserable experience of wading through 5 pages when a single page was all that was necessary. Responsible media professionals provide their readers with a 'View as one page' option or the equivalent. This was almost as terrible as the 'Slide Show format. At minimum, you could have offered us a downloadable .pdf file.

    Please, Please, Please do not do this to us again.
    Leo Regulus
  • Too long to read :(

    I completely agree with Leo, who says " This was almost as terrible as the 'Slide Show format. At minimum, you could have offered us a downloadable .pdf file." I, and most of us, have not much time to read long written articles. Please offer either one-page article or a downloadable version as an alternative.
    • I disagree...

      I couldn't disagree more, actually. The level of detail in the read so far has been great. I'm impressed with the depth. I'm sure you'll be able to find a slimmer version of this information online somewhere else. Good luck.
  • Well written

    I am usually one to decry the evils of long articles. If I am not interested in the first 2-3 sentences I move on. But this article kept my attention and I thought it was well written. Maybe it is because I deal with data center issues on a daily basis.

    Oh well, I guess you can't please everyone.
  • I agree. Well written.

    An overview on a topic like this requires some in-depth analysis. Charles has written a clear, concise, but comprehensive overview. A one-page summary would be worthless. I do agree that a pdf would be useful for future reference. Good job.