Making the most of the data center modernization opportunity

By Craig Brown, EMEA Channel Manager, Subzero Engineering.

There are many legacy data centers which can be refurbished and upgraded to meet the demands of today’s digital businesses. However, when planning and implementing a data center modernization strategy, the key requirements of speed, agility, scalability and sustainability need to be reflected in any infrastructure refresh.

Digital transformation was gaining significant momentum before the global disruption of Covid-19. And, as we all adapted to new ways of working remotely during the lockdowns of the pandemic, data center and IT infrastructure became even more critical – even to the extent that many organizations which had planned their digital journeys over several years, quickly realized that they needed to think more in terms of weeks and months to pivot to the hybrid way of working.

The working environment evolved into a mixture of physical and virtual, the combination of the office and homeworking, and with this came a reliance on a range of IT infrastructure solutions, from on-premise to colocation and the cloud.

As we return to some kind of (new) normality, the demand for digital services continues to accelerate. Broadly speaking, the lessons learnt and the IT solutions implemented out of necessity have now become a key part of every organization’s digital roadmap. There’s no looking back, only a desire to continue to evolve the hybrid, digital business world.

The good news is that IT now invariably meets or exceeds our expectations. Indeed, where once we expected some kind of problem when going online, we are now surprised when our devices are slow or our connection disappears.

The challenge of data center modernization

Underpinning this fast-moving digital world is not just the IT software and hardware, but the foundational layer of the data center.

There has, for example, been an explosion of new build, greenfield data centers. However, much of the critical infrastructure on which we have all come to rely sits in legacy data centers that, if not already creaking under the strain, are certainly in need of a major refresh. Without such a program, it could just be that the digital revolution reverts to more of an evolution, where the lack of what we might modernization becomes a major bottleneck.

At the very least, the data centers unable to meet digital demands because of ageing, inflexible infrastructure, are in real danger of losing business to competitors.

So, what are the requirements of a data center modernization program? It's clear they need to offer the same attributes which are the hallmark of today’s digital businesses: speed, agility, scalability and sustainability.

1. Speed

When a data center customer wants to deploy new hardware on which to run a host of new applications, the likelihood is that they will want to do this quickly, to ensure that they can maximize their revenue opportunities. That means that the infrastructure needs to be capable of being deployed in days, rather than weeks or months.

2. Agility

Data center customer demands will change as rapidly as those of their own customers. A new revenue opportunity comes along and this needs to be seized quickly, which means that today’s 10 servers, four storage boxes and two network switches might become 15 by tomorrow. Moreover, is the facility capable of being reconfigured easily and quickly to allow customers to reconfigure their IT infrastructure?

For example, many companies have to plan ahead for incremental growth, so they may need temporary IT resources, with the accompanying extra data center capacity. A media company could be launching a new game or video where the initial demand will be high, requiring extra data center/IT capacity to meet peak demand.

3. Scalability

While organizations may experience peaks and troughs in demand, they will also be planning sustained growth over an extended time. This means that their IT infrastructure and capacity needs to be capable of scaling upwards. And in many cases, customers will not want to wait for extra cabinets, servers, storage and racks to be installed, they want to be confident that these are available as and when needed, in the right configuration and in the right location, exactly when they need it.

4. Sustainability

The data center industry’s earliest attempts to engage with environmental issues largely focused on carbon offsetting, energy efficiency, and PUE. Wholescale tree planting programs, for example, were designed to offset the carbon footprint of data center facilities. Fast forward to 2022, and the industry is now engaged in detailed, technology-driven initiatives to ensure that all aspects of the data centers environmental impact come under the closest scrutiny.

In practice, this means that many legacy data centers need to carry out significant infrastructure technology upgrade programs, often to increase the energy efficiency of the facilities. Sustainable data centers, powered by renewables with a reduced carbon footprint, circular commitments and decreased water usage are, ultimately, key to achieving a net-zero data center industry.

Modular modernization is key

The majority of legacy data centers consist of large data halls, with much, if not all of the supporting M&E infrastructure attached to the walls and ceiling of the building, and/or under a raised floor. The cabinets may well have remained in the same place since day one, although the use of CFD software may have led to some configuration changes to try and optimize the facility's energy efficiency. In simple terms, much of the infrastructure is fixed, inflexible, inefficient and difficult to move.

Modular data center technology has, therefore, been developed to address these problems. Many modular solutions often consist of a containerized system, which comes pre-populated with racks, cabling, power and cooling infrastructure.

Modular, containerized solutions will certainly go some way to addressing the digital data center requirements, but it’s essential to focus on the customer requirement and recognize that some level of customization may be required. Another approach may be to base a modular data center modernization program on a structural steel frame solution, which is secured to the data center floor. This allows the owner/operator to make their own choice of modular UPS, cooling, conveyance and cabling components, all of which can be installed as required, along with the IT cabinets and the necessary containment – side panels, doors and ceiling.

The nature of the IT industry means that, in terms of feeds and speeds, there will always be a part of the infrastructure that is, relatively speaking, something of a bottleneck. Compute, storage, and network components very rarely align. However, there’s no doubt that the digital age is being driven by the fact that all three of these technologies continue to make significant performance improvements, which continue to increase. The challenge right now is for the data center industry is ensuring that its facilities can match the speed of innovation.

Furthermore, legacy data centers are under pressure to modernize, ensuring they can deliver the speed, efficiency, and resilience on which the IT industry relies. For many, taking a modular approach to data center modernization is the most logical, sustainable option.

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