What keeps BT's Peter Bower awake at night? With responsibility for the management of the company's 20 UK-based data centres, the answer would seem to be: ‘a great deal'.
He has had to oversee an explosion in complexity and processing demand within that data centre infrastructure. Prior to Y2K, his organisation controlled about 126 mainframes and mid-range servers. Those systems were primarily used as a backbone for operations such as billing and finance, with a few servers used to support bespoke applications.
But over the last five years, he says, the change has been unparalleled. The Internet boom triggered explosive growth in servers, so that BT now has 10 primary and 10 secondary data centres in the UK and a further 15 in mainland Europe. Across the world, the company has access to data centres at 97 locations in 37 countries. When tallied, that represents a population of some 37,500 racks, with 12,500 servers in the UK alone.
Of course, those are not just servicing BT's internal operations. They provide data centre services – from hosting to full managed services – to over 250 corporate customers in the UK.
Those internal and external customers, however, are putting the same hefty demands on the data centre. "They are becoming more and more challenging. They want it faster; they want it simple; they want a return on their investment – to pay as little as possible," says Bower.
And to meet such demands, data centres are changing fast. As Bower sees it, the ultimate driver for change within the data centre is the need for increased business agility. "The future of the data centre will be determined by the need to provide greater freedom to end users in terms of how and, more importantly, where they can conduct their business."
With many companies now trying to reduce the number of data centres they use, it is vital that the network infrastructure that connects them is capable of overcoming geographical barriers.
"We have to offer quality access to users, whether they are in the office, working remotely or at home," he says – and that kind of flexibility has to be driven from within the data centre through intelligent networking, greater automation and improved security.
So how does a company like BT go about tackling the need for flexible, on-demand data centre service?
First, it is developing a matrix architecture, based on service provisioning rather than server provisioning. That will "ensure IT is providing complete services not boxes with bits built on afterwards," says Bower. The heart of this will be the use of generic build blocks – modular hardware and software – so all the solutions are scalable and adaptable.
What will really keep Bower awake at night in future will be building the means to deliver that. BT's twenty-first century data-centre strategy is based on:
- Reliability – a state of the art service based on an ‘n+n capability';
- Performance – an ability to offer systems power of up to 16kw per rack;
- Scalability – New data centres based on ‘shell and core' that are able to grow;
- Connectivity – The requirement for data to be replicated in real-time for mirroring across multiple sites;
- Security – Physical to ensure the integrity of the infrastructure but also logical to protect customers' data assets.
With those in place, BT will be able to offer a virtualised data centre infrastructure. It will be the "the equivalent of an IT food hall – something that is flexible, that is cheap, will offer you as much as you want, when you want it and as you like it, and with the ability to serve yourself."
Customers will be able to access a portal and order from a menu: storage, rich email, database, web server, Java application server, and even generic applications will be available and scalable on demand – with "second helpings always available".
"We've got the network, we've got the architecture, and now we are developing the virtualised data centre," he says.
When that arrives, Bower may able to look forward to a full night's sleep.