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In order to make sure their organisations will have the data centre capacity they require tomorrow, IT leaders must make some predictions about future demand today.

Unfortunately, there are myriad factors that make demand unpredictable. Of the 15 IT executives that attended Information Age’s most recent roundtable debate, only a one or two said they could predict what the demand for IT services would be even two years in the future.

At the same time, the pace of technological innovation means that the IT infrastructure – and therefore the data centre capacity – that will be required to support that demand is equally unpredictable.

For many organisations, this predicament means squeezing whatever capacity they can out of their existing data centre facilities. The data centre capacity planner of a large global financial services organisation revealed that its facilities are running at around 90% utilisation.

This tight squeeze means that upgrading IT infrastructure requires careful planning. “For us, planning an IT refresh is a big logic problem, like one of those puzzles where you slide plastic squares around to complete a picture,” they said.

The mix of legacy infrastructure and more modern systems means that the link between demand for IT services and infrastructure growth is complex, delegates revealed.

“Our loyalty card data is sitting on a hand-cranked mainframe, which has prevented a full data centre modernisation,” said the head IT auditor of a retailer. “But the demand for information is now exceeding the capacity of the mainframe, and our data centre footprint is expanding.”

Of course, server virtualisation has radically reduced the amount of space taken up by the compute infrastructure. A delegate from one of the UK’s largest companies revealed that while its business in China had grown four fold, the data centre capacity required to support that business has expanded nothing like as fast.

But while virtual servers may not require physical space, they certainly need power, which is why energy supply is now the primary constraint on data centre growth. “I thought I was going to be managing data centres when I started in this business,” revealed one data centre operator, “but I’ve ended up in power management.”

Server virtualisation has also changed the make up of the modern data centre. “Right now, our data centres are made up of about two thirds compute and one third storage,” explained one delegate. “But that’s moving quickly towards 50/50.”

This is beneficial in one way, they said, as storage equipment is often more efficient. But it is also heavy, which may have consequences for data centres that are located above the ground floor.

The upshot of all this for many delegates is the data centre centre planning decisions are still ad-hoc. Few end-user organisations are making long-term bets on large, dedicated data centre facilities. Instead, they are either making small investments in co-located facilities to meet peaks in demand, or they are doing their very best to make the most of what they’ve got.

Continuing economic uncertainty and the unknown impact of the Olympics on power supply in London next year mean this trend looks likely to continue for the near future.

This article draws on a recent Information Age debate sponsored by data centre hosting provider vendor Sentrum. To facilitate open discussion, Information Age’s roundtable debates are run under the Chatham House Rule, meaning that no comments are attributed to attendees or their organisations.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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