It may appear to be a cost centre, hungrily sucking up resources simply to ‘keep the lights on’, but the modern data centre can be the focus of real business change, says Ian Osborne, manager of the Grid Computing Now! project at UK high-tech trade association Intellect.
Emerging infrastructure technologies, such as service oriented architecture, virtualisation and distributed computing, offer businesses greater levels of flexibility and efficiency of resource allocation. But until those technologies bed in, data centres will continue to lock companies into costly and inefficient business processes, says Osborne.
“Today’s data centre architecture cannot effectively support business services,” he explains. “We have siloed applications, with information passing between them via screen scrape or email, and we have multiple security management systems. These cannot provide the scalable platform that the business requires.”
Most organisations are at least ten years away from what Osborne sees as the ideal architecture: web services supporting dynamic business processes, all operating on a virtualised infrastructure.
There are initial steps on the road to that end, namely data centre consolidation and automation, and “those can begin today”.
As head of the grid computing adoption initiative at Intellect, the UK hi-tech trade association, Ian Osborne is fostering the transfer of knowledge and capabilities in order to demonstrate the value of grid technologies to public sector and commercial organisations in the UK. His career in IT has spanned a broad spectrum of roles at companies such as Cornhill Insurance, British Airways, ICL and Hewlett-Packard.
“Those who are thinking, ‘We just don’t have the budget’,” says Osborne, “consider this fact: Research shows that businesses can reduce their data centre costs by 8.5% to 10.5% through automation, standardisation and consolidation.”
Osborne points to consolidation strategies, such as application integration, storage consolidation and centralisation, as popular techniques for fighting the flab in the data centre.
Moving on from cost efficiency, Osborne approaches another attribute of his ideal data centre: scalability. To react appropriately to market conditions and handle peaks of on-line traffic or order processing, the modern IT infrastructure must be supremely scalable, he says.
To this end, Osborne moots four computing models that businesses will increasingly employ to safeguard from running short of resources: grid, utility, clusters and distributed computing.
These are variations on a theme, differing in the way applications are shared between hardware units and whether the company itself or a third-party takes ownership of that hardware.
But, by and large, they are all enabled or improved by the use of virtualisation technology. Virtualisation, Osborne explains, allows for innovative and responsive approaches for the allocation of computing resource.
Once scalability and reliability are sown into the fabric of the data centre, the IT department is in a position to start delivering reliable and scalable business services. By building a service-oriented architecture, they can then layer on composite applications controlled by business process management.
“At the present time, business scenarios are defined by the applications that support them. With the service-oriented architecture, business scenarios will be free from the constraints of specific applications.” By giving the business control over the composition of business processes, IT becomes an enabler of change, rather than a constraint upon it.
There are key positive affects of placing control over the software that supports business processes in the hands of business users, says Osborne. It is not necessary to ‘sell’ any changes to business processes to the users when they themselves initiate them.
There are challenges ahead, though, before this vision can be realised. Early adopters of virtualisation in the financial services sector are running up against heat issues that need to be solved before virtual servers will be seen as truly reliable. And distributed computing provokes difficult questions about how software should be paid for.
Osborne is nevertheless hopeful that IT is undergoing a metamorphosis – beginning within the cocoon of the data centre – that will see it emerge in a new, business-aligned form. “In the future,” he says, “we will not be concerned with getting IT to work, but with working though IT.”