For as long as I can remember, organizations and operators have been hell-bent on making their data centers bigger. Denser, more efficient and higher performing as well, of course, but fundamentally it’s been a journey to ever greater scale.
It’s part of the explanation for how data centers have come out of the shadows to become box-office stars of IT. As these colourful “7 Data Centre Wonders of the World” demonstrate, the most celebrated data center facilities are genuinely awe-inspiring for two main reasons: their extreme scale and the extreme places that organizations choose to locate them.
Having been around data centers for over 20 years, I find it remarkable how many other names they are called. One person’s data center is another person’s comms room, server closet or IT cabinet. I’m often reminded of the scene in the movie Crocodile Dundee when unreconstructed outback hero Mick and his romantic interest, Sue, come face to face with a blade-toting street robber who threatens to attack them. “He’s got a knife!” warns Sue. “That’s not a knife,” says Mick, calmly producing a dagger the size of a phone book. “This is a knife.”
These naming distinctions don’t really matter when increasing size is the only trend; the thinking is that little ones are insignificant while the big ones are important. But this view is being turned on its head by the technological paradigm that data centers enable: the cloud.
As cloud architectures take over the mainstream and new applications such as M2M (machine to machine) and IoT (Internet of Things) begin to dominate digital thinking, the focus is turning away from mega data centers that centralize computing power far from where it’s typically needed. The principles of the cloud still hold, but the mechanics of delivering low-latency, high-agility applications necessitate a decentralized approach to physical data centers.
This phenomenon is becoming more present in some vertical sectors than in others—typically among those with highly distributed site footprints, such as retail. Here, the requirement is to take some of that IT horsepower and intelligence out of the central core and instead place dedicated “local” compute, storage and networking capabilities at the network edge. Doing so increases performance and application responsiveness, transforming data center estates from singular behemoths into hundreds or even thousands of cabinet-size instances.
The retail sector is a particularly exciting growth area for this change. It offers a glimpse of what most if not all sectors could be adopting as they embrace greater digital transformation. Clearly, retail IT must move from the core to the network edge to support the sharp growth in MPOS terminals, IoT, automation and store-based sensors.
According to a recent Zebra Retail Vision study, by 2021,
- 70% of retailers will invest in IoT projects to improve customer experience, enhance supply chain visibility and expand revenue opportunities
- 74% of retailers will be able to personalize store visits, as they will know where and when customers are present
- 77% of retailers will invest in big data for storing and analyzing IoT-generated data
As these things happen, each retail site’s technology infrastructure will need greater agility and intelligence. And as stores invest more in impulse and mobility-based buying platforms, downtime and slow data access become unacceptable. Their increasingly extreme IT requirements, delivered locally, will need greater protection and optimization.
The answer comes in the form of micro data centers: self-contained, secure computing environments that include all the storage, processing, networking, power protection, management software and even cooling required to run applications at maximum uptime.
Operating these data center estates requires corporate IT leaders to shift their mindset. Previously, their approach to data center design, construction and maintenance would have been bespoke to their unique and changing requirements. Now, the onus is changing toward standardization; the must replicate the same robust DC-in-a-box template to minimize deployment and management costs.
I’ve seen micro-data-center platforms of this ilk that don’t even require specialized skills to install and configure on site. They just roll straight off the pallet ready to plug in and go. The challenge is in managing each instance and monitoring the health of its constituent elements. On-board DCIM sensors are critically important to this task. Without consistent DCIM oversight, operating such an estate would be extremely risky and time consuming.
The other critical mindset change that micro data centers bring is motivation. Previously, data center managers would be driven by the need to cut costs, reduce waste or increase environmental sustainability. Now, in the retail space at least, it’s about competitiveness; organizations wield a more agile cloud data center architecture so they can beat the other guy.
And it’s more than just the retail sector. Today’s central, state-of-the-art data centers lack sufficient agility for the challenges facing finance, education and health care, where data and processing is also sorely needed at the network edge. These situations create a compelling case for building decentralized micro data centers that offer agility, resilience and performance.
Leading manufacturers, such as APC by Schneider Electric, are already deeply embedded in these major verticals, inspiring confidence in their micro data center technology by virtue of compatibility with leading hyperconverged IT solutions. They also provide the assurance of a factory-assembled, quality-tested approach to system standardization for both indoor and outdoor deployments.
These micro data centers pack a big punch when deployed as part of an organization-wide cloud-IT strategy. And because they’re self-contained, IT complexities and management overhead decrease dramatically.
In the years to come, I’m sure we’ll still have mega data centers to marvel at, boasting eye-watering scale and tremendous technical ingenuity. But small is beautiful too, and you ignore the humble comms cabinet at your peril.
About the Author
Nick Claxson is managing director at Comtec Enterprises. Nick is a knowledgeable IT leader with over 20 years’ experience at the cutting edge of applying disruptive digital technology to growing U.K. organizations. As managing director and founder of Comtec Enterprises, he remains deeply involved in identifying and perfecting innovative IT solutions and is passionate about the role that cloud technologies can play in boosting the competitiveness of the U.K.’s SMB base and public-sector institutions. Nick owns numerous other IT and non-IT businesses and is a former Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. He holds a broad range of technical accreditations across the IT spectrum.