Data Center Strategy: So many options, so many factors

Out of morbid curiosity, I like to ask IT managers where their key servers are installed. I am continually amazed at the variety of answers. Common (and actual) responses include “locked in the supply closet,” “we have a cubicle filled with different servers,” and my personal favorite, “I have no idea. My staff takes care of that.” Obviously, the location is important, but ultimately, data processing and information management needs to incorporate much more than just the “where” factor of your server environment. Experience teaches IT professionals that servers tend to grow roots like trees. The longer a server stays in one place, the more difficult it will be to move it later on. Consequently, many servers remain in “temporary” and less-than-ideal locations for years on end because there was a lack of strategic data center planning. Virtual roots took hold and the machine can’t be moved without significant business disruption. This situation is common in too many IT environments, where having a cohesive and well thought-out data center strategy is generally overlooked. This is the first of three columns discussing a purposeful approach to a data center strategy.

As the beating heart of a company, the data center continually sends information throughout an organization. Sustaining the data flow is critical to keeping the extremities alive. It is also often considered to be the nerve center, routing countless signals and messages. Many general and IT management professionals are constantly searching for the key to making these functions happen reliably and on a cost effective basis. The true solution to this puzzle is a frustrating “it depends.” If you are running the data center for a regulated institution such as a bank, there are legal compliances and industry data management standards that must be adhered to. For most companies however, how and where to put the servers is left up to the judgment of the IT management. Being industry professionals, most do a decent job of this, but fail to take broader strategic aspects into consideration. When mapping out at a data center strategy, the key is to invest time and effort upfront in defining the true needs and wants of your organization.

The primary and most important step in developing an effective data center strategy is to define the principles and general parameters of your business requirements. The most common error is exclusively considering the factors of “where” and “how much.” Although these two aspects are important, by not considering other issues, your environment can be destined for mediocrity, which will cost your company dearly in the long run. An effective way to avoid this situation is to engage the company management in the process of determining the purpose and goals of the effort. Ultimately, this is what will govern the decision-making process and determine the appropriate weight to place on the many different factors and aspects of your data center strategy. If the emphasis is absolute lowest cost regardless of service level, then perhaps the basement or broom closet is okay. If the management’s priority is cost-be-damned integrity maximization, you could be looking at expenses comparable to the G.D.P. of a small nation. Either way is okay, but the management needs to be clear on the trade-offs. There is a sizeable amount of consideration and assessment necessary before you can determine the right direction. Is the company risk averse? Is the company investing in IT? What is the company’s long-term business strategy? How can you align the data center strategy with the business strategy?

The point is not to overwhelm yourself or your management with questions; it is to force yourself to determine the strategic direction that you and your business want to move in that will best support the business. More than anything, this will get you to the point at which you can make a better decision, which will lead to a more effective and solid investment in this critical piece of your company’s IT infrastructure. Once you work through assessing the principles and general parameters, you can them move on to defining the sort of data center environment that will be best suited to your strategy.