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Cloud computing could cause data centres to shrink

Advocates of cloud computing often cite the cost-reducing capabilities of hosted services as being one of its key attributes. On-demand software and hardware enables businesses to keep spending in check in a number of ways, initially in terms of reduced investment but also through lower overheads. Once they have outsourced their IT function to a third-party specialist, businesses have the opportunity to scale back their own internal infrastructures and keep expenditure to a minimum.

According to IT analyst Gartner, more data centre managers are beginning to consider the possibility of shifting non-essential workloads to a cloud provider. The firm claimed this can free up much-needed floor space, reduce power requirements and remove the need to cool servers. IT departments are then able to focus on overseeing the critical production workloads and extending the useful life of the data centre.
This process is not new - many businesses already use collocation facilities as an overflow mechanism. However, while this means the IT resource is still owned and managed by the application owner, cloud contracts put greater distance between the user and data centre, passing on additional costs. "With offloading services to the cloud, ownership and management of IT assets is shifted to the provider, essentially outsourcing the service to someone else," Gartner noted.

Clearly, as the popularity of cloud computing continues to increase – a recent Gartner poll highlighted the technology as being the number one priority for chief information officers in 2011 – the role of the corporate data centre will change. The firm said that, moving forwards, only core business functions will remain in the primary data. All other non-critical services will eventually migrate to external providers, having the long-term effect of shrinking physical data centre requirements, Gartner added.

The firm believes that by 2018, data centre space requirements will be only 40 per cent of what they are today, as firms focus on a narrower range of IT functions. Businesses will continue to require more IT resources to support company growth in the digital age, meaning the data centre will still have a role to play. But any increase in power demands from areas still managed internally is likely to be offset, as the size and space requirements of physical servers continues to fall.

Several other factors are likely to contribute to downsizing within the data centre, including smarter designs, greater server density and green IT innovations. Gartner noted that data centres in 2011 place many different demands on mechanical/electrical systems, depending on the workload mix, function and age of equipment. The firm explained that modern designs have taken this into account by adding different density zones for different workload types.

At the same time, data centre managers have become more conscious about the 'greening' of IT, and are proactively seeking to reduce environmental impacts. In the past, only pressure from senior management or the public may have persuaded them to embrace energy-efficient hardware. "As awareness has increased, there has been a constant uptick in the attention paid to energy consumption, and new data centre managers take a hard look at energy efficiency in both design and execution," Gartner said. In some cases, centres are being designed with power utilisation efficiency targets in mind, conscious of both the cost and public relations advantages of lowering their carbon footprint.

Gartner also noted that designers have begun to focus on server density in their data centre environments, which represents a significant stride forwards given the traditionally poor utilisation of space. While data centre floors may be covered with equipment, the firm said that the actual compute space within racks and servers is very poorly used. Globally, average rack densities are approaching just 60 per cent, when newer data centres can achieve upwards of 85 per cent, the analyst revealed. "The advent of private cloud environments and resource pooling will provide methods to enhance vertical scalability in the data centre, while at the same time improving the productivity-per-kilowatt ratio," Gartner added.

Data centres remain fundamental to business operations, whether companies choose to invest in cloud computing or not. As such, businesses should look to increase efficiencies where possible, capitalising on the latest technologies and knowledge to achieve this goal. In the simplest of terms, reduced scale equals reduced costs. A pound saved in the data centre is one that can be invested elsewhere in the business.