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February 10, 2016

Transforming Your Data Center

Scott D. Lowe - ActualTech Media

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This post is part of a series based on the forthcoming book, ​Building a Modern Data Center​, written by Scott D. Lowe, David M. Davis and James Green of ActualTech Media in partnership with Atlantis Computing.

In this post, we’re going to discuss the transformation from a legacy, inefficient data center to the modern data center, which is characterized by its efficiency, simplicity, and ability to provide business outcomes. The key steps to this transformation covered in depth below are:

  • Align the data center with the needs of the business
  • Start the transformation with easy wins
  • Begin to adopt a ‘software-defined’ approach
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify
  • Rethink the paradigm for data center management

Align the Data Center and Business Needs

Prior to beginning this transformation process, it’s important to evaluate the motives for the transformation. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of the transformation and in the exciting new tools and processes. But transforming a data center is only valuable for one reason, and it’s the same reason that the data center exists in the first place — the data center makes the business money. Whether the data center is the product, or the data center supports the people who sell the product, or some combination of both, the only reason that a data center exists is to make the business money.

With that in mind, the first step to transformation is to take a hard look at which transformation choices will affect the bottom line. For example, a radical overhaul to turn all of the blue LEDs in the storage arrays to newer, sleeker green LEDs is not likely to be well received by the board. However, if these transformations lower operational expenses by reducing administrative complexity, they will be better received. Or do these transformations increase the accuracy of the final product, reducing the number of products that are discarded as faulty or returned? If so, that’s another way to garner support. Perhaps the transformations make another business unit happy; that’s always a good way to find support for a project! If the finance team needs updates to their portion of the website to be completed more quickly, changing the development workflow and using automation and orchestration to increase the speed of iteration on development projects will make them happy.

Regardless of what the benefit to the business is, you must have a clear goal in mind before beginning this transformation. Implementing a hyperconverged solution to aid in building an SDDC simply for the sake of having a software-defined data center is missing the point and is liable to get someone fired. On the other hand, clearly defining business transformation objectives and achieving business growth by meeting them using the principles and knowledge within this book is a surefire way to garner yourself a pat on the back, a promotion, a raise, a lead assignment on a high visibility project, or what have you.

So, what’s the best way to make sure that a project looks good from the start? Get some easy wins right out of the gate. This makes the project look good to stakeholders and increases support for the project moving forward. Let’s look at some ways to get started on the right foot.

Address the Low Hanging Fruit

No business is exactly the same as any other, so there can be no conclusive blueprint for completing the transformation to a modern data center. However, there are a number of technology use cases that apply to a great number of businesses. It’s quite likely that one of these use cases applies to your business in one way or another. Any one of these use cases can be the perfect opportunity to show the value of the software-defined approach by taking a technology and business process that the organization is familiar with and streamlining it.

Typically, these types of transformations exhibit a bit of a snowball effect. As the transformation goes on, code can be reused, knowledge about the infrastructure gained from a previous phase can accelerate a different phase, and so on. That’s why it’s wise to begin the data center transformation with one of the technologies that is most familiar to the team, one that has specific value to the business, and one that is extensible into other areas of the data center — the low hanging fruit. Because of the team’s in-depth knowledge of the technology, the project will be easier to complete than the same transformation on a product or system they’re unfamiliar with. In other words, they have a high ability to execute technically. As well, the business value will give immediate return on the investment in the project. And ensuring the work done can be reused and extended into other areas of the data center makes the project more efficient.

Adopting SDDC

The low-hanging-fruit examples make it sound easy, but knowing how to get started is the hardest part of the entire data center transformation process. The modern data center can be extremely complicated in its quest for simplicity and hands-off automation. When it comes to the SDDC, the first step in the transformation is to gain knowledge about specific products and technologies that will enable the transition. In each of the following sub-sections regarding SDC, SDS, and SDN, a few ideas for specific technologies that you could dig into will be presented. Armed with some knowledge and excitement, the next step is to begin testing a very simple abstraction: a “Hello, World!” sort of experiment with SDx. This will cement a better understanding of how the tools that enable the SDDC to work.

When adopting an SDDC mentality, there’s a critical step that many organizations overlook. If you miss this step, your SDDC vision will never be realized, despite doing all the other steps correctly. This step is: begin viewing everything through the lens of the SDDC vision. It’s all too common for an organization to complete an SDN project and then attempt to retrofit the use of the SDN tools and infrastructure in their current operation model. At this point, the value of SDN is drastically diminished and this effort is doomed to fail. To successfully complete the SDDC portion of the transformation to the modern data center, SDDC must be the new operational lens moving forward.

Simplification

As important of a transformation as any other in the journey to the modern data center, simplification of data center systems and processes has the potential to revolutionize the way an IT organization operates and in the end, the way it spends money. The simplification process needs to be a broad and sweeping one, yet inspected at the most granular level possible. Leave no stone unturned in the quest for removing complexity.

Complexity may, in fact, be the single most costly attribute of a data center. Think about the fallout from complexity in the data center: troubleshooting is a total disaster because the system has to be reverse engineered before troubleshooting can even begin; operating expenses increase as more staff is required to maintain the complex systems; new systems take ages to implement because of the rigidity of the environment. It’s plain to see that attention paid to the process of simplification in the data center can return immediate benefits.

A potential angle for approaching simplification in the data center that is applicable to many organizations is to look at the server and storage architecture. Is the management of these systems optimal? Are the systems scalable, agile, and efficient? In many cases, the answer to these questions is no. Because servers and storage are so foundational to the data center, beginning the simplification process with these systems can be a great starting point. While certainly not the only option, hyperconvergence is a great way for many organizations to achieve their goals for scalability, agility, and efficiency.

The Management Paradigm

It makes little sense to transform the details of the data center for the better if the big picture remains blurry. What will eventually make the SDDC shine in the eyes of the business is having a robust yet nimble grip on the entire data center by using a set of management tools that monitor and control “the big picture.” Insight is sought after more than gold in organizations today, but providing it is tricky. Taking appropriate action based on that insight is trickier still. The final component to transforming an old, tired data center into a modern data center is to bring new life to the management systems.

It’s critical when managing a data center to be able to get a top-to-bottom view of the entire infrastructure. All aspects of operating a data center are made more difficult by not having complete visibility. Being able to manage all the way through the infrastructure stack makes troubleshooting, maintenance, and design more fluid. It’s also important to begin to shift toward a hands-off approach where systems function without the need for IT’s intervention. This means investing in automation, workflow orchestration, and self-service provisioning. The modern data center accomplishes far more than the data center of the past but with less manual work required of the IT administrators. This frees up staff resources to keep innovating and revitalizing the data center.

Software-Defined Storage

One of the major players in the overall data center transformation is Software-Defined Storage. The next post in this series will take an in-depth look at what SDS is and how it works to empower and enable the modern data center.

SCOTT D. LOWE Contributor

​Scott is Co-Founder of ActualTech Media and serves as Senior Content Editor and Strategist. Scott is an enterprise IT veteran with close to twenty years experience in senior and CIO roles across multiple large organizations. A 2015 VMware vExpert Award winner, Scott is also a micro-analyst for Wikibon and an InformationWeek Analytics contributor.
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