The IT infrastructure market faces massive disruption — both today and for the foreseeable future. Digital transformation presents significant challenges and opportunities that will surely separate leaders from laggards in 2016. And the data center will play an increasingly important role amid this upheaval.

When analyst firm Gartner recently unveiled its top 10 emerging trends in the IT industry at its Gartner IT Symposium, three notable trends — enterprise-defined data center, global data center management, and bi-modal IT — topped the list. The message is clear: The data center hardly resembles what it once was. And tomorrow’s data center promises to change, too.

Put simply, macro IT trends, including big data, cloud, and IoT, are forcing the data center to play a larger role in IT because they have enormous requirements for speed, efficiency, and processing power that result in greater costs and power usage. IT teams must not only assess these impacts, but also take pragmatic approaches to stay ahead of the curve. With this in mind, there are five key data center trends to keep top of mind in 2016:


  • Connectivity options pertaining to the increasing importance of hybrid IT and bi-modal IT. The market has responded to customer needs by providing several layers of data center options, offering increased offloading of facility and infrastructure management. Global organizations need to leverage a wide variety of data centers that support a myriad of services. IT executives need to define what’s needed in order to reach those objectives.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But one thing is for certain: having all externally hosted assets within one platform simplifies a hybrid IT migration and future evolutions. Leading IT organizations are always looking to make a system more efficient, agile, and elegantly simple. This is partly why Infrastructure-as-a-Service and Platform-as-a-Service are becoming increasingly popular.

Companies must simplify IT infrastructure design and delivery in order to become more agile and “future proof” their organizations. New IT infrastructures are by nature complex, often leading directly to a hybrid IT strategy. Hybrid IT environments allow businesses to take full advantage of the fast-developing IT landscape that is geared toward massive data collection and analytics.

  • Increased accountability and security needs. There’s no silver bullet for security. It can’t be bolted onto a fundamentally insecure data center. Security has to be key to every level and component, and many companies are falling short — 606 confirmed breaches exposing more than 175 million records have been reported in 2015, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. What’s more, 83% of global businesses are not prepared for cyber attacks, an Economic Intelligence Unit study shows.

Multiple layers of network-based security are needed between your company’s private network locations and the internet. Clearly defining security policies and procedures to monitor are necessary to enforce this. Sure, the lion’s share of this is technological (firewalls, encryption, real-time monitoring, and patch management), and data center managers can use multi-layer pattern matching to find as many threats as possible. But physical security cannot be underestimated. Having a single point of entry, bulletproof lobbies and doors, mantraps to eliminate people sneaking into the building behind an authorized person, plus dual forms of authentication, including biometrics, are prerequisites. It’s important to understand that cyber-attackers only see the goal of accessing the “crown jewels,” and they will take any road to get there. Key to meeting this challenge is prioritizing assets and segmenting items according to risk.

  • The Internet of Things’ (IoT) impacts on decisionmakers. IoT and Big Data are already changing how businesses both small and large amass, manage, and take action on data. This trend’s effects on the data center will continue, for several reasons. While a lot of today’s data center traffic comes from enterprise applications hosted on servers in the facility, or between facilities through connected colocation and public-cloud services, that mix is fast-changing as more “things” talk to each other (including everything from smart cars to sensors in office buildings, home thermostats, as well as on our highways).

A 2013 study by The Economist found that 95% of respondents plan to implement “things” into their portfolio by 2016.  What’s more, the number of “things” predicted to be connected to the internet by the end of this decade could reach 50 billion, according to Cisco. All this data will have to be managed properly in order to prove beneficial to businesses. Sure, not every snippet will need to travel to the data center, but bandwidth to and from the data center is at stake. IT needs to prepare for a range of concerns, including new endpoints and how to manage big data from personal and corporate sources.

  • Increasing demand to go green through renewable energy resources. As data centers grow in size and scope, so does energy consumption. The Natural Resources Defense Council claims inefficiency in U.S. data centers will rise to 140 kWh in 2020, up from 91B kWh in 2013. Thus, renewable energy — including wind, solar, hydro, wave/current, and hydrothermal resources — presents an opportunity to slow down this consumption.

Supporting the escalating power demands for network and IT infrastructure in an environmentally sustainable way is becoming increasingly important for all companies. Several things can help, including energy conservation hardware from improved server efficiency and density and modular infrastructures. Data centers consume a lot of energy, but industry leaders are increasingly exploring hydro-powered and fuel cell technologies to more smoothly transition to next-generation IT infrastructures. While it’s not easy being green, the right investments and focus on eco-friendly technology empower companies to increase profit and gain market share.

I see these initiatives gaining more steam in 2016 as companies realize that the environmental benefits are coupled with potential cost savings as well. Many are opting to harness the power of multi-tenant data centers and cloud-based solutions. At CenturyLink, we’re taking the benefits of cloud and multi-tenancy one step further by embracing green technology across our new data centers.

  • More focus on software-defined infrastructure and management. The software-defined networking (SDN) market is expected to reach $8 billion in sales by 2018, analyst-firm IDC states. The SDN model significantly enhances network power, while simplifying the IT environment and management. It’s my view that SDN will continue to build traction. I expect a 25% annual increase in network traffic and acceleration of network speeds by 10x current capacity.

The bottom line is you really do not want to have your network delivery and infrastructure connectivity managed manually. You want it as automated as possible so that it’s always optimized, which ultimately saves time and costs. SDN is emerging as a “key driver for innovation and change,” according to IDC. It can deliver automated provisioning, network virtualization, and network programmability to data center and enterprise networks.

All this needs context. While I don’t have a crystal ball, several signs I’ve outlined point to the data center becoming even more important in today’s era of digital transformation. How you adapt to this change could mean all the difference for your business.