As our businesses become increasingly digital, we tend to think about technology in non-physical terms. Our IT infrastructure becomes “the cloud.” Our servers and storage become “virtual.” Our networks become “software-defined.”
The reality, however, is that information technology (IT) always depends on physical infrastructure. Without hardware there is no software. So to lose sight of technology’s physical realities is to jeopardize the wisdom with which we manage its physical underpinnings. And unwise management of those physical underpinnings leads to both higher operational costs and higher operational risks.
In fact, the great irony of virtualization is that it makes the physical realities of IT infrastructure even more important by dramatically increasing density and scale of workloads in the data center — and by dramatically increasing the consequences of physical infrastructure failures.
MORE DATA = MORE PHYSICAL
Whether your company is in finance managing massive amounts of capital or is in transportation making it easy for people to flag a ride downtown, your business increasingly depends on software and data. That’s why companies are making massive investments in agile development, Big Data, and other disciplines that help them get the upper hand when it comes to digital customer engagement and analytic insight.
However, every organization’s ability to successfully use software and data in any form — including databases, transaction processing systems, mobile apps, and IoT networks — depends on healthy, efficient underlying physical infrastructure. In fact, the more your business depends on software and data, the more it depends on the uninterrupted physical flow of electrons across silicon chips, spinning disks, solid-state media, and network cables made of copper or optical fiber.
The physical realities of computing thus absolutely constrain business performance in several specific ways, including:
Accurate delivery of the right power to the right device: You can’t compute without power. So it’s essential to deliver the right power to every device all the time. This has become a non-trivial engineering challenge as virtualization intensifies power demands and as next-generation infrastructure — including high-density OCP servers, converged systems, and DC-powered drives — introduce greater variability into power requirements across the data center.
Appropriate temperatures and other environmental conditions: Computing equipment generates a lot of heat, especially as data centers get denser. It is thus essential to always apply sufficient cooling everywhere across your data center infrastructure to avoid the overheating that can cause equipment failure — while also avoiding wasteful overcooling. It is also essential to protect your equipment from other threats such as excessive humidity, vibration, and airborne particulates.
Access for maintenance and troubleshooting: Disks crash, fans short out, and power supplies fail. So physical equipment requires physical service. These tasks must be performed quickly and reliably by authorized technical staff so as not to excessively consume their limited time. Again, this is a non-trivial challenge given the increasing density of equipment in the data center — as well as the way the relationship between that equipment and the critical IT services it supports keep becoming more dynamic and complex.
These physical aspects of technology management should not be minimized or overlooked. Done right, they enhance the performance of IT and, by extension, the business as a whole. Done wrong, they undermine that performance — with potentially serious adverse consequences to both the top and bottom line.
ACHIEVING PHYSICAL FITNESS
Given the impact of physical infrastructure on business success, what steps should business leaders take? How can data center owners best act to optimize the physical fitness of their enterprise infrastructure?
Here are three actions every company can take immediately to achieve physical fitness:
1. Elevate responsibility for physical infrastructure strategy
Many companies leave it to front line hands-on techs to let them know if “there is anything wrong” in the data center. But front line techs are typically only empowered to address immediate uptime and performance issues — and not to make strategic decisions about operational efficiency, corporate carbon footprint, and the like.
Business leaders must ensure that the right people at the right level of the organization own physical infrastructure strategy and are accountable for its key performance indicators (KPI).
2. Re-assess and re-inventory the data center
A lot has changed in the past few years. Data center infrastructure density has increased. Customer-facing application components have become more distributed across hybrid cloud. Climate change is a growing C-level concern. IT organizations have to take a long, hard look at their physical data centers.
Business leaders should address the major changes in enterprise IT with a corresponding re-evaluation of current physical state of the data center along with associated operations.
This re-evaluation should include:
How equipment is distributed in the data center and how decisions are made about where to place new equipment as it arrives.
Ensuring proper use of PDUs to optimize power distribution and provide accurate data about data center energy consumption — in tandem with best-practice processes for analyzing and acting on that data.
Investigation of how network equipment connecting the enterprise to the cloud is protected in the data center and remote offices.
Control and monitoring of physical access to the data center.
Collaboration with CCO, CFO, and other stakeholders regarding IT’s role in carbon footprint initiatives.
3. Tap outside expertise
Businesses are constantly leveraging external technical resources. They outsource application development and mobile interface design. They hire ethical hackers to perform penetration testing. They work with DR consultants to rigorously safeguard business continuity. Yet, many IT organizations keep physical management of the data center internal.
It makes sense for business leaders to tap outside expertise, especially considering how much business success depends on reliable, efficient underlying physical infrastructure.
Simply put, businesses that take their physical infrastructure for granted spend more, achieve less, and expose themselves to greater risk than those that exercise more diligence in the management of power, cooling, operational efficiency, and security.
By diligently addressing physical realities, data center managers can better enable the organizations they serve to succeed while pursuing the evolving opportunities offered by virtualization, the cloud, and software-defined IT infrastructure.