The benefits of adopting a "what if...?" approach to datacentre management

In this guest post, Zahl Limbuwala, CEO of datacentre optimisation software supplier Romonet, explains why IT departments should be employing a more philosophical approach when solving business issues

The question “what if…?” is often used to refer to the past. What if a few hundred votes in Florida had gone the other way in 2000? What if Christopher Columbus had travelled a little further north or south? What if Einstein had concentrated on his patent clerk career?

For the IT department, the question can be equally applied to the future, as it needs to know the the decisions it makes will have the best possible impact for the business. Yet IT departments are often under financial constraints, meaning for every choice it faces, the department needs to bear in mind both the business and budgetary impact of its actions.

Asking the right questions

This need is exemplified by the datacentre – one of the most complex and cost-intensive parts of modern IT. While any organisation will want to know how datacentre decisions will affect the business, in too many cases IT teams simply don’t know what questions they should ask in the first place.

For example, an organisation might ask what servers they need to buy in order to meet a 10-year energy reduction target. Yet this won’t tell them what to do when those servers become obsolete in three years’ time. Or what proportion of their energy use will actually be reduced by choosing more efficient servers (hint: not a huge proportion). Or whether there’s a better way to reduce energy use and costs.

Instead, the IT team should be asking “what if…” for every potential change it could make to the datacentre to shape its strategy. In the example above, the organisation might ask what the effect would be if it replaced expensive, branded energy-efficient servers with a lower-cost commoditised alternative. It might ask what happens if it removes cooling systems. It might even ask what happens if it moves a large part of its infrastructure to the cloud. Regardless, by asking the right questions the IT team will have a much clearer idea of the options available.

Getting the right answers

Once an organisation knows the questions to ask, it needs to consider how it wants them answered. A simple question about energy usage and cost could produce answers using a variety of measurements, some of which will be more useful than others.

For instance, does the IT department benefit most from knowing the Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) of proposed data centre changes? Or the total energy used? Or the cost of that energy? While PUE can provide some indication of efficiency, it certainly doesn’t tell the entire story.

A datacentre could have an excellent PUE and still use more energy and be more expensive than a smaller (or older) data centre that better fits the organisation’s needs. A much better metric in most cases would be the total energy use or cost of any options; so that the organisation can see the precise, real-world impact of any changes.

Working it out

Once the organisation knows the right question, and the right way to answer it, the actual calculations might seem simple. However, there is still a large amount of misunderstanding around what influences datacentre costs. A single datacentre can produce hundreds of separate items of data every second, all of which may or may not be useful for answering IT teams’ questions.

This can make the calculation a catch-22 situation. Does the organisation consider every single possible piece of data, making calculations a time-consuming, complex process? Or does it aim to simplify the factors involved, making calculations faster but making any answer an approximation or guesstimate at best?

To solve this, IT teams need to look at how they answer questions for the rest of the business. We are increasingly seeing big data and data-driven decision making used to support business activity in all areas, from marketing to overall strategy.

IT should be able to turn these practices inwards; using the same data-driven approach to answer questions on its own strategy. For instance, there is actually a relatively small number of factors that can be used to predict data centre costs.

Combining these with the right calculations and big data tools, IT teams can quickly and confidently predict the precise impact of any potential decision they make. Combining this approach with the right “what if…?” questions, IT departments can see precisely what will be the best course of action to the business, whatever its goals.

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