Data centre consolidation: Developing an on-going strategy

Data centre consolidation is an on-going process as businesses and technology constantly evolve. A strategy focused on considered and phased approach will be crucial for success.

Data centres develop and grow over time just like any business effort. And like any business, a data centre needs...

periodic pruning, reorganisation and consolidation to optimise efficiency and provide the greatest value to the company. In so doing, IT teams need to develop a clear strategy for keeping data centre consolidation efforts on track.

In this tip, expert Hamish Macarthur explains what drives data centre consolidation and offers advice on how IT professionals should embark on an on-going data centre strategy.

Consolidation offers potential worth considering

The excitement of new applications, emerging technologies and green field site development is quickly replaced with the need to maintain, update and upgrade systems to keep the business operational, competitive and servicing customers.

The result of data centre growth is that different practices develop to support different sites, different business units and applications. Technologies were selected for good reasons in the past, with new developments offering a new richness of options. But, over time, growth can show a dark side. Changing business and technological needs, personnel turnover, regulatory changes and other external and internal factors can fragment the data centre. The best response is to consolidate processes, technologies, locations and suppliers in order to improve manageability and have more flexibility going ahead.

There are clear financial gains to be achieved in a data centre consolidation process, and gains can be measured in different ways, depending on what the consolidation programme is. For example:

  • Consolidating physical locations can reduce overhead and operational costs associated with multiple data centre locations or reduce data centre energy costs.
  • Consolidating software onto fewer hardware platforms can reduce hardware maintenance costs and software licencing fees.
  • Consolidation can reduce the number of server, storage and network (hardware) units to be purchased, leading to lower acquisition and finance costs.

But data centre consolidation doesn’t stop with systems and software. When processes or applications are consolidated, a data centre can ensure more consistent service across the business. For example:

  • Consolidating core business applications such as order processing, inventory management, invoicing or management reports makes support and upgrades easier. So rather than having multiple email or database platforms for various departments, pick one and make it serve the entire organisation.
  • Consolidation can simplify and reduce errors in system processes such as data protection services, security, network services, system discovery and management.
  • Consolidation should also examine the business processes themselves and redefine roles and procedures to best utilise computing resources and IT staffing talent.

Consolidation allows rapid and valuable growth

Changes in the business often drive data centre consolidation. These changes can include reorganisation, acquisition of new businesses that need to be integrated, introduction of new business units, new ways of transacting business, interfacing with customers and suppliers and complying with new industry or legal guidelines.

The reality is that chief information officers and data centre managers must have a clear strategy as to how the system infrastructure can and will be consolidated. Without such a plan in place, the inevitable system silos will continue and system sprawl will become a real challenge.

The IT strategy must be in line with the business goals and the course along which the business is being directed. One of the key goals of IT evolution is to stop being a line item cost to the business, and start emerging as a partner that can add value and create opportunities for the business.

Let’s look at an example. Consider a business establishing itself in a new geography. The IT systems would need to be replicated for the data centre located in the new area. Yet, the business imperative was to be fully operational within a three-month time frame. Without any spare space within the existing data centres, constructing a new data centre, which would take 9 to 12 months, would not be possible in that time frame. The way forward would be to consolidate existing resources in order to support the additional resources needed.

Consolidating servers and storage arrays can release floor space. A company could complete that whole task in a much shorter period, enabling the new business to develop without any drag from IT -- a positive boost to all concerned within the business units and the IT department.

Build in flexibility to better utilise resources

When consolidating resources or processes, there should be no surprises. Use system discovery tools to map the system infrastructure and identify the hardware and software elements. Then, IT will have to illustrate where and what data is being stored. Above all, the plan must ensure that changes in the system infrastructure will not cause a loss or degradation of current services.

Virtualisation is a key element of a data centre consolidation strategy. Many organisations have been consolidating their system infrastructure and data centres over the last ten years. When properly implemented, infrastructure consolidation can reduce server inventories by factors of three to five, but even more consolidation is possible when virtualisation is also considered.

Consider implementing a converged network architecture, installing Fibre Channel or iSCSI networks to connect servers and storage. This approach simplifies and accelerates the consolidation of server and storage resources and delivers better utilisation of all physical assets. It also sets the framework for virtualisation to take system consolidation one step further.

Data centre consolidation strategies for the long haul

Taking a considered and phased approach to consolidation is key to success. This must tie in with the business requirements and changes that are known as well as unknown. Flexibility is required to enable IT to respond to evolving business demands.

The stages of establishing and reviewing the consolidation strategy will include all elements of the infrastructure, applications and service delivery. For example, introducing video services will have implications, not only on the network but also on the storage, security and the servers supporting them within the data centre.

It is advisable to identify all the elements that must be consolidated at any given time. This enables better phasing and reduces risk as systems are upgraded and deployed. For continuous and long-term improvement, users must perform the following tasks:

  • Migrate the infrastructure to a set of shared, networked and virtualised platforms.
  • Identify specific infrastructure support applications such as security, data protection, office services and email.
  • Review alternative approaches to ensure that implementations are future-ready.
  • Study information management platforms such as databases, file systems and archival requirements to ensure they are sustainable and deliver the required access of information resources securely.
  • Build these platforms with a view to de-risking the consolidation of business critical applications often viewed as the last or more complex environments to consolidate.
  • Evaluate vendors to simplify the acquisition, support and maintenance requirements, with a view to reducing the number of suppliers to a manageable level.

Data centre consolidation delivers real returns. Embarking along this route ensures systems are aligned to the business and enables new technologies such as virtualisation and cloud services to be evaluated and implemented effectively.

Hamish Macarthur is the founder of Macarthur Stroud International, a research and consulting organisation specialising in the technology markets. He is a regular contributor to

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