To paraphrase Mark Twain's beaten-to-death yet still relevant quotation, rumors of the data center's death have been greatly exaggerated. For years, technology pundits have predicted that the Internet—which in many ways can be viewed as a giant virtual data center—would eventually eliminate the need for companies to keep rooms full of big, fast, powerful computers that serve up data to networks of users. Lo and behold, those fears appear to have been misguided.
In fairness, big computers aren't as prevalent as in the past—technology's adherence to Moore's Law has seen to that. But fast and powerful computers? They're still very much needed at the nerve center of any large corporation. Granted, there's a handful of companies whose data centers are growing to massive proportions—Google and Microsoft are the most obvious examples, with both tech giants serving up huge amounts of personalized data to legions of online consumers.
Michael Bell, vice president of server research for Gartner, says he can't even venture a guess as to how big Google's data center has grown, but he suspects it's responsible for a large portion of the company's $1 billion in annual electricity spending. [The New York Times last year estimated Google had at least 450,000 servers running in 25 data centers.]
But at most companies, data centers are shrinking as servers get ever smaller, costs related to powering and cooling them are rising, and tools such as virtualization software enable single servers to act like clusters. Yet as they get smaller, corporate data centers are becoming more important to their respective businesses. There are a plethora of reasons for this, from the continued growth of electronic business to the growing need to support mobile computing to the increasing complexity of the applications data centers support. Throw in an additional consideration Bell believes is critical—namely, the transformation of applications from locally run clients into on-demand services delivered to dumb devices—and the data center's place in the IT lineage appears safe for some time to come.
There also is a socio-environmental consideration: In an era when the fight against global warming has become a mainstream cause, some CIOs believe it's their duty to cut back on the power they use to run and cool all of their data center machines. But there is far from across-the-board agreement, with many CIOs saying they're way too busy supporting their company's core businesses to be bothered with environmental do-goodism.
That debate aside (we'll get back to it later), an indisputable truth has arisen: It's time to rethink the data center. Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz suggested as much in a well-worded blog entry last October, concluding with this ominous thought: "Why bother with data centers at all?" In response, companies across the U.S. and around the world are taking steps, practical and creative, to transform their data centers into operations befitting their changing business environments, and in some cases, the world's changing relationship with its resources.