Mark Harris is the vice president of marketing and data center strategy at Nlyte Software with more than 30 years experience in product and channel marketing, sales, and corporate strategy. Nlyte Software is the independent provider of data center infrastructure Management (DCIM) solutions.
I attended this year's AFCOM Data Center World held at the Mandalay Bay convention center in Las Vegas, and felt compelled to write about my experience given the excitement and exchange of ideas at the event. The emphasis of this event was on real solutions for today’s data center and facility managers. Some of the industry’s largest end-users and vendors in attendance were engaged in very real conversations surrounding today’s modern IT infrastructure and how to preserve existing data center assets confirming what we are hearing with our own customers.
The event covered a range of topics including: new ways of supporting high density computing, vendors providing some form of DCIM, convergence on standard IP-based connections for monitoring and control, questions surrounding costs for services and resources, and even an new intelligent rack system was shown. I should also mention that I was intrigued by the in-person conversations surrounding the emerging hybrid model of computing to include in-house, colocation, cloud and modular and the economics driving this mix.
What is this new model? It is about delivering IT services at a specific cost. In the past, we all operated under the umbrella of delivering IT servers at ANY cost. Today, it’s really about specific costs, and each type of service or application has different cost models. Back-office email, for instance, may have a costing model that is vastly different than e-commerce revenue transaction processing systems. The AFCOM show attendees are beginning to talk about this. The vendors are also beginning to talk about the economics, but surprisingly, most of these discussions between end-user and vendors are not aligned. The show vendors were talking about discrete product cost, while the end-users wanted to talk about service delivery costs – a clear disconnect.
It turns out that trying to quantify the total cost associated with work executed is hard to do as a vendor. The end-user sees all the pieces working together and can do some simple math to figure out their costs per unit of work. Vendors at the show seemed to struggle with that idea. They wanted to provide product costs, but had a hard time participating in bigger and more strategic discussions, which involved many components working together.
Some key observations emerged at AFCOM:
1. High-Density Data Centers – Doing More with Less
Many of the show floor vendors were demonstrating new solutions created for the world of high-density computing. Squeezing more computing into less space, powering it, and keeping it cool, with much more intelligent cooling, much higher capacity power distribution, more efficient fans and everything else needed to create the data center filled with 20kW racks. It was good to see the forward-looking solutions, in a world that currently runs 4-5kW racks on average. This density theme also manifested itself in discussions about Direct Current and Over Current Protection considerations. Unicom, ServerTech, Cooper and StarLine took the lead on these topics.
2. Vendors Jump Onto the DCIM Bandwagon
DCIM was one of the most prevalent themes throughout the show and its educational sessions. Many vendors - hardware and software vendors alike - wanted to associate with the DCIM movement. And why not? Accordingly to Gartner, Forrester and The 451 Group, adoption of DCIM is one of the biggest cost-containment opportunities for the the data center. That said, most DCIM software vendors at the show were talking about building islands. Tactical islands of must-have features offered by their products, but the discussions got very thin when looking for an off-the-shelf, strategically integrated story. (However every vendor happily volunteered to ENGINEER a custom integration on a T&M basis). This is partly due to the use of the term “DCIM” to describe anything new in the data center monitoring and management space. Many of the booth graphics stated “DCIM” in their first bullet of value, but what they actually delivered ranged all over the place. There were the big element management solution providers, the environmental and power distribution vendors, the cooling vendors and even the remote access solutions which were popular 5 years ago. End-users were just as confused with how to apply what they were seeing on the show floor to their strategic charter to get their data center economics under control.
3. The Cloud and Colocation Realities
Cloud topics proliferated across the educational sessions. Using the cloud, planning the cloud, when a cloud is required, how the cloud will fit with other styles of computing, etc. In spite of the “cloud everything” message so common recently, the mixed hybrid model of computing is clearly here to stay. While colocation vendors were limited in number at the show, it was clear that our next 10 to 15 years of computing will include some individually unique mix of in-house data centers, colocation space, cloud services and modular approaches. While most of the show was full of vendors that catered to traditional in-house data centers, a fair amount of the products shown could easily be applied to colocation space as well.
4. TCP/IP Based Interfaces Take Shape
Everything in the data center is finally being instrumented with easy to access standards-based IP based network interfaces. All of the vendors that offered active devices, IT or facilities are now bringing monitoring and control ports to the table in industry-standard ways. The previously seen proprietary interfaces and/or industrial protocols are being supplanted by off-the-shelf Web and SNMP access. Nearly all of the equipment shown on the show floor including IT gear (such as servers and switches), power components (such as PDUs and power panels), and cooling gear (including smart fans and CRACs) are getting this easy networked access. Luckily, after 25 years, this battle has nearly been won and proof was everywhere.
5. Capacity Planning – What are the Costs?
The specific aspects of how various products affected costing for IT was a topic few vendors on the show floor wanted to address. Apparently costing service/resources is much harder to do than costing a widget! A few of the sessions talked about capacity planning from a technology standpoint, but little mention was given to capacity planning in the context of cost. Costing IT is about understanding the financial impacts of equipment from the moment it arrives to the moment it is de-commissioned and few of the players at the show expressed the deep understanding of the business management. Notable exceptions of vendors were willing to discuss lifecycle IT costings were HP Critical Facilities, Nlyte Software and RF Code.
6. Modernizing with Intelligent Racks – Are We There Yet?
There was a smattering of intelligent rack solutions being shown. Intelligent racks included various incarnations of hardware and software with the purpose of programmatically identifying where specific assets are located and what those assets are. On the show floor there were a couple of electro-mechanical approaches and two different RFID based (near-field and active). While not an absolute requirement, this is one of the most requested wish-list features in the data center management space, and to date we are seeing some real progress, but still no perfect solution for everyone. The solutions demonstrated on the AFCOM show floor were typically proprietary, non-trivial in cost and were limited in applicability across a wide variety of devices, racks and deployments.
All in all, the AFCOM show was an interesting cross-section of the state of the art for the data center today, with a glimpse of the future for many of us. Many of the technologies on display have matured to the point where they could be deployed and utilized today, given the right set of circumstances and the desire to take strategic steps towards managing IT costs. As an industry, we are currently in a general transition phase, where we own a ton of "old" computing structures and resources which are in production, and "as soon as budget permits" will be replacing and augmenting many of these with "new" state of the art designs.
Many of the discussions by end-users at the show embodied their two-fold agenda; 1) find solutions to extend the life of their existing structures, and 2) begin to understand what it will take to transition over the next couple of years to a cost-centric hybrid style of computing where IT services are provided at known and defensible costs. Implied in the new approaches is the addition of significant new levels of discipline with regards to planning and asset management for the purpose of costing work. As this bigger picture, longer-term costing gymnastics may be new to many of the attendees, it was clear that they become part of our daily routine and the AFCOM show and educational sessions are just part of the process to "Get There."
While the data center has historically been an aggregation of many individual tactical solutions to the various requirements of processing, storage, networking, power distribution and cooling, it is very clear that the more strategic cost-based approach is coming into focus for many end-users. Some vendors will get deeper into the game and focus on helping their customers with these costing attributes of IT service delivery. Other vendors will be slower to understand this new requirement and will continue to talk about products and prices. In the end, I expect the vendors who understand where they fit in this new mixed hybrid cost-based model will command a growing part of the pie. It is exciting to see this progress and I expect more each year.
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