Before the COVID-19 pandemic, remote data center management tools were optional, and many data center managers held off on the more powerful options due to cybersecurity concerns. Today, however, with work-from-home employees and quarantine-related data center access restrictions, these tools are a necessity.
The pandemic has put a crimp in enterprise budgets, however, so companies are increasingly looking to colocation and cloud for their increased data center needs. For colocation providers, remote management tools have become a key platform differentiator.
Responding to an IDC survey (results published in August) 78 percent of companies said that the pandemic has impacted their data center resources in the form of supply chain constraints, limited physical access, and higher demand from business applications and work-from-home users.
And 72 percent of companies say they plan to increase their use of colocation providers – up from 52 percent the previous year. In addition, 46 percent said they will invest in remote monitoring and control technology for their data centers.
"But there's absolutely a lot of uncertainty about the economy," said IDC analyst Jennifer Cooke. "I don't see everyone rushing out to buy and install this, even though it makes complete sense."
Instead, she said, many organizations are looking to get remote management as a service, instead of making an upfront capital expense – or just shifting the workloads to cloud and colocation providers.
Vendors providing remote management tools, such as data center infrastructure management (DCIM) providers, are increasingly looking at providing their tools as a service and adding more advanced features and integrations, Cooke told Data Center Knowledge.
For example, in October, data center infrastructure equipment and software vendor Vertiv announced a partnership with Honeywell to provide integration of its DCIM software with building management systems.
The move to more remote management is not a temporary reaction to the pandemic, Cooke said.
"COVID-19 put a foot on the gas pedal for shifts we were already seeing," she said. "Those trends started with digital transformation and we've accelerated that trend."
In addition to Vertiv, other leading DCIM vendors offering a wide range of capabilities include Schneider Electric, Sunbird Software, Nlyte Software, FNT Software, and Cormant, according to Robert McFarlane, principal data center designer at Shen Milsom & Wilke. McFarlane also teaches a course in data center facilities at Marist College's Institute for Data Center Professionals.
The first remote management tool that data center managers found they urgently needed was asset tracking, he told DCK.
"People were installing new servers rapid-fire, with as few people in the data center as possible, and people who were trying to manage them didn't know how many there were, or where they were, or anything else," he said. "They were installing them whenever there was space to put them – but that doesn't mean that there was sufficient power or cooling available."
A DCIM system can do more than just track where the servers are located, he said. They can analyze the environment and indicate where equipment should be installed. "Instead of putting it in the first open rack space, they can put it somewhere where it can actually work."
The AI Future
The most cutting-edge DCIM solutions can go even further, using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify equipment that is about to fail or that needs patching or upgrading, said McFarlane.
A couple of years ago, these kinds of claims were all marketing, but today, major DCIM vendors are starting to make their AI integrations more meaningful, he said. "Is it mature yet? I wouldn't say it is. But it is certainly going to get there."
One of the DCIM vendors investing in AI is Schneider Electric.
"That's where we're going and that's what the industry is asking for," said Russell Senesac, the company's strategy development director. "We're seeing a lot of vendors going that direction."
But he admits that there's still a long way to go.
For example, it would be nice to know when the batteries inside an uninterruptible power supply were about to fail, he told DCK.
Schneider offers this feature, but not across its entire product portfolio, he said. Plus, many customers will be continuing to use older units for a long time.
"If you buy our latest unit, with our latest software, you get this," he said. "But how many people have units that are 10 or 15 years old? If I'm an actual business owner, then unless my building is going to catch fire, I'm not going to be able to retrofit my entire system to be able to do that stuff."
Less Resistance to Adoption
The biggest change that Senesac has seen in customer attitudes since the pandemic began is less resistance to using automated tools.
For example, the first step to fixing many problems, such as hung network switches, is to turn them off and turn them back on again.
"You used to have someone running around the data center unplugging things," he said.
Automating this process used to be taboo, he said. "People said, 'If we had that capability, it's only a matter of time before someone hacks it.'"
The pandemic broke down those barriers, he said.
"For applications around remote access that enable them to have more control, they would have said no in the past, and they say yes now," he said. That doesn't mean cybersecurity has been forgotten, though, he added – customers still want to see that proper protections are in place.
Remote Management Leaders
Remote access, specifically, data center portals, have suddenly become a business driver for data center providers, according to a June research brief by Frank Louthan, managing director for equity research at Raymond James.
That wasn't the case until March of this year, he wrote in a report comparing QTS Realty Trust, Equinix, and Digital Realty. "Customers preferred to make the trek to the facility – just like they always had."
After the pandemic hit, he wrote, usage of all remote access platforms skyrocketed, he wrote.
All three companies offer the ability to track and report common data. QTS stood out, however, with better ease of use, features, functionality, and support for mobile platforms.
Last month, Frost & Sullivan gave QTS its 2020 Global Visionary Innovation Award for its remote management platform.
According to its second quarter earnings report, more than 17,000 users are now taking advantage of QTS's remote management tools, called the Service Delivery Platform, up 20 percent from the previous quarter. And the amount of time users spend on the platform has doubled from pre-pandemic levels.
Even after restrictions on visiting data centers were relaxed, the number of customers physically visiting QTS facilities remains low, said Brent Bensten, CTO of products at QTS Realty Trust.
"We have new protocols in place so that people can come in and out if they need to," he told DCK.
Instead, not only are existing customers sticking with the remote access platform, but new customers are buying services without physical visits, just virtual tours. "And the less people on our sites, the less risk to people from the virus," he said.
QTS's biggest revenue growth was in the bandwidth upgrade feature, where usage was up 85 percent compared to the previous year, followed by cross-connects, which were up 30 percent.
"People are adding capacity," said Bensten. Not just capacity to handle users working from home, but also for connections to their cloud service providers, he said. "That's the biggest thing we saw."
The next biggest usage growth was for automation to handle power levels and to shift workloads to balance out the infrastructure.
QTS started building its platform four years ago, he said, and the timing was perfect. "We're blessed, for sure," he said. "At the time, we thought, are we crazy? But now, seeing data center companies much larger than us trying to do what we're doing is a validation of our strategy."
Much of the basic technology is available commercially, he said.
"We've taken off-the-shelf best-of-breed tools and layered on top of it to make them smarter," he said. He declined to name specific vendor names for security reasons.
The challenge, he said, is to tie everything together. What's missing in the market today is the orchestration piece that ties it all together into an operational system, he said. For colocation providers and enterprise data center managers looking to build their own remote management platforms, that's something they might have to build themselves.
Some Data Centers Have a Way to Go
Only half of data center service providers around the globe are using DCIM technology, according to a recent survey by 451 Research and Schneider.
Some 42 percent use commercial DCIM tools while 31 percent use home-grown code, and most have a combination. Adoption rates were highest among the largest service providers.
The pandemic has been a catalyst for underlying trends that were already in motion, said report author Daniel Bizo, senior research analyst for data center services and infrastructure at 451 Research, now part of S&P Global Market Intelligence.
"What the pandemic did was to drive customer demand for data center services and remote management even higher," he told DCK.
In addition to "smart hands" services, data center customers are now relying more heavily on remote monitoring and capacity planning tools to get better visibility, he said. That helps enterprise customers shift towards more online services, he said, and makes them more resilient against failures.
"The cost of downtime or underperformance – lost productivity or revenue – just went up," he said.
A similar survey by the Uptime Institute confirms the trend – 90 percent of data centers say they will increase the use of remote monitoring and management systems, and 73 percent expect greater use of automation.
Data center provider Cyxtera began implementing its remote data center management systems prior to the pandemic, and that head start made a big difference when the COVID-19 lockdowns started going into effect around the globe, said Mitch Fonseca, the company's VP of data center products.
"We have deployed more than 100,000 sensors to monitor temperature, humidity, and power across our global data center platform," he told DCK. "Cyxtera is currently generating over 10 million data points per day."
Data centers that are late to the game, however, may face some challenges as they build out their platforms.
"Organizations are now increasing investment in remote monitoring tools," said Daniel Newton, CEO at CDS, which provides technology services to data centers. "There is a positive ROI on monitoring and remote management investment. However, deployment and proper integration takes time and the people with the right skills."
Most organizations lack people with the right skills to deploy, maintain, and improve a remote monitoring and management platform, he said.
And, of course, there are the budget constraints associated with the pandemic, said Herman Chan, president at Sunbird, a leading DCIM vendor.
However, even industries greatly impacted by COVID-19, such as airlines and retail, are re-allocating budgets and finding the money for strategic purchases like DCIM.
"Many organizations have actually accelerated their digitization projects and, with everyone working from home, the need for remote data center management tools for real-time visualization of the status and capacity of all assets becomes critical," he told DCK.