Shortcuts to stability
Written by Nick Martindale
How has the downturn affected organisations' ability to maintain resilient infrastructure? Nick Martindale considers how the market and attitudes are changing
Against a backdrop of recession, reduced investment, the rising cost of land for datacentres and tighter planning restrictions, the management of datacentre capabilities has taken on new significance as organisations seek to make necessary cutbacks.
In this environment, whether or not to outsource appears to be the primary consideration. For organisations that do want to have their own facility, the trend has been to downsize or build more cost-efficient premises. Analysis by global research firm, Gartner recommends looking no more than seven years into the future, rather than trying to project 15 or 20 years ahead, as has been the case in the past. A second "pod" can always be added further down the line when more efficient power and cooling technologies can be taken advantage of. Other recommendations include only installing the power that is needed (Gartner, again, suggests an estimate of 10 to 12 kilowatts per rack is reasonable) and using "zones" within the building to reduce build and electrical costs. This could also be applied to older, existing premises to extend lifespan.
Where to locate a datacentre is a constantly evolving dilemma as the cost of land and space requirements fluctuate. Rupert Chapman, head of IT infrastructure consulting at PA Consulting Group, points out the need to seek the right balance in terms of proximity to the main site - which means weighing up such issues as getting skilled people on site and hefty telecoms costs. "An emerging approach is to have a metropolitan datacentre cluster that offers good enough protection, with some remote data bunker or datacentre for the monumental "one in one hundred years" disaster scenario," Chapman explains.
Another issue that is impacting on datacentre provision is virtualisation, which can reduce the need for multiple sites. "It's easy now to take old applications - maybe on legacy versions of operating systems like NT, OS/2 or Sco Unix, or multiple versions of current operating systems - and virtualise them, simplifying the infrastructure and the management of that," says Roland Mann, sales and marketing director at ICM.
"That opportunity has cost savings built into it and also gives them the ability to ask if they need six datacentres or whether they can get it all into two."
Himself an advocate of outsourcing, Dave Gilpin, chief strategy officer at SunGard Availability Services, explains how the outsourcing model enables users to cost-effectively access highly advanced capabilities which would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, such as multiple redundant hosting facilities, secure networks, and "intelligent hands" management, while funding the datacentre on an 'as-a-service' basis. There is also the added benefit for some organisations of not committing to an entire building; most providers offer the ability to rent space in their recovery centres.
THE ENERGY ISSUE
The potential cost savings that arise from reducing power consumption and improving energy efficiency ensures environmental issues remain factors when assessing or upgrading technology, by default. Jeff Thomas, chief executive of Ark Continuity, points out that energy makes up 35 per cent of the cost of running a datacentre; a figure that is only likely to increase as costs start to rise again. "It makes good sense from a CSR perspective to be seen to be doing something to reduce your CO2 emissions, but it makes obvious business sense too," he says. "A low power usage effectiveness of 1.45, compared to an industry standard of 2.2, delivers a 40 per cent saving."
The introduction of a new climate levy in April 2010 will also add to the business case to reduce carbon footprints. Organisations that use more than 2MW of power across their sites will be asked for an upfront payment, and will receive a proportion of this back if they can demonstrate a reduction in their CO2 emissions. "It will be back on agendas over the next six months and beyond, as and when people wake up and realise the impact of the levy," says Mike Osborne, managing director of ICM. "If you're running a number of significant datacentres and offices around the UK it will be hundreds rather than tens of thousands of pounds."
Other providers are taking this onboard, too. SunGard's newest facility in Woking, for example, has been designed by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accredited designers, and makes use of fresh-air cooling, server virtualisation and low-power processor technology. The "shared services" model is also far more energy efficient in general than private facilities, adds Gilpin.
The economic downturn has also had an impact on the desktop, mainly because the amount of upheaval in terms of staff restructuring means work area plans are now out of date, and will remain so until new structures have bedded in. This upheaval is far from over too, with mergers, acquisitions and takeovers likely to heat up as the economy enters an upturn. "Can they be sure that the critical staff named in business continuity plans are still working for them, or that the critical systems acquired during a merger are fully understood and covered?" asks Chapman.
Virtualisation has also had an effect on the desktop, by offering companies the possibility of allowing non-essential staff, who would not normally be in the 30 per cent or so that have access to a datacentre, to work remotely. ICM, for example, recently launched its Emergency Office product, which allows users to access virtual PCs through a USB stick that can be plugged into any PC. "It enables people to look again at who goes to the recovery centre," says Mann, adding that when used on a dedicated basis, this kind of product could be particularly useful in the event of an epidemic such as swine flu.
But not everyone is convinced by the potential of virtualisation - or cloud computing - as a business continuity tool. "Cloud computing poses more questions than it has answers," says Ark Continuity's Thomas. "Resilience is built in because data sits in multiple locations so you always have access to it. The key question, though, is just how secure will it be?"
Despite the recession, data security also remains high priority, with a Forrester survey of European IT professionals released earlier this year finding that 87 per cent saw protecting sensitive customer data as either 'important' or 'very important'. A key development in this area regards replicated and off-site backup, says ICM's Mann. "Where data comms lines are coming down in cost, it's more attainable to have your data replicated at a second building - either a provider's or your own - to provide additional protection outside the traditional CD or tape," he says.
A recent poll by SunGard found that 65 per cent of ICAEW members believed levels of operational risk had increased in the last 12 months. But there are signs, too, that business continuity is coming back on the corporate agenda as an economy recovery approaches. ICM's Osborne, for example, tells of one organisation where getting finance to grow the company was dependent on a demonstrable business continuity plan, and another where an insurance company wanted to see certificates for the successful trials to assess the level of risk. "As larger organisations focus on growing their business again rather than running a very tight ship that pressure will reappear," he says. "Any organisation that has let its standards drop will find themselves under a lot of pressure."