LAS VEGAS—Amid the growth of cloud computing and software as a service, the enterprise data center seems like it has lost its place to become a repository of outdated modes of operation and aging equipment ripe for replacement. The general impression is that the enterprise data center as we know it is dead.
Long live the data center. Call it the enterprise-defined data center.
The reality is that data centers will continue to exist. But they are quickly changing into hubs of innovation, smaller and more agile. This is something that we have seen coming, but now the trend is here. Data centers are changing under the feet of companies as they transform themselves around digital business models, which Garter analysts call "Mode 2" computing.
"It's an exciting time to be in infrastructure," said Vijay Luthra, senior vice president, global head of infrastructure, engineering and operations at Northern Trust, a speaker here at the Gartner Data Center, Infrastructure and Operations Management Conference. "CIOs are looking at very disruptive models."
The changing data center is at the confluence of two macro IT trends: The priority and value of data center spending has moved from hardware to software, while business leaders have started to understand that IT spend should not be about buying the best technology, but solving business problems—or taking advantage of opportunities—with that technology.
"It's not about 'my data center'; it's about delivering compute resources to the business the best way possible," said David Cappuccio, vice president and distinguished analyst. "The issue is how I support the business, which has nothing to do with hardware and software."
Well, not exactly. Technology is still central, but before considering a technology buy, businesses need a plan that starts with an opportunity and then puts that technology to work in a way that enables new business and growth rather than inhibit the business by diverting resources.
As a result of this shift in perspective, IT departments must start to reorganize themselves and to redefine roles within the department. IT leaders must ask questions like, "Who owns this workload or service?" "Are my teams diverse and agile enough?" and "How do I guarantee the business outcomes I'm looking for?"
The technology pieces that both reflect and influence this new thinking include the software-defined data center, flash storage and hyper-converged systems.
We have seen a lot of movement this year around software-defined networking, but that is just part of the software-defined universe. Software can manage storage, compute, networking, management and resource sharing and move workloads across data centers or clouds.
By itself, it seems as if the flash storage market is driving many of the changes in the data center all by itself. "This was a very amazing year for [solid-state arrays]," said Gartner Research Vice President Joe Unsworth.
"We have seen unnatural things from vendors," including huge discounts, promotions, new business models and IPOs like Pure Storage. Conveniently, flash arrays have come into their own just as businesses find themselves needing the speed, manageability and cost benefits that flash can provide.
Flash arrays will be part of a new breed of hyper-converged systems, appliances that meld compute, storage, networking and management and that are easy to deploy and scale.
The market here is very young, with software-centric solutions from startups like Nutanix and Simplivity competing with EMC, Cisco and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which just released Synergy, a hyper-converged "composable infrastructure" box that treats that infrastructure as code.
Northern Trust turned to Nutanix to cut costs and improve management, and in the process was able to improve productivity across the company with the IT staff reorganized into one team to manage the entire enterprise as well as gain improved performance from the bank's large Splunk deployment, Luthra said.
The new data center is a big opportunity for business technology, but there will be trials along the way. The challenges are daunting for IT managers, who must facilitate change across the organization. Culture and hiring practices must evolve, and everything must be backed by vision and leadership from the top.
That's why the "enterprise-defined data center," a term Cappuccio brought up, is so compelling. Where in the past businesses were often slaves to their data centers, now businesses are gaining control over them, and finding out what they are really capable of.
Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture, at TechTarget. Before that, he was the director, Editorial Operations, at Ziff Davis Enterprise. While at Ziff Davis Media, he was a writer and editor at eWEEK. No investment advice is offered in his blog. All duties are disclaimed. Scot works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.