Everyone knows what a data centre is, but some old-fashioned ideas linger, including that it is only suitable for high-end enterprises. The end result is that many Irish businesses are not aware of what data centres can do for them, and this is likely to become a real problem as they scramble to meet fast-changing customer expectations.
The central proposition of the modern data centre is co-location, which is to say moving privately-owned servers and networking equipment out of on-premise installations and into a third-party data centre.
“Put simply, it's a location that allows you to run your digital business,” said Séamus Dunne, MD of Digital Realty Ireland.
So far, so simple: replacing old infrastructure with a more robust setup housed in a well-connected and secure location. However, Digital Realty, provides a carrier-neutral data centre, something, said Dunne, that brings many of the benefits of cloud while avoiding its ‘gotchas’.
Brian Roe, chief executive of Servecentric, a Digital Realty partner, said that this is key and that those businesses that do engage with collocation soon find themselves better-equipped to provide responsive digital services – including smaller businesses.
“Our client base runs across the range of business types and sectors. We deal a lot with enterprise-level companies in IT and telecommunications, but we also work with small- to medium-sized businesses. Certainly, over the last 18 months we've seen them come to understand the benefits,” he said.
Roe said that the factors that slow adoption were perceived cost and risk. In fact, he said, these are both areas where co-location is an asset: actual costs can be lower than cloud or on-premise deployments, while security and compliance are better.
Beyond the clouds
Some of the same arguments are made for cloud, of course, and while it has become a feature of IT provision in most businesses, the idea of handing over all operations to someone else should give pause for thought.
Cloud has a place and when you consider, for instance, software as a service (SaaS), virtually every business is today using cloud, and this was only increased by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the idea that every application and every piece of data should be running in the public cloud is questionable at best.
Dunne said that it does not make sense to drive every resource into the cloud, and that the narrative that everything should go cloud-native was driven by the search for novel headlines more than reality.
“The answer depends on whether you're talking about a start-up or micro-business or an established business. The reason for going into the cloud for a start-up, which is what it was initially for, is an economic one: I don't own anything and I just go,” he said.
For existing business, however, things other than initial start-up cash flow become an issue. Public cloud costs are well known for spinning up as fast as new instances, the migration cost can be incredibly high, and the cloud can be very difficult to leave once you have migrated to it.
In fact, co-location brings the benefits of cloud without compliance risks around data patriation or concerns about vendor lock-in. Like cloud, collocation is, fundamentally, about increasing abstraction away from bare metal, meaning the focus is on the application and data rather than the operating system and hardware.
Dunne said that while it was never possible to get rid of the physical equipment in the rack, the modern data centre meant not having to worry about running it, something that makes increasing sense as IT projects move away from a ‘big bang’ approach to the merging of development seen in agile and DevOps.
“When you think of the IT stack in terms of compute, storage and networking, and indeed the software stack right up to the application layer, the general trend is abstracting the complexity away,” said Dunne. “There is even a thing called infrastructure as code.
“We’re moving away from things like industry standard software like Linux, hypervisors and so on; they’re still there, but IT professionals will want to abstract from that. That's where DevOps came from.”
Connecting all worlds
Even the hyperscale cloud providers have realised this: Amazon, for instance, has unveiled AWS Outposts, which is its move back to the world of co-location in partnership with data centres.
Cross-network connection, or cross connect, means that co-location can become the centre of network operations, directly connecting both to headquarters and to the cloud, and Digital Realty's global co-location business offers its customer a platform-style operation – indeed, even housing the compute and network access nodes for the cloud providers in its data centres.
“If you take Dublin, if you want to run an enterprise, be it a bank or a retailer, you’re probably going to run some SaaS as well as have a number of other applications that you keep on-premise. The most efficient way to do that is with a cross connect in our data centre,” said Dunne.
In the end, though, the real reasons for moving to collocation are not about the technology so much as having the technology to meet changing customer expectations. This is something we have all had a taste of, given the pandemic.
“If you take where we are today and look forward to the next five to ten years, we're going to see industries transforming. Things that will be ‘table stakes’ to participate in the economy will include having fully-digitalised operational stacks: sales, marketing, logistics,” said Dunne.
There will be new ways of working, too.
“These things are a given and if you haven't got that in place, then you can't compete. The next thing will be disruption in industries; automotive, personal health, manufacturing, digital cash – it will all be completely transformed – remote learning, farming. Even though that sounds big and abstract if you're sitting in Ireland, anyone thinking it won't affect them will be out of business,” he said.
Similarly, Roe said that while changing social mores may seem alien, the fact that they are changing is important to grasp. As a result, breathless articles about digital transformation may seem like an irrelevance, but the reality is that habits are changing and businesses need their technology to meet customers where they are.
“I was listening to the radio the other day and they were talking about how making a phone call is almost considered an act of aggression for the under 20s. It's sad but it's true that people are not engaging with the supplier anymore. There has to be a new way to complete the transactions,” he said.
In the end, though, there is no final destination, other than to keep going. In this regard, co-location offers an answer because its inherent flexibility and agility, married with the control it offers, means IT can be seen as a process of continuous operation, iterating along the way.
“It's not just about customer expectations, it's about competitiveness. If you are not creating those efficiencies and giving your customers the experience they demand, your competitors are going to and then you're gone,” said Roe.
This article was first published in The Business Post on 19 December 2021.