Data centres in 2015: energy, security and management

Tikiri Wanduragala

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Tikiri Wanduragala, Lenovo’s EMEA x86 Server Systems Snr. Consultant, looks back at what went on in the world of data centres during 2015.

When I sat down to write this article looking back at what’s happened in the data centre space over the last 12 months, I realised that would actually be quite a difficult task. After all, with most data centres being built to last for 15 years or more, these are obviously long-term projects.

Changes can take a long time to filter through, so some of the more interesting discussion points that have emerged during 2015 are, in reality, what I consider to be the culmination of a few years of evolution.

Setting our scope back a bit further, over the last five years or so the trends have changed quite dramatically. Data centres used to be thought of as simply a room where you placed computers, with just one person in charge of it and a whole other bunch of people looking into what went inside it. It wasn’t very co-ordinated.

Then, with the dawn of the internet companies – Amazon, Google, Facebook and so on – we started to get a different view. We came to the realisation that data centres are in fact critical to our businesses, and that we have to consider the whole enterprise as a single entity. So, in a simplistic form, people started to think about data centres as computers. The most recent trend has seen people go one step further as they realise that what’s actually important isn’t the computers, or the storage, or the networks… it’s the applications.

That’s because the applications hold business logic. In high-level terms, data centres have evolved from being internally-focused, with data being structured the way a company wants it; to them now – while still managing that structured data – also having to account for a vast array of unstructured data out there in the public domain.

In the old world of structured data, you basically had people working in silos; you had experts in servers, storage, networking, databases, security, and so on. In this new world, those silos have to be broken down and you have to create virtual teams that will sit behind the applications.

That’s the challenge: breaking down those silos to release the value hidden within them. Having the best hardware and server infrastructure, for example, won’t particularly change your business. Having the best and most secure online banking application, on the other hand, will. All of which requires having a whole bunch of people working together.

Now, having said that, there are two big themes that have been at the top of people’s data centre agendas throughout 2015.

The first of these is energy. Energy has been a huge concern. Back in 2005-2008, few people were interested in this. That’s simply because the person running the servers wasn’t the one paying the bills for the data centre. But, as soon as it became the responsibility of just one person – with the breaking down of silos, as mentioned above – questions were asked.

To address this issue, one of the major things we’ve done on our servers is look again at cooling. If you can raise the temperature of the data centre and enable machines to operate in a hotter environment, it has a huge impact on the electricity bill. That’s important because it’s a direct cost; if you reduce it, it goes straight to profit.

One of the simple things we’ve been working on is efficient power supplies, so now our servers can operate at 45°C. One customer I know upped its data centre temperature from 18°C to 22°C and saved 40% on its electricity bill. So now the ambition is to get it from 22°C to 26°C or even 28°C.

That’s been a big focus for us at Lenovo, because raising the temperature reduces the lifetime of the server. That said, our servers can run at 42°C for the lifetime warranty of the machine. That can allow you a completely new way of thinking when it comes to data centre design. We’ve redesigned the way our servers work, from the efficiency of the power supply to the fans and the airflow through the machine.

The other trend I want to mention is security; there has been a definite shift from concerns about data loss to concerns about data theft. Security is not a trivial subject at all. There are both internal and external threats to look out for.

There are things called TPMs (Trusted Program Modules), which basically verify the code that is running on the server to check that it hasn’t been modified in any way. We put in two TPMs on our systems. The first is on the motherboard of the machine. The second is on the systems management module – the logic being that one way to maliciously modify things is via the system management; because once you’re in there, you’re a trusted user.

We also introduced encrypted drives to our servers. You know, when we originally introduced them the reaction seemed largely to be: “Well, so what?” But now, it’s getting a lot of interest. It’s a simple thing but it addresses an important aspect of data theft.

And that, I think, is ultimately what 2015 has been about for data centres: the data itself. Securing it, managing it and getting value out of it.

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