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March 14, 2017updated 28 Mar 2017 4:29pm

Data centre strategy and the changing role of the CIO

The role of the CIO is continuing to change. Where once it was about infrastructure, reliability and keeping control of costs today technology and IT strategy are recognised as a central concern of all business leaders.

By John Oates

This means that the successful technology leader needs to deal with department heads who will be keen to take control of IT strategy for their business unit.

There is both a risk and an opportunity here.

The risk is a loss of control and budget but the opportunity is an environment where the importance of technology in pushing the business forward is recognised.

To do this effectively the enterprise must have a solid, future-proof strategic view of how their technology platform, and the data centres it is built on, will continue to support the development of the business. That means the CIO must embrace a new role in the centre of an enterprise’s strategic thinking.

Central to any data centre strategy is an acceptance of the importance of the cloud. However ambitious your plans for the data centre are it is unlikely that it will exist on its own. At least some services will be provided better, and cheaper, by cloud providers than by the in-house team. Exploiting the benefits of a hybrid infrastructure will also make it possible to build a more flexible, and hopefully more future-proof, platform.

The starting point for thinking about infrastructure is the central role of enterprise applications. Hardware decisions will be governed by the software the business needs to function.

Applications will even play a role in the basic decision of where the data centre should be located. Financial and trading applications which require as close to zero latency as possible will probably need to near the city, the trading floor and the markets.

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Data centres dealing with Internet of Things platforms might be better placed near where the data is created and collected.

But assuming the enterprise has decent networking capabilities and isn’t relying on milliseconds of trading advantage then latency should not restrict where you decide to put your data centre.

There are advantages to a rural location such as likely cheaper space, power and cooling. But there might be drawbacks in terms of redundancy and speed of network connections, ease of access and latency.

After thinking about the ‘whats and wheres’ the next stage is ‘the how’.

It is very unlikely that the business has all the skills it needs to build a data centre from scratch, it will need the help and expertise of a variety of partners.

The changing role of IT within the organisation requires a far more strategic role for these partners. They need a wide range of skills and expertise not just the ability to get servers up and running for the lowest price.

However well-designed the data centre it will need attention and continual upgrading.

Hardware is becoming like software – it no longer has an annual technology refresh but goes through almost constant improvement and development.

This also means the role of management software and automation of every day data centre tasks needs to be built in from the start.

Staff need to be freed up to innovate and optimise infrastructure, and therefore business applications, rather than spending their time on basic maintenance tasks.


Practical steps


A data centre strategy needs to define the business goals it needs to achieve. Think about what is wrong with the existing infrastructure and what the business needs from a new platform.

Identify the key reason for starting such a project.

That might be pressure to cut costs, dealing with an expected growth in the company, simply outgrowing existing infrastructure, reducing the risk of downtime or improving resilience and redundancy. Or it might be dealing with a more fundamental change to how the business is developing and changing.

Digital disruption is turning all areas of business on its head.

Keeping that core target in sight will help create as strategy which delivers what the business needs.

Choose the key members of the team.

You will need the right technical advice from your own team, from network providers and from other partners.

There also needs to be input from the security team right from the start of the design process.

Equally a voice from the end users will help keep the project focussed on the business requirements.

Don’t forget that data centre strategy is not just about technology. You need walls, electricity and cooling so find the right person from Facilities or Estates.

Financing for technology infrastructure is also changing fast. To find the right balance between capital and operating expenditure you will also need detailed help and advice from finance or procurement.

The first job for this team will be accurately assessing the current demands and capabilities of the existing infrastructure.

This means power and cooling loads and limits. It means application demands, outage history, limits set by the network and the specific demands of key applications in terms of speed and latency.

The team will also need access to current plans for future services or acquisitions which will have an impact on the infrastructure.

The next stage is far more difficult and likely to include at least an element of speculation.

Estimating future demand is an almost impossible job.

But to create a strong business case you will need to offer predictions for future demand and what infrastructure will be required to meet acceptable service levels.

Looking at past demand growth can help here.

But key to any future technology plan is planning to be wrong.

Whether it is the role of the internet, mobile technologies, IoT, artificial intelligence or big data predicting the future is a tough task.

Infrastructure needs to be as flexible as possible to allow for changes none of us can predict. This means leaving room in all your calculations for continued accelerating change.

Buying too much capacity used to mean spending too much money. But hybrid infrastructure and flexible purchasing, paying for what you use, should allow you to build a data centre with an element of extra headroom built in.

However good your predictions are an effective infrastructure strategy must have flexibility at its heart.

Business change is happening faster than ever but software-defined infrastructure can give your data centre the ability to change too.

Today’s data centre strategy does not end with delivery of a static system.

Instead it includes running and continual improvement of the infrastructure which lets the business services and applications work at their best.

Whatever you build must have the ability to keep changing and growing in order to keep pace with the accelerating demands of the business.

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