Writing about technology is, by nature, an exercise in predicting the future. And when it comes to enterprise technology, the question hanging over nearly everyone’s head is: “What will happen to my data center?”
To be sure, data is the lifeblood of the enterprise. But the infrastructure used to process and manipulate that data is in a constant state of flux. In today’s world, the biggest changes involve virtualization, software-defined systems and the cloud, all of which are steadily breaking down the close relationships that once existed between hardware, software and middleware platforms, while at the same time ushering in new levels of dynamism and diversity across data environments.
To some, then, the future lies in the hybrid cloud – a still largely undefined term that encompasses both internal and external, cloud and non-cloud, virtual and physical infrastructure. Research firm MarketsandMarkets says the hybrid cloud market is on pace to grow some 30 percent per year over the next five years, topping $79.5 billion by 2018. The idea is that techniques like on-demand provisioning, in-house security and advanced business continuity platforms will enable an anytime/anywhere data environment that can be scaled across disparate resources at a moment’s notice and hit dramatically lower operating margins than today’s clunky data center.
But is that all there is to it? One last goal to strive for? The hybrid future, and once we’ve arrived we can sit back and enjoy all the fruits of digital nirvana? You didn’t really think it was going to be that simple, did you?
The thing to keep in mind is that not only is the data center changing, but its role in the enterprise is changing as well. As AMD’s Andrew Feldman pointed out to gigaom.com recently, the data center no longer provides the all-purpose data environment at many organizations these days. Increasingly, client-side computing is gravitating toward the data center, which means more parallel data processing and small packet traffic distribution and less of the large block and file volumes required of traditional enterprise applications. AMD’s ARM strategy dovetails nicely with this trend in that it caters to both the highly parallel nature of this burgeoning environment and the software-defined architectures it will spawn.
But if the enterprise data center won’t be tasked with business application support, web transactions and the like, where will those workloads go? To the cloud, of course. Already, leading providers like Amazon and Google are loading up on the kinds of applications the enterprise finds most valuable, where they can be had more cheaply and shared between greater numbers of users than the single data center could ever hope to achieve. The hybrid cloud, then, will fulfill this mandate, not simply by integrating legacy systems with hosted infrastructure, but by integrating the all-new enterprise data center with its remote counterparts.
And what will this new enterprise data center look like? Well, that’s where things get really interesting. A few weeks ago I wrote about the all-Flash data center – not as the future of IT, mind you, just one possible future. A few days later, I was asked about archiving: Won’t the data center need hard drives to support long-term storage? The short answer is no, because that is not likely to be a function that the enterprise of the future will build out and support in-house. Somewhere, in the cloud, there will probably be a facility laden with HDDs holding terabytes of data for multiple clients, but it won’t be at the enterprise front office. Enterprise IT will consist of highly specialized infrastructure aimed at supporting a handful of key applications. Maybe it will consist of all-Flash, modular/converged infrastructure, maybe not – but the bulk of what is now housed and processed in the enterprise data center will probably be gone.
The point of all this is that the enterprise now has a range of options when it comes to meeting its data needs, and the on-premise data center will play a vital but limited role in the endeavor. In-house infrastructure decisions, in turn, will not be a reflection of overall technology trends but of the specific functions that are in need of critical support.
For the data center, then, there isn’t one future, but many.