The Beginning of the End of IT as We Know It

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Continuing with our look at year-end reviews and predictions, I'm struck by the way many of these reports focus on individual technologies but not on the data center in general.

If your focus is on, say, the future of servers or virtualization in 2010, there's no shortage of opinion out there. But as an infrastructure guy, I'm more interested in how everything stands to come together -- not just in the next year but over the next decade.

To get that insight, we sometimes have to dig a little deeper into what people are saying. Take cable giant Media General, for instance. Mike Miller, director of information security, tells IDG that the company is pursuing a broad virtualization and consolidation strategy in 2010, mostly to make up for lost ground during budget-challenged 2009. To lay the groundwork, the company has been stocking up on quad- and six-core, dual-socket machines -- the kind with enough horsepower to host upwards of 50 VMs. Similar stories are heard from Qualcomm and Scottrade.

What that tells me is that virtualization and cloud computing are likely to reverse last decade's trend of multiple, smaller servers and send us back to the heavy artillery that came before, albeit with better performance and lower power consumption. At the least, that calls into question the strategy of Intel and others to develop the "microserver" and other technologies designed to put processing power into smaller and smaller packages.

The idea there is to develop systems for smaller organizations, so they can stuff all of their core IT infrastructure in a broom closet rather than dedicated server and storage rooms. But that notion is looking increasingly iffy in an age where SMBs will likely turn to the cloud for their IT needs, employing a mix of application, platform and infrastructure services rather than wrestle with their own internal hardware, no matter how small it gets.

That leads us to probably the biggest change facing the IT industry: the end of on-premises IT infrastructure, save for the largest organizations, and the rise of outside services. As demonstrations at Cloud Expo and other showcases are making plain, organizations of all sizes could obtain all of the capabilities they have now through PaaS tools like 3Tera's AppLogic or by accessing cloud storage via a simple Layer 2 switch rather than a full-blown SAN.

And if that is the case, then we're not looking at just bigger and badder hardware, but bigger and badder data centers. Why should all the benefits of consolidation end at the data center wall? As companies like Unitiv are pointing out, data center consolidation offers all the benefits of improved manageability, scalability, availability and the like that hardware consolidation provides, but on a larger scale because we're talking about shutting down entire facilities rather the little boxes.

So in the end, what we're likely to see within 10 years' time are massive, regional data centers populated with heavy server equipment and racks of storage tied together with high-speed networking (InfiniBand, anyone?), all doling out resources to anyone with a bank balance. Some of these facilities will come from the top-tier enterprises, which will still use them for internal purposes, perhaps leasing off any unused capacity. But others will be built by dedicated data center providers, making IT available over the Internet much the same way electric companies deliver their product over the grid.

And that's when we'll say goodbye to IT as another cost center in the larger business picture and welcome it as a distinct industry in its own right.